I was born into a family of entrepreneurs and go-getters. The urge to go my own way is in my blood. My dad has run his own architectural design business for a couple of decades, my uncle has run his own gymnastics business for 40 years, and I am running a writing and digital marketing business.
When I started my business in 2017, I was in survival mode (more about that here) but I was also completely fed up with working for a man who manipulated me, didn’t pay me, and even tried to later steal credit for my own writing. I was ready to finally do things my way– I could finally show up in my career authentically because as long as I am my own boss, I can be as political in my business as I want.
I was already an opinionated, outspoken Humanist with global connections and influence before I started my business. I already spoke daily about politics, religion, and other controversial subject matters–all the things most businesses don’t want their employees talking about at work. So for me, it was a no-brainer to include advocacy work as a part of my business.
I basically took my skills as a writer and marketer, paired them with my activist passions, and created a freelance business.
But let’s get back to my entrepreneurial uncle for a second. He’s an old school guy. He likes to keep politics out of his business. That’s what has worked for him all these years.
So when he saw what I would (continue to) post on social media after becoming a business owner, he took issue. To him, and to a lot of Baby Boomers, that’s not good business policy. They say it’s in bad taste– a networking faux pas. In fact, they say it’s bad for business.
“It can actually drive people away from working with you, Anya,” my uncle said to me one day.
I smiled. “I know it can. That’s part of the reason why I do it,” I responded as his face turned to a look of mild confusion.
“You know, some of the things you’ve said have actually offended me,” he said.
With a chuckle, I shared, “I can imagine.”
Not to worry– my uncle and I certainly have our political differences, but we both love a good friendly debate. It’s important that we examine this cultural avoidance of discussing politics in professional settings. Does removing politics from professional settings really serve us? Or is it suffocating the democratic process
Allow me to explain why I do business differently than my successful multi-decade entrepreneur uncle. I’ll explain why politics belong in business, how my political activism shapes my business, and how taking a stand can benefit businesses.
But first, we need to address that…
Business is Already Political
I don’t know if you know this, but in the United States of America, corporations have legal personhood. That means they can give freely to political campaigns and candidates because, thanks to a conniving little Supreme Court case called Citizens United vs the Federal Election Commission, money is considered free speech.
Money is considered free speech.
Do you know what that means? That means if you have more money, your voice has more influence in government. So this gives enormous businesses the ability to leverage legislation, with no limits on contributions. See lobbyists.
It’s corrupt as hell because there are no limits. In this political landscape, it’s actually silly for you to say politics and business don’t mix. Honey, they’ve been mixing for all of American history.
Corporations will quietly play politicians like puppets while turning around and enforcing policies to keep employees from being political– to keep them subversive.
Small business owners take note of those corporate policies then don’t want to get political for fear of losing customers. Because when you don’t have the same wealth as corporations, you have to worry more about keeping your income source happy and not creating any reason to alienate customers.
This fear essentially diminishes any influence a small business may have because they remove their voice entirely from the marketplace of ideas.
Both Business & Politics Are Born in The Marketplace of Ideas
The marketplace of ideas is an idea derived from the works of the 17th-century philosopher John Milton but made popular in US Supreme Court cases throughout American history to defend freedom of expression. It posits that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in a free and transparent public discourse.
This, for me, is reason enough to be outspoken as a business. We believe in and (in theory) nurture a democratic society where the best and most truthful ideas rise to the top. Restricting political discussion in business also restricts the freedom to chose what we believe. It prevents us from pursuing truth in the most transparent, democratic way.
It’s the number one reason why I get political. We need to have these difficult and uncomfortable discussions to work through challenging political issues.
There is no way over, under, or around it; the only way is through.
Being Political is Smart Branding
When you brand a business, it’s all about unique value proposition and consistency. I work in the writing and marketing industry and there are plenty of people who do what I do. Many of them are also freelancers. But because I’m outspoken and opinionated, I’m branded much differently than my competitors.
I’m not just a writer who can help craft messages in your brand voice and connect with the right audience– I’m also a bold and well-connected international activist.
It’s a pretty memorable brand. It’s a very unique value proposition. And, boy, it’s easy to be consistent when my brand is just who I am.
So being political actually serves my business for the sake of branding. Lots of people can write, but not every skilled writer is brave enough to speak their minds about controversial matters so freely.
Quick Marketing Tip: Authenticity is key in branding– don’t try to brand your own business as something you’re not.
Being Political Qualifies the Right Clients
When I first started my business, I would take just about any client. In fact, my very first major client was a conservative Christian Ministry– basically the antithesis to my very being (LOL). But these folks were very kind and supportive when I was in need of work, and we sort of shared the trauma of both being screwed over by my former boss. Long story short, they hired his marketing company, he collected their payment, then he didn’t deliver the majority of what he promised. So they hired me independently to create content for their social media accounts for several months.
