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E4C #3: Compassionate Commerce Meets Green Business – Alexia Marcous, Dharma MS

Take your socially responsible business to the next level by practicing sacred commerce. Alexia Marcous is the co-founder of Dharma Merchant Services and she’s passionate about bringing work-life balance into focus and incorporating spiritual principles into how she does business. Dharma Merchant Services practices “Commerce with Compassion” – find out what this looks like when put into practice in the office. In this interview, Alexia covers:

  • Why it was important for her to incorporate fully disclosed rates and fees into her business model
  • How to incorporate charitable giving into your business model
  • The importance of being connected to other like-minded green businesses for support and inspiration
  • What’s involved in becoming a B Corporation and how to become a greener business by becoming certified
  • What else is out there for green business certifications

She’ll also talk about some of the amazing and innovative green businesses with which she works.

dharma merchant services

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About Alexia Marcous

alexia marcousAlexia holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an M.B.A. from Drexel University. Alexia was a computer programmer and systems architect consultant for 12 years, serving companies and non-profits in the financial, insurance, pharmaceutical, energy and technology industries. She currently sits on the board of the Green Chamber of Commerce as Vice President and serves on the Political Action Committee.

For more information about Alexia Marcous and Dharma Merchant services go to www.dharmams.com, or connect with Dharma MS on Facebook or Twitter.

Resources

  • Sacred Commerce
  • Green Festivals

Companies Mentioned

  • Café Gratitude
  • Green America
  • Green Chamber of Commerce
  • Certified B Corporation
  • Transcendentist – Discover Your Inner Smile
  • GlassDharma
  • Rock n Socks
  • Sungevity
  • Solar Mosaic

Raw Transcript

00:02 Lorna Li: This is episode three of Entrepreneurs for a Change. If you like this podcast, please subscribe to our mailing list at enterpreneursforachange.com. Are you ready to be the change? If so, you’ve come to the right place. You’re about to join a movement of entrepreneurs who are empowering people, saving the planet and turning their passion into profits while creating the lifestyle of their dreams. If you don’t believe us, check out our website at www.entrepreneursforachange.com. A place where you can be inspired, mentored and supported by a tribe of change-making entrepreneurs just like you.

00:39 LL: Hi, there. I’m Lorna Li, the Editor-in-chief of Green Marketing TV and Entrepreneurs for a Change. We’re here today with Alexia Marcous, who is the vice president and co-founder of Dharma Merchant Services, a family-run business that provides the accounts and equipment that businesses need in order to accept credit card payments. Not only are they a certified green business, they operate under the banner of Right Action, Right Livelihood. Dharma Merchant Services also donates 10% of their gross profits to charities that their clients choose. If you need a credit card payment service, consider a merchant provider who is green and socially responsible. Learn more about Dharma Merchant Services by going to www.dharmams.com.

01:27 LL: So it’s really great to have you with me today Alexia. I’m really inspired by your business mission and vision. And so I’d love to ask you a little bit more about how you got involved with Dharma Merchant Services. What brought you to this line of business and how did you decide to incorporate a spiritual component into the way that you do business?

01:52 Alexia Marcous:
Sure. Thank you, Lorna. I just first want to thank you for inviting me. It’s really a pleasure to be with you as well. So I got into this line of work, really, when my father asked me, did I want to start a company with him? And I said, “Absolutely! And what are merchant services?” [laughter] So it’s an industry my father’s been in his entire career and actually through his work with the Institute of Noetic Sciences, he realized that he could actually use business as a sacred space and sacred container through which to practice the higher virtues and consider nature itself. And so, having all this experience in an industry where it’s notoriously filled with egregious contracts, undisclosed terms, huge cancellation fees, just a lot of problems having to do with business ethics, he realized that he could actually get into the industry and make a difference.

