In July 2012, Colorado-based Masterpiece Bake Shop came under heavy criticism because the owner refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage due to the owner’s religious beliefs. The bakery was sued by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, and while the US Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the shop’s owner, the damage had already been done to the bakery’s customer base – thus began the precursor to what we now know as the “woke” movement.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, being woke meant that individuals and companies were aware of societal, racial and social inequities. Since the dawn of social media platforms and the strengthening of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2021, being woke has morphed into something much larger, especially in the business world.
One “woke” assertion is that it’s no longer enough for a company to state its equal employment opportunity policy – it must show diversity in its workforce and have a stated commitment to a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policy.
And being woke doesn’t just end with racial and gender equality. Businesses – both large and small – must also demonstrate that they are committed to mostly progressive points of view when it comes to being environmentally friendly, politically correct on social media and how they are treating employees, among other things. Today, even the slightest misstep can lead to dire consequences for both individuals and businesses alike.
Dangers of not being Woke
Of course, the punishment for not adhering to the rules of the woke movement is getting “canceled,” which can happen to businesses to varying degrees and for various reasons. One off-colored joke, one unpopular political post or giving the public the impression that your business is even slightly discriminatory can cost you your customers, your ability to attract and hire talent, and your professional reputation.
Bigger brands have come under fire in recent years for not following the woke code: employees at online retailer Wayfair staged a walkout because the company sold beds and other furniture to migrant detention centers along the Texas/Mexico border. Chick-Fil-A still faces intense backlash after its CEO stated he was against abortion, and the chain was accused of discriminating against gay employees. Nike was criticized for selling sneakers with the original American flag (with only 13 stars) imprinted on them.
The Price of Getting ‘Canceled’ for Small Businesses
If you think only big companies and celebrities can get canceled, think again. While big brand names can absorb some bad publicity and protests for a time, the prospect of getting canceled can pose an existential threat to small businesses that have smaller market shares and customer bases.
Take, for example, the case of Sara Christensen, founder of a once-successful marketing firm, Kickass Masterminds, in Austin, TX. She would often share tips for small businesses on her social media platform, and in one such Instagram post, she shared a photo of a job applicant, Emily Klow, who had posted a picture of herself in a bikini on her Instagram account. As part of the application process, Klow was given the option of allowing them to view her social media accounts.
Christensen reposted Klow’s photo on Kickass Mastermind’s IG account with the caption, “PSA (because I know some of you applicants are looking at this): do not share your social media with a potential employer if this is the kind of content on it. I am looking for a professional marketer — not a bikini model. Go on with your bad self and do whatever in private. But this is not doing you any favors in finding a professional job.”
What resulted was a firestorm of criticism and negative publicity for Christensen from both the press and the public. The job applicant, Emily Clow, shared Christensen’s post on her Twitter feed. Soon, news outlets and individuals across the country accused Christensen of ‘shaming’ the applicant, and critics on social media began bombarding her business with negative reviews and even going so far as to threaten her clients.
While posting Klow’s photo was somewhat distasteful, the lesson here is that doing so resulted in a death blow to Christensen’s business and professional reputation. Christensen was forced to leave her business and now consults with companies on how to avoid getting canceled.
How are Small Business Owners Protecting Themselves?
Kapitus asked everyday small business owners how they carefully and successfully tread the oft-treacherous waters of the woke movement and avoid getting canceled.
Keep up With the Times
Many small business owners that spoke to Kapitus pointed out the importance of staying active on social media and staying informed to keep up with the shifting definitions of woke so that they can continue to meet their customer expectations.
“If you look on social media platforms, research different trends appearing, and collect your own data from your audience, you’ll have a good idea of what is expected of businesses and how you can play your part in society and with the environment,” said Josh Wright, CEO of Cell Phone Deal. “Staying ‘woke’ isn’t a one-time thing either. Expectations are constantly changing, and that means you need to stay on top of those changes as a business.”
Vincent Chan, COO of Los Angeles-based real estate investment firm Christina, agreed. “The key to being ‘woke’ for a small business is showing purpose and awareness about what’s going on in the world around us—and that will always be a moving target,” he said. “Being ‘woke’ as a small business doesn’t mean you have to choose the right issues to care about at any given time. It means you have to care in the first place and understand the cost of doing business.”
Maintain a Diverse Staff
Best-selling author and activist Angela Davis helped define the woke movement shortly after the tragic death of George Floyd when she said in an interview that “not being a racist is not enough, we have to be anti-racist.” While her quote sparked much controversy, it also laid out a roadmap for companies both big and small to show the world that they are not exclusionary by creating diverse workforces.
