The Do-Good Bunch

Carrotmob shoppers unite to make a difference with their dollars.

January/February 2010

Reading time min

The Do-Good Bunch

Photo: Carrotmob

Brent Schulkin is anxiously awaiting the masses. It is 4:30 on a clammy Thursday afternoon in September. In half an hour, Schulkin hopes hundreds of people will converge upon the trendy little Epicenter Café in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood.

As he waits, consumer activist Schulkin, '03—the innovator of a movement called Carrotmob—is a blur of activity. He issues instructions to volunteers, consults his laptop, does one quick interview then another, then checks the back of the café, where express wine and beer tables have been set up. Dressed in a fedora and a powder-blue suit with matching handkerchief and mock snakeskin shoes, Schulkin peers down the street. Will a mob appear and begin throwing money at Epicenter?

Schulkin created Carrotmob almost two years ago after wondering: If businesses are so responsive to money, why not give them a financial incentive to do the right thing? His innovation was a boycott flipped on its head. Customers could nudge a business's behavior using the rewarding carrot, rather than the punishing stick.

Schulkin’s innovation was a boycott flipped on its head: a financial incentive to do the right thing.

In a Carrotmob event, similar businesses are invited to pledge how much they would spend to become more environmentally responsible. The establishment with the most compelling proposal becomes the Carrotmob beneficiary. (Epicenter, already eco-minded, planned to get an energy audit and create a pricing discount for customers who bring in their own mugs, among other things.) Social-networking efforts then aim to stir up a cheerful crowd of people, wallets in hand, who will converge on the business at a specified date and time.

The first Carrotmob took place on March 29, 2008, at the K & D Market in San Francisco's Mission District. Schulkin had contacted 23 convenience stores and asked them to submit bids to make their businesses more energy efficient. Five responded. K & D's proposal—which promised to spend 22 percent of its profits from that day to make energy improvements—was declared the winner.

Schulkin put up flyers around the neighborhood. He emailed his friends. They told their friends. People posted the event on Facebook. And that Saturday afternoon, several hundred people descended upon K & D to buy liquor, cereal and toilet paper. The line stretched down the block. The store took in $9,276.50, more than three times normal. A movement was born. (When K & D installed its new energy-efficient lighting, Schulkin got it on video.)

Carrotmobs have "made it rain," as the mobsters say, on a New