02:50 AM: And by operating fairly, fully disclosing all rates and fees, operating with a lot of care and concern for our clients and really building a community rather than just selling accounts, that was his goal and his intention. And so we started the business together, we called it Dharma, as you said, to always have that connection to doing the right thing, operating with intention and mission and purpose. But then you go a step further and to recognize that we could use this passive residual income model to give back to the community, to create an ongoing channel of support back to the causes that the passionate mission-driven people that we work with would be connected to. And once we got started, we realized we could even go a step further than that and recognize that our business is actually a sacred space in a container where we spend the vast majority of our resources as beings. And it really is a place to express our devotion. And so, we really started to incorporate more of our practices in our work so that every phone call, every email, every opportunity we can, we use it to be a vehicle for compassion, for patience, for forgiveness, for love, for warmth, for really all the highest virtues that we can practice.

04:09 LL: That is a great way of looking at business because we do spend a considerable amount of our time doing our work and our jobs either in the office or doing whatever it is that we do to earn a living. And I think a lot of people fall into that space or mindset of keeping their spiritual lives really separate from their work lives. So they’re in the office for 40 hours a week and then as soon as you’re done, off to yoga and off to the mat, and then it’s back to the grind. And so there’s I think, there’s a lot of disconnect with looking at all aspects of our lives really as being an opportunity to evolve and become better people.

04:50 AM: Yeah. I couldn’t agree with you more, Lorna. And I feel like I’m kind of rehabilitated coming from that traditional corporate background, having worked for Fortune 500 companies most of my career in software, and feeling like I had to check my soul at the door.

05:04 LL: Oh, my God! I’m in software also, well software is your service, so I totally understand where you’re coming from.

05:10 AM: Yeah, exactly. And you feel like, like you said, you’re suspending your belief system. You’re suspending your passion. You’re suspending everything that makes you you while you’re at work, and delineating who you are at work versus who you are in your own very limited, very stretched personal time. And it’s really… It’s a shame because what you’re essentially doing is removing your access to your creativity, your passion, your care, your concern, your innovation, your ability to innovate and be creative while you’re at work. And if you think about it, that’s… It’s really not leveraging 10% of who you are if you could just go to work and you follow directions and you can’t wait to get home versus feeling inspired and like you’re making a contribution and you’re recognized and you can bring your full self to work. That’s essentially what we do here is we want you to bring your cares, your concerns and what you’re dealing with at home. We’re not a typical employer that says, “You know what, leave your problems at home. I don’t want to hear about it. You’re here to work.” Instead, we say, “Bring your problems, bring your concerns, let’s work with them. Let’s be a community, let’s support each other, and therefore… I mean you had your full self, your full resources available to you while you’re here,” and it just feels so much better.

06:32 LL: Fantastic. Yeah, I totally can see where you’re coming from and it would be so great to see a shift in mindset like that start to really extend through the mainstream business community. We’re seeing a lot more of that attitude within the socially responsible business sector, the non-profit sector even but definitely mainstream business, there’s a little bit of catching up to do and I think at this point rather than having the leadership drive that, at the end of day, we have to remind ourselves if we want to get the most out of our own experience to take responsibility as individuals. It must be also great too that you guys work with so many innovative green businesses. Are the green festivals vendors a lot of your client base?

07:17 AM: Yeah. They are. Actually when we’re there, we just feel so connected to our community. Many of our clients are there, including Green America. We did a processing for Green America and all the green festivals. So that is our community. It’s such a wonderful space. It’s more about cooperation and co-opetition actually, in that everyone knows that everyone else’s success makes all the boats rise. And people are there to learn from each other, to learn best practices, share what’s new, what’s innovative, really connecting, really celebrate the progress that we’re making towards this new economy that I consider the environment that is good to their employees. Good to the environment, good to the employees, operates with transparency, higher levels of accountability and just really seeking to use business as a vehicle to do good, to do great things in the world, give back and again, offer this environment where you’re so connected with your life’s purpose while you’re working.

08:21 LL: So are you guys also a certified B corporation?

