Practical Activist Q&A Featuring Jennifer Cantero, Sensiba San Filippo
- Bluestone Staff
- July 15, 2021
Featured image: Jennifer Cantero in the podcast studio, photo credit: David Sovereign
Jennifer Cantero is Director of Marketing & Sustainability at Sensiba San Filippo (SSF). She led the B Corporation certification process for SSF, earning the distinction of being the first certified B Corp accounting firm in California and 1 in 8 in the U.S. She regularly speaks about becoming a purpose-driven, sustainable business and embracing diversity and inclusion. She leads SSF’s Center of Sustainability and B Corp consulting practice.
With over 40 years of experience, SSF provides clients with comprehensive assurance, tax, and consulting services while using the power of business to solve social and environmental challenges. SSF ranks among the region’s top 20 public accounting firms and utilizes regional and global expertise to serve clients across a variety of industries. As a member of Morison KSi, SSF is a part of an international association of affiliated accounting firms that supports clients’ global business needs in over 80 countries.
Q: You led the B Corp Certification for SSF, making your firm the first B Corp accounting firm in California. Talk about what drove that decision for SSF and why do you think there are still so few accounting firms in the B Corp community?
A: B Corp certification came onto our radar in 2017. It was funny because I had heard about this “B Corp Certification thing,” and so had our managing Partner, John Sensiba. When we came into our one-on-one, we were both itching to tell the other about this cool new thing we had heard about! We were both excited, intrigued, and curious, and I went ahead and went through an initial quick assessment (which back then was 45 questions.) Those questions help people get an idea of what the questions look like and what you need to be thinking about to be successful in a certification. So, while I did that, John went to the partner group and said, “we’d really like to undertake this 3rd party verification which is called a B Corp certification.” Accountants obviously understand audits and the importance of 3rd party verification. John explained to them that this 3rd party verification is unique because it focuses on the non-financial metrics and getting verification that you really do “walk the talk” when it comes to the good you’re doing. There are many accounting firms and many companies that say they’re doing good in the community and taking care of their employees, but how do you know they’re really doing it? So, when John presented this to the partner group, they unanimously said: Yes! Go for it! I am grateful for their commitment and enthusiasm because that wouldn’t be the case at other accounting firms.
Other accounting firms are still wrapping their heads around why sustainability matters to them and their clients from an accounting perspective. Asking how do accounting and sustainability intersect? And that intersection piece is the new opportunity, and once firms see that, they get excited.
Accountants are good at financial metrics because that’s what they’ve been trained to do…and now what’s becoming more important are the non-financial metrics in business like sustainability and Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) metrics. The World Economic Forum just released a report saying that the five most significant economic risks for any company all fall under ESG. It’s those metrics that are being disruptive in the business world right now, and accountants and accounting firms have the unique skill sets and abilities to benchmark and measure the non-financial just as they’ve done with the financial. As the accounting industry is shifting and bringing in artificial intelligence, blockchain and new technology, it’s shifting how we work from a compliance to a consulting framework. It’s a new consulting revenue stream…and we realized that you can’t offer a new service unless you’ve done it yourself. You shouldn't provide consulting around B Corp certification unless you are a certified B Corp. It is often more challenging for accounting firms to run through the B Corp framework as they are geared more toward manufacturing or construction sectors than professional services.
Q: From climate change to social and economic justice, the last year was pivotal in many ways. From your perspective, are there trends or shifts that you’re seeing in SSF’s Center of Sustainability and B Corp consulting practice?
Photo left: Jennifer wearing one of her favorite words.
A: We conducted our annual sustainability report right before the pandemic hit. This is a report that we do in partnership with the San Francisco Business Times. We can see shifts from 2020 to the results we’re getting now from our 2021 report. A majority of the respondents said that they know sustainability is important and that they kept up with sustainability initiatives during the pandemic. When we defined the terms that fit under the sustainability umbrella, what we saw was a shift toward social justice issues and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – embracing those initiatives and doing a lot of work internally on those initiatives. I believe that will linger for another year, and then we’ll see a shift back toward climate again and businesses deepening their work toward climate change because of the increase in natural disasters…fires, floods, and the heat waves. People can literally feel the reality of climate change where they live. And when we asked people to look ahead to next year in the survey, “climate action” kept coming up, so that’s why I think it will swing to the forefront again, and I think we’ll see that trend globally.
Q: What are the major initiatives you’re working on in 2021…any “Big Hairy Audacious Goals that you want to share?
A: We’re on a fiscal year starting May 1, so this is still a relatively new year for us! A big goal is to fully extract me from my marketing role and have me move fulltime into sustainability. So, we’re looking to hire someone else to build out my team for the Center for Sustainability and give it some legs. I’m gathering my troops which is exciting so we can take on bigger projects and continue to grow. We also need to look at extracting marketing from sustainability…they became entwined because I was doing both, so it’s a good opportunity for us to take a step back as we move forward. We’re in unchartered territory and we’re offering services that accounting firms have never offered before. We have partners that will help with carbon foot-printing, net-zero feasibility implementation studies, sustainable marketing storytelling, and how to dig into supply chain sustainability. Beyond the traditional compliance measures, we’ve built a holistic approach to making a business sustainable, purpose-driven, and mission-driven.
Q: Your podcast “Rebooting Capitalism” features a wide range of topics and points of view ranging from B corps working in banking and finance to compostable food packaging and supply chains and healthy topsoil. What have you learned from the podcast, and do you have any favorite “aha” moments?