Maria Saenz, CEO of small business Fast Title Loans, told Kapitus that having a workforce that truly represents the company’s community is crucial to not being canceled.
“A business must be socially and environmentally conscious to survive in today’s world,” said Saenz. “Employing people of color, women, and minorities is just as important as hiring qualified professionals that you know can do the job; there is no such thing as a ‘woman’ or ‘person of color’ vs. a ‘qualified professional.’
“Companies also need to be honest about how much they compensate their employees specifically for work that has an impact on society in general. For example, the founder of The Representation Project, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, put it bluntly by saying ‘women are 43% less likely to receive raises or promotions’.”
You may be Woke, but is Your Brand?
Some small business owners emphasized the importance of their brands being environmentally and socially conscious so that your business shares the same values as your customers.
“Having a woke business to me is more about taking into consideration the real world problems and challenges that face your clients/customers,” said Jodi-Kay Edwards, head of consulting firm Alignment is the New Hustle. “Is intentional branding being used to incorporate fair representation of all races, genders, and abilities? The same audience who canceled you is the same audience that will support you if they feel that the business message aligns with them…If those values align with your audience and community then in their eyes your business will remain “woke.’”
How you present your brand to the public through ads, wording and logo design is also important, said Esther Strauss, co-founder of Step By Step Business.
“Reassess your business’ name. Is it inclusive?” said Strauss. “Does it carry any negative connotations? Also, study the company logo and ask impartial sources what their immediate reactions are to it. Is there confusion in the message or feeling behind it? Review your website. How accessible is the content? Are there any groups being neglected?”
Elana Perez, co-founder of The Hip Hat, agreed with Strauss, adding that being woke begins with assessing your company’s brand.
“As a new fashion brand, we believe we need to be constantly aware of the wording used to describe our products, both facing our customers and on the backend of our e-commerce site,” said Perez. “Also, we look to be systematically inclusive with our images and copy on social media, even when we have a very limited budget to do so and are still traveling through the ‘being woke’ learning curve.”
Ultimately, small business owners need to go down a checklist to make sure that all aspects of their businesses are sensitive, inclusive, and inoffensive. This may mean being careful about everything from what you say on social media to making sure your brand is environmentally conscious and that you have a diverse staff.
“The past years have taught us, small businesses, that staying woke directly impacts our ability to retain valuable talents, clients, and customers,” said Adam Olson, marketing manager at Home Service Direct.
“The criteria for staying woke may differ from one issue to another, but the main idea remains – diversity and inclusion. As a business, the way clients see our brand affects our ability to onboard and retain clients. Consistency strengthens discipline and develops your sense of accountability as a business. Whatever your stance about an issue is, being inconsistent in your messages is a sure way to lose the loyalty and trust of your employees and clients or customers. Issues within the workplace should be tackled following set rules and protocols.
“Also, be aware and informed. Even though ours is a small agency, we make sure every step we take sends out a message of diversity. May it be a fresh marketing promo, a new website banner, or a social media post, every decision we make is geared towards promoting a business that is informed, reliable, and respectful.”
It Doesn’t Have to be too Political
It’s no secret that being woke has come with its fair share of controversy. However, in some cases being woke doesn’t necessarily mean that your business must veer too far to the left on the political spectrum.
Take, for example, Jeremy Luebke, founder of Dallas-based We Love Land, who believes in being respectful towards all people and defines being woke as running a business that is appealing to your community.
“The first thing is to ask yourself, ‘what am I working toward?’” said Luebke. “I think it’s important to have a vision for what you’re trying to accomplish with your business –whether that’s making more money or helping people, or just providing a service. And if there are people that are benefiting from what you’re doing, then consider how you can incorporate them into your mission.
“I also think it’s important to have a strong network of other entrepreneurs and business owners in your community who can help support you along the way. If they see something they like about what you’re doing, they’ll be more likely to invest in building out their own brand as well as supporting yours.”
It’s not as Hard as it Sounds
While the landscape of the woke movement may sound extremely complex, avoiding the frightening prospect of getting canceled really boils down to a few simple rules:
- Don’t get caught up in politics;
- Don’t discriminate;
- Be respectful of others and
- Be mindful of your community’s views.
Perhaps Amy Smith, founder of Black Label Advertising, really said it best: “At the end of the day, being ‘woke’ really boils down to whether or not you’re striving to be a mindful person who approaches people from a loving place without discrimination. Treat others, regardless of differences, the way you would like to be treated – it’s that simple.”