08:24 AM: We are. We’re so proud to be a certified B corporation and that’s another community we feel so strongly connected to. And we just love being an example of commoditized business service that can be used to do good. So, everyone needs merchant services, why not be able to choose one that has a strong commitment to social responsibility and giving back and operating with care and concern for the environment? And I think B Corporation has done a fantastic job of protecting the interest of companies who operate like that. I mean, as you know the only corporate structures available in the country today have the executives completely beholden to shareholder supremacy. It’s actually illegal for executives to do anything that is not furthering the benefits of the shareholders of the company. So that means they’re commitment to organic, they’re commitment to local, all that goes away when a company like Ben and Jerry’s for example is purchased by Unilever or Bird Bees is purchased by Clorox.

09:22 AM: And so, what B Corporation is doing is they’re creating a new corporate structure as being ratified seat by seat right now that will protect those commitment commission and values by having them written into the articles of incorporation of the company and having them being legally upheld in the case of any mergers and acquisitions. And not to mention, we’ve learned a ton about what more we can do in our business just by going through the B corp survey publicly available on your website. And you can just learn about all the new things that you can do, for instance, being fully transparent about all your finances with your employees, making sure that your hiring practices are as inclusive as possible, making sure you’ve got enough volunteer days to give back to the community, making sure all your partners are in alignment with your values. So, we were inspired to work with new resource bank who lends all their funds and deposits to clean tech operations and introduce startups and build energy and working with give something back office supply who uses the Paul Newman’s model of giving back all their architects’ profit in an office supply business to their local community.

10:30 LL: So are there tangible benefits to being a certified B corp?

10:35 AM: Absolutely, a number of them. Number one, it’s the trust symbol that we are recognized as a B corp. People know what that means. They know a lot about how we operate internally because we are recognized as that. Two, we’re part of a really passionate community that likes to work with each other so we automatically have something in kind and it gets back to this co-opetition and cooperation like how can we support each other and work together. And three, there’s a lot of member-to-member benefits that we offer discounts to each other and we’re really building a strong community of companies aligned to doing the same thing and helping each other out in the process.

11:10 LL: So Alexia, I was really intrigued by your references to Sacred Commerce. I believe when I was looking on your website, there was a lot of indication that you try to merge the understanding of sacred with the process of business. So, I’d love to understand, how did the concept of Sacred Commerce come to you? Was this an ‘Aha’ moment or did this develop over time, over the course of you running your business?

11:37 AM: Yeah, thank you Lorna. So, my partner and I, as you know, chose the name Dharma to operate under the banner of right action and right livelihood. So, we started the business with an understanding that we wanted to bring our full selves to work, use it as a space to practice the higher virtues. But that was where we… As far as we got and when I came across the notion of Sacred Commerce by going to Café Gratitude, an amazing raw vegan restaurant there.

12:08 LL: I love that place.

12:09 AM: Isn’t it great?

12:11 LL: The desserts are amazing.

12:12 AM: Oh, yeah. It was incredible. So, I got to experience this idea of Sacred Commerce and went to a workshop and was just blown away by the structure and methodology that they had devised as a way to practice what is sacred. Yeah, giving up being right. Recognizing when you are able to serve the whole versus serve the ego’s need to be right. You know, being right is like the opiate of the ego. And so, what we’re able to do is create an environment of trust and honesty, and commitment to the practice so that we all feel like we’re all supporting each other in the desire to be our full selves and not be afraid of making mistakes and not being able to make requests of each other. It has been remarkable what it’s been for each of us to foster a sense of being appreciated, making a difference, having value to add and having the opportunity to really build an incredible community. It’s really like a family here and we just love working here. We love working with each other because of these tools that we’ve learned.

13:29 LL: That’s so wonderful. I would imagine that by creating an environment that is a lot more forgiving, work then becomes so much less stressful and then people actually end up being inspired to do better than the whole fear of failure model that we kind of see in corporate America these days whereby if you don’t produce or if you don’t succeed, then you’re out.

