September 23, 2023

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5 of the Most Meaningful Business Moments of 2020

5 of the Most Meaningful Business Moments of 2020

© Photo: Getty Images. Illustration: Inc. Magazine
5 of the Most Meaningful Business Moments of 2020

From securing elections to measuring air pollution, these companies have had an outsize impact this year.


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This year, Inc. launched the Best in Business Awards, featuring Company of the Year, to recognize companies that have had a superlative impact on their industries, their communities, the environment, and society as a whole.

Some companies have social impact baked into their business plans. Others step up in the moments when it’s most important. The companies on Inc.‘s inaugural Best in Business list have gone above and beyond their ordinary operations to respond to urgent needs–and not just those related to the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s how some of those companies helped their communities and employees in a year marked by crisis.

Connecting Climate Change to Public Health

When wildfire smoke blanketed the West Coast at the same time that a respiratory virus was spreading, Aclima, a San Francisco-based startup that tracks and analyzes air quality, took to the streets. Aclima equips its own fleets of vehicles, along with those used by Google Street View and other partners, with sensors to take block-by-block measurements of air pollutants, as well as greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. This hyper-local data helps advocates and regulators identify the communities that are most affected by bad air quality–which studies suggest could increase vulnerability to Covid-19–and take steps to protect residents and curb emissions. Because of this year’s combination of extreme events–major wildfires, plus extended periods of sheltering in place, which reduced emissions–the company was able to gather detailed data that could help policymakers understand the climate impact of certain activities and set smarter goals to address climate change, says Davida Herzl, Aclima’s co-founder and CEO.

This year made it clearer than ever that air pollution, public health, environmental justice, and climate change are all connected, says Herzl, who notes that the areas hit hardest by these problems are often communities of color. The company works with local organizations to recruit full-time drivers from those communities, she says, and provides skills training and opportunities for those hires to take on other roles within the company. Aclima also became a public benefit corporation in 2020, formalizing its commitment to social and environmental impact. “It was clear that the way forward was to not just speak to our mission, not just live and breathe our mission, but make it part of our corporate structure and charter,” Herzl says.

Helping Nonprofits Weather the Storm

In mid-March, Media Cause, a digital marketing agency, also in San Francisco, told its nonprofit clients that if they were struggling because of pandemic shutdowns, they could pause their contracts. Within two weeks, half its clients had done so–effectively halving the agency’s revenue. “We were faced with a business decision of, do we let people go? We don’t have work for everybody,” says co-founder and CEO Eric Facas. “Or do we bet on ourselves and say that it’s worth sustaining the losses in order to keep the team together?”

Thanks to profits from prior years and a Paycheck Protection Program loan, Media Cause had enough runway to stay open without any layoffs–though it did ask staff to take a 20 percent pay cut for one pay period. It started holding pro bono “office hours” for its clients, giving them advice on pandemic-related communications and fundraising. It soon extended that offer to any nonprofit that needed help but couldn’t pay, helping around 50 organizations plan campaigns and take advantage of Google Ad Grants, a program that gives nonprofits $10,000 per month in free advertising–plus extra for those fighting Covid-19 and racial injustice.

After internal discussions about how the company could contribute to racial justice efforts beyond supporting nonprofits, Media Cause also started a paid fellowship program to train workers from underrepresented backgrounds to enter the historically white and male marketing industry. “It came directly out of that idea that there’s a whole lot of systemic racism in this country that just needs to be addressed,” Facas says. “If we’re not taking big steps and making radical adjustments to the way that we do business, things aren’t going to change.”