Photo right: Jennifer recording a session for the podcast
A: I started the podcast to have the opportunity to talk with people who are experts in their fields, to learn from folks who have their hands dirty and are doing this every day. I really wanted to shine a light on all the different facets of sustainability with examples of people who are in the thick of it using business as a force for good. I intentionally wanted my topics to have a wide range to show that whatever industry that you’re in, there’s something that you can do. We don’t need one hundred percent of the people to be one hundred percent sustainable all of the time. We just need everyone to do something! Alter Eco Foods is a great example. Compostable packaging is challenging, so when people see companies partnering together, it’s because it takes a lot of money and research to do it right and make the changes. When McDonald's pairs up with Starbucks to come up with a better compostable cup, the fact that they’re combining forces to have the buying power to make it happen is important, and we want to applaud that – not roll our eyes. I love the activism of Ben & Jerry’s, so that was a fun conversation. I also loved my conversation about sustainable marketing with Afdhel Aziz when he talked about the importance of not coming across as tone-deaf. Look at the rainbow washing during June. You can’t color your logo with the PRIDE flag while you have your employees deny their identities. The podcast is designed to give business owners ideas, big and small.
Q: Your academic education began in graphic design and photography, and you’ve received a Diversity & Inclusion Certificate from Cornell University and are currently attending Harvard University’s Corporate Sustainability and Innovation program. When you think about your career, what have you drawn on most from your academic experience?
A: I started my education as a pre-med major, and as I was studying, I kept thinking: “these are not my people.” We don’t have the same culture and values. I really started doing some internal work and asked myself, “who do I identify with the most?” And it was the art students. I was always hanging in the art building. Back then, it was the Dot Com boom, so you could be an art major or a graphic design major and actually get a job when you graduated. Graphic designers were getting hired right out of college and making beaucoup bucks. So, I became an art major because I realized I could support myself as a graphic designer. That aha moment has led me through my career because whenever I’m doing something and it’s just not fun anymore, or it doesn’t speak to my values, I look for the opportunity to change that and get myself aligned. With SSF, the culture was right. I liked these people. They’re good people, and that’s why I brought my marketing skills here. I had the opportunity to dig into my personal passions around sustainability and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I get to work with people I love and do something I’m passionate about. I grew up in a family that always valued continuing education, and to work for a company that values that and has supported me to keep growing and learning, it’s phenomenal.
Q: When you think about your experiences (personally and professionally), what has prepared you the most for your success, and how you define that for yourself?
A: Success for me is what I’m currently tackling and willing to tackle. What’s next? What am I doing that gives me butterflies…because those butterflies mean that I’m outside my comfort zone and growing. So, what am I doing that terrifies me, and am I running from it or pushing through it? It’s the willingness to get uncomfortable and take the leap of faith like starting a sustainability practice from scratch. I have so much gratitude for the trust and support that I’m getting from the partner group. That means the world.
Q: Do you have any advice for companies thinking about becoming B Corps…any common themes for success that you see in your practice?
A: You must have leadership onboard 100%. The companies that don’t finish the certification process are companies whose leadership are not in it wholehearted. You need the buy-in from the top because you’re going to need to get data from different parts of the company. There may be big shifts in your company’s governance, like shifting your entity to a Public Benefit Corporation, for example. We had to rewrite our partnership agreements. Leadership needs to be rowing in the same direction because it is a heavy lift, and I don’t sugar coat it for my clients. It’s going to take 9-12 months for the assessment, and once you submit your assessment to be audited, it is probably going to take a year or a year and a half because there’s a lot of demand at B Lab right now. The numbers have soared during COVID, so you’re going to need to have some patience and break this down into bite-size pieces. Tackle it one area at a time. Poke around the assessment and see what’s under the hood. Get ready to educate people in your organization about the amount of detail that goes into it and get them excited about “the why.” Once they tune into that, it makes the whole process easier.
I want to emphasize the education piece. You need to meet people in your organization where they are. Most people still think sustainability is just about carbon footprints and recycling, and if you ask them what they’re doing, they tend to say: “We recycle…we compost…we’re not really doing that much.” Then, we go back and ask them if they’ve started any Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives…and then they start telling us what they’ve done – not realizing that’s sustainability too! Other questions we ask are about data security: has your company done anything with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the answer is often yes. It's about companies understanding the full breadth of what sustainability means, making it less daunting and ultimately more relatable and actionable.
Q: What are you reflecting on as you look to the future?
A: I am looking for ways that I can help businesses tackle the climate issue. I know people are going to be hungry to dig into it and that the demand is going to grow. I am looking for ways to be a resource for those businesses and be a positive part of creating solutions around climate change in the business community.
Q: Do you have a mantra or quote that you live by or that inspires you?
A: I have a couple. One is the last line of my podcast: “Remember that your wallet is a ballot, and you vote every day. Vote wisely, my friends.” It really does matter. Money talks. If your money is sitting in a bank that uses your money to invest in fossil fuels, or you’re buying plastic water bottles or buying makeup that has mica or palm oil in it, it matters. Stop and think about what you’re buying and where that money goes. The other quote for me is: “We don’t need 100% of the people to do 100% all the time. We need 100% of the people to do something.” We don’t have to be perfect, but we need to have the intention and be mindful most of the time.
Like SSF, Bluestone Life is a Certified B Corp. Bluestone Life is also a member of 1% for the Planet, and our life insurance policies benefit nonprofits within the 1% for the Planet network. We encourage the Practical Activist in all of us to work for a socially just, equitable, and healthy planet. Learn more about companies that are doing business as a force for good.
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