13:54 AM: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, Lorna. And it’s a really shame because ask any successful entrepreneur and they’ve probably failed more times than they’ve succeeded. I think Winston Churchill defined success as going from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm.

[laughter]

14:08 LL: I love that!

14:11 AM: Isn’t it great? It’s true. It’s what you need in order to innovate and to exactly not have that fear of failure and what that does is that builds courage and that builds confidence. And so instead of having people like you said being afraid to fail and therefore not trying anything new, we have the opposite. We have a whole spirit of entrepreneurship and responsibility. And people get that that they have a responsibility here and they can take responsibility both for their own internal actions, but for the success of the company, it is in their hands. And we want our people to feel as empowered as possible. So that’s what I learned about being a leader when I went through the advanced leadership training with Sacred Commerce is being a leader is about empowering others actually and getting them to see that they have what it takes.

15:05 AM: They have the creativity, the passion, the drive, the ability to succeed and I’m there really just to facilitate, giving them what they need as far as operational support, logistical structure but to really recognize someone as an incredible contribution to a company, I mean, just light someone up and really create such a powerful team and offer so much more than just I could as the Vice President of this company. So, it’s been really remarkable in terms of the paradigm shift between me needing to be a controller versus me being an enabler and then in this arena of trust and with the opportunity to make mistakes and celebrate them and not being afraid of being wrong, being able to make requests of each other and really being a stand for each other’s higher selves and being commitment and holding space for that, that has just been remarkable and has led my company to being more successful than I ever could have imagined at this point.

16:13 LL: Wow! So, tell me a little bit more about the challenges of greening your business.

16:19 AM: Yeah. You know what, I was reflecting on that and I have to say, I mean, not to cop out but it wasn’t that challenging and I have to say why. We are so fortunate to be in a day and age where the products and services that are built with consideration for the environment are prevalent. You know my dentist is called Transcendentist. Actually we at Dharma, we work here with two, the Green dentist and the Transcendentist. And a Transcendentist, they were doing green dentistry before people even referred to their business as green. And so they were paying $80 for a gallon of low VOC paint that they had a special order, get in a few weeks, it was really difficult. I mean now you can go to Home Depot or Lowes and get no-VOC paint in any color you want. So their products and services are really much more available as is the support to find out where those are, so organizations like the Green Chamber of Commerce, Green America, B Lab, that certifies B corporations, are really making it so much more accessible and providing a supportive community where you can learn best practices from your peers, from other people in your industry on the best ways to do things.

17:32 LL: So it seems like these days, pretty much any business can go green. I think a lot of people think about green business as a business that’s related to solar or biofuels or some kind of environmental services. But in fact seeing a case study like Dharma Merchant Services where you guys are really a utilitarian service. I mean we all need credit card payments especially if you are selling products and with the dentistry industry as well. It sounds like there’s an opportunity for every business to go green.

18:05 AM: Absolutely, Lorna, and I actually look forward to the day where we no longer make that distinction green or not that we… It’s just a given that you don’t use paper towels or if you have to you buy them from post consumer waste and you compost them and you shop at the Farmer’s Market and you take public transportation to work and you offset your energy expenses with carbon offsets. So that would just be a given and as you said we are service based organization, we could be a law firm, we could be a CPA, we could be any service based business. People asked if how we are green all the time and then when we say, “Well, gosh, we compost our lunch waste, we take public transportation and we’re very conscious about the lighting and the energy that we use.” The guy said, “Well, okay I get it.” And it’s like, well, but do you get it? Do you get that if every single business operated using the measures that we do what a difference that would make, how many fewer cars there would be on the road, how much less energy businesses would consume?

19:05 AM: I think we all have the responsibility and recognize that every little bit does make a difference. It sounds cliché but it really is true. You don’t have to be in manufacturing, in solar, in clean tech to be a green business. We should all just be incorporating all these practices in our business. Post consumer recycled paper for example, everyone uses paper but use as little as possible, make sure it’s a 100% recycled. We worked with the company called Salazar Packaging. All of their packaging products are all post consumer waste and they’re innovating all the time in making new products that are completely compostable or recyclable and we all need to take responsibility and step up and make that difference. The choices are there. It’s cost-effective, it’s no longer more expensive to be green that’s a great argument.