Sharing Crucial Data Tools With Hospitals

To manage a pandemic, it’s not enough to track the number of cases; hospitals also need to make predictions about the disease’s spread to manage their resources. “It is a wicked mathematical challenge,” says Elliot Inman, a data scientist and manager at SAS, which makes software for statistical analysis, data management, and data visualization. As soon as Covid-19 data became available, he says, the Cary, North Carolina-based company started looking for ways to put its algorithms and expertise to use in the pandemic response. At the same time, the 44-year-old company’s health care, pharmaceutical, and government clients were asking for help with epidemiology and long-term planning, Inman says. SAS worked with organizations like the Cleveland Clinic to create models that could account for dozens of variables and predict, for instance, the number of days before a given facility runs out of intensive-care beds. To amplify its efforts, SAS also made its models publicly available on GitHub, where anyone can copy and modify them. “It’s not just SAS people doing this for our direct customers and partners; it’s other people grabbing the same code and helping people we don’t even know,” says Inman.

Separately, SAS launched a project in April with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a policy research organization, to use crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence to monitor deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. On a simple website, users can view and classify satellite images, identifying signs of human intervention. Their input helps train an A.I. model to do the same task accurately and efficiently on its own, which can help environmental activists focus on the most at-risk areas. Planning for the project began before the pandemic, Inman says, and the company considered postponing it to avoid distracting from the Covid-19 response, but ultimately decided that it was too important to wait: “When we emerge from the pandemic, we will still have a climate crisis.” Begun in Brazil, the project has expanded into areas of Peru and Bolivia; users have classified more than 550,000 square kilometers, according to SAS’s website.

Keeping Workers Employed and Customers Fed

At Tasty Catering, a caterer in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village, openness and resourcefulness have been key to surviving this year’s recession. “We continue to show [employees] the numbers, and they’re terrifying,” says CEO Kornel Grygo, “but we’ve always been transparent.” The company includes employees in its decision-making process and invites feedback, he says–which helped ease the blow of budget cuts. A few of the company’s roughly 50 full-time employees left voluntarily, and the rest voted to reduce salaries and benefits to help the company stay afloat. Hourly employees saw their hours reduced or redistributed to other businesses owned by Tasty’s holding company, which include a bakery and a gift-basket business. Nobody was happy about the changes, Grygo says, but he’s optimistic about the company’s survival.

Conversations with employees also produced creative ideas for drumming up business. For example, delivery drivers became neighborhood scouts, looking for new communities in need of a prepared meal. “When parking lots are full, people are working, and they might need food,” Grygo says. He adds that Tasty has built loyalty among customers and employees through its community involvement and its employment policies. Ordinarily the company recruits students from local high schools and colleges, as well as workers with felony convictions and those who complete Elk Grove Village’s opioid addiction recovery program.

Grygo has worked at Tasty for nearly 14 years, but had been its CEO for only a year when the pandemic sent revenue plunging by 80 percent compared with 2019. The downturn has been the ultimate proving ground for his leadership and for the company’s culture, he says. “When things are not going well–and they were not going well, and they continue not to go really well–it’s just that culture being tested,” he says. “And we’re walking the talk.”

Ensuring the Security of U.S. Elections

With the potential for interference and the pandemic complicating many of this year’s election procedures, Synack‘s cybersecurity expertise came into high demand. The Redwood City, California, company uses a global network of highly skilled, freelance “white-hat” hackers, combined with automation, to discover security vulnerabilities for businesses and government agencies. (Since Synack’s hackers often work with sensitive data, they are vetted extensively and the company can monitor and shut off their activity if need be.) The company’s “Secure the Election” initiative helped the state of Colorado, vendors like voting-machine manufacturer ES&S, and other organizations test their voter registration systems and other public infrastructure for weaknesses before polls opened.

Thanks in part to preventive efforts like Synack’s, federal and state election officials and industry experts called the 2020 presidential election “the most secure in American history.” Election administrators aren’t usually inclined to trust ethical hackers, says co-founder and CEO Jay Kaplan, but “we’ve made real strides in beginning to repair what I think has traditionally been a hostile relationship between election security researchers and voting vendors and states.” Since budgets were tightened this year, the company offered some of its services pro bono. And while it can’t publicly disclose the vulnerabilities it found, Kaplan says it “definitely had a meaningful impact” on preventing data breaches. “We feel like we do a good job when there is nothing public out there that says otherwise.”

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