But as I started to pick up more client experiences, I realized I wanted to work with people who had similar political values– or who were at least supportive of what I had to say as an activist.
And as a freelancer, I don’t have to work with everybody. Nor should I. In fact, I should be selective about who I work with.
There’s a term in marketing called “niching down,” which is essentially narrowing your target market to a specific focus– or niche –and this helps your business stand out. The concept is that by focusing on a single niche rather than the broader industry, you’re establishing yourself as an expert– which is what people are really looking for.
I decided to niche down by appealing to folks as authentically… as myself. As someone with a lot of knowledge not just about writing and marketing, but also about human rights and social justice issues, I can speak in a way many people can’t. I’m bold and unafraid of speaking truth to power, which is just not something you typically see business owners do– particularly solopreneurs who are going it alone.
So I appeal to a niche of small business owners and organizations who like this bold energy and want to support progressive activism.
Do I drive people away who may be interested in working with me by being boldly political? Of course. But that’s the point. It’s not a bad thing that I appeal to a specific type of person. At the end of the day, people and businesses get to choose where they put their money. And because this nation has chosen to treat money as a form of free speech, we can support businesses that back our values and have our investments actually mean something more than purchasing a product or service.
It’s wise not only for marketing and free speech purposes to appeal to a specific niche but it’s also to save my own sanity.
Why would I risk my happiness and job fulfillment by choosing to work with people who might have voted for Trump? Or people who force their religious beliefs on me? Or sexists? I’ve worked with all of the above before, and I can confirm that it makes me miserable. I’d rather engage with these folks in open discussion, where I don’t feel pressured to hold back on my values for the sake of maintaining a close working relationship.
Speaking Out for Those Who Can’t
A colleague once asked me during a one-on-one meeting, “Why do you feel the need to publicly say that you’re a Humanist?” What he was really asking me was why being a Humanist was such a central part of my business. If you’re not sure what a Humanist is, check out this blog piece I wrote about it.
I replied, “I’m connected with Humanists in many parts of the world– including places where being a Humanist can be a threat to your life. Humanists in religious states have to hide their lack of belief in religion for their own safety. I’m privileged to be able to speak out as a Humanist here in the US, and I feel I owe it to these Humanists to speak out on their behalf.”
I recognize that I have the bravery to speak my mind that most people don’t have, but my privilege allows me to do this more safely than others. I believe in using this privilege to benefit those who don’t have a voice or whose voice has been silenced.
Most Americans don’t even have the opportunity I do because most Americans don’t own a business. I want to use my privilege as a business owner to stand up for people whose freedom of speech is compromised.
Avoiding Political Discussion is Futile, Might As Well Participate
You know those people who come into the comments section as debates get heated and drop a “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” or “Politics divide us” or “Can’t we just all get along?”
Well, no, Karen. We can’t all just get along. That’s why we have contentious debates– so we can navigate through our disagreements with civil communication rather than some brutish alternative where we bottle strongly held thoughts and beliefs that escalate to violence.
Sure, there’s something to be said for knowing when to set a boundary and stop an argument. Things can get nasty or– more likely –come to a standstill, and at that point, it makes sense to step back and call it quits for the time being. But these people trying to stop productive yet uncomfortable discussion aren’t interested in preventing animosity or violence– they’re interested in stopping uncomfortable conversations altogether.
Don’t get me wrong, looking inward and analyzing your deepest held values is hard work, but it’s work that all of us need to do none the less. The people who are unwilling to do this work yet repeat phrases like “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” are pulling their chair away from the table– taking away their own voice for the sake of comfortability. Most likely because they aren’t affected by the issues we debate about.
If you feel like you’re pulling your chair away from the table, I invite you to bring it back and take a seat. There’s a lot that can be learned just from listening.
I’ve found success through being political in business because people respect my authenticity and support my activist work.
We can create a new professional environment where political discussion is not only acceptable but also thoughtfully facilitated and resourceful for civilian work. This is why I write about the issues I’m passionate about– to help educate and engage in discussion.
I realize that being political just isn’t feasible for certain professions. For example, doctors and real estate agents have a legal obligation to not discriminate against the people they serve. But many business owners are in a position where they can freely express political opinions but don’t. Here’s my recommendation if you’re one of those business owners: start small. Listen and learn from business owners who are already politically active.
You can be successful in business and be politically active– particularly in this political era where taking a side has never been more important. Remember: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” –Elie Wiesel