19:54 LL: Things are green. [chuckle]

19:56 AM: Yeah.

19:57 LL: Have you found green certification to be helpful to your business? What certification service did you guys use, I know there’s a bunch out there.

20:06 AM: Yeah. Thank you. It’s absolutely helpful because it makes the difference between green washing and actually being certified. So we went through our County Program and we’re also certified with Green America which is the largest, oldest cooperative of green businesses in the country, and then we also are part of… As a big corporation we achieved their requirements status as well for being a sustainable business. And like I said just going through that process you learned so much and the great thing about it too is that these organizations that certify are seeking to how do you get certified. Alright, this is not about how can we fail you, it’s how can we pass you and if you don’t pass what resources that can we connect you to so that you can pass. So they’re extremely supportive, make it really easy to go through and get certified and it’s absolutely been worth it. Our clients recognize right away that we are legitimately practicing what we say we’re doing. That we have independent third parties recognize that.

21:05 LL: So in your work as a merchant services provider to Green America Certified Businesses to Green Festivals vendors, in the course of your work, what customers you have are great models of eco-innovation? Either customers of yours or potentially businesses that you’ve come across, are there any that stick out in your mind?

21:27 AM: Yeah. Thank you. There are. First I have to say that we just work with the most amazing people and that is the best aspect of my job, I talk to amazing people all day but yeah a few do come to mind. One is called GlassDharma, and of course we connect it right away over the name, but this was started by a glassblower with 10 years of experience in the industry recognizing that plastic straws actually not only leach chemicals into your beverage but they go straight to the landfill and I think last count what McDonald is up to like 70 million mills a year and think of how many straws that is going into the landfill. So they use their experience of glass blowing to actually make the strongest glass, it is strongest glass commercially available in the market to make these beautiful straws and they come with a little bamboo kit and a little cleaning brush and they’re just, they’re so cool. They’re beautiful, they’re sustainable, and it’s just a really innovative solution.

22:26 AM: Another one that comes to mind is the company called Rockin’ Sock and what they do is they gather post sewing, cutting and sewing processed fabric that is normally just sent off for scrap. They gather those fabric trimmings. They sort them by color so no additional dying is needed and then they sew or… It’s on that process that fabric with plastic or synthetic fibers made from recycled plastic bottles into yarn and then they weave these beautiful socks out of this completely 100% post consumer waste material and individually innovative designs. Another one is Sungevity, and Sungevity have their brilliant concept of making solar affordable through leasing programs where a homeowner forgoes all of the upfront cost to get a solar system on their roof and Sungevity then leases that system to them. So between the leasing cost and the offset on the energy that homeowners recoup immediately once the system is installed it reduces their energy consumption and cost right away.

23:39 AM: And then another one related to solar is the company called Solar Mosaic and they are doing crowd sourcing for solar projects. So they’ll go into a community where maybe a lot of the homeowners could not afford solar or they’re just going to an area that doesn’t do well for individual solar installations and they’ll all buy individual pieces of solar tiles to have solar put on the local church or their children’s elementary school. And it’s just a brilliant model of bringing community together and getting behind renewable energy.

24:10 LL: I love that idea, the idea of crowd sourcing solar. Solar can become… Can be so expensive. Being able to make it affordable to most people is a massive breakthrough. I want to thank you for your time. We’re about at the end of our segment. This is Lorna Li, Editor-in-chief of Green Marketing TV and Entrepreneurs for a Change. Thank you so much for listening to the Entrepreneurs for a Change podcast. If you like the show, please share the love by going to iTunes where you can rate the show and leave us a comment. Don’t forget to sign up for a mailing list on entrepreneursforchange.com so we can send you tips and resources to help you grow your change making business.

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