Carolyn McMaster | July 9, 2014
When Opticos Design first encountered B Corporations, “it was like hearing a voice in the wilderness,” says Karen Parolek, who founded the firm in 2000 with her husband Dan Parolek. “We went, ‘Wow, there are all these people thinking about business the way we think about business.’”
“From the day we launched, we were committed to building a sustainable business, but there were few models, so we were trying to do things our own way and learning as we went,” she recalls. “For instance, how do you have an organization that’s not top-down? Every time we tried to do something differently, we had nobody to compare notes with.”
Opticos, a Berkeley-based architecture and urban design firm that works with cities and developers to create more livable communities, rushed to complete its first B Impact assessment and was certified in time to become a founding B Corp in 2007. In 2012, Opticos further cemented its commitment to sustainability by becoming one of the first California benefit corporations, legally obligating the business to pursue environmental and social benefits in addition to its profit-making activities.
But being a Certified B Corp gives Opticos much more than a stamp of approval signifying that it meets rigorous standards of social and environmental performance.
“It continually challenges us to be the company we want to be and to think about how we are affecting the environment, the community, our employees and our clients,” says Parolek. “It forces us to think more holistically about everything we do; it guides every decision and informs all our projects.”
Certification and commitment engage clients
Opticos notes its B Corp certification in all its marketing materials and in RFQs and RFPs (requests for qualifications and proposals); speakers mention it at conferences and other events.
While the company’s B Corp certification doesn’t always matter directly to clients, it does open up conversations, and the company is recognized for its deep commitment to sustainability.
“It probably catches people’s attention who normally wouldn’t know about it,” Parolek says. “It really resonates with people. They see we have a grander plan, and being a B Corp cinches it.”
One client even gave Opticos a public shout-out: following a planning project presentation last year, a county council member said she was excited that the county would be working with a B Corp that could teach them about sustainable businesses and a new approach to economic development.
This year, Opticos was recognized as a “Best for the World” B Corp in the worker impact category, meaning the company scored in the top 10 percent in that category on its impact assessment.
Assessment is a ‘powerful tool’ for running the business
Parolek describes the assessment as a powerful tool for running the business. “Every time I take the assessment it becomes my to-do list for improvements,” she says. “It continues to challenge us to think about things we can be doing—it keeps us on our toes.”
For instance, it inspired her to describe the company ownership structure in the employee handbook and helped shape overtime and employee benefit policies.
An equally powerful source of inspiration is the B Corp community: fellow certified businesses as well as B Lab, the nonprofit certifying organization.
“It’s an amazing group,” says Parolek. “It provides support for us and challenges us to be the people we want to be. Above all, [our B Corp status] is not something we’re applying for. It now is who we are—it’s in our DNA.”
This profile of Opticos Design is part of our B Corp company profile series. Their story, in a slightly different version, is also featured in our new infographic, “5 Essential Elements of a Great B Corp Story,” which maps and models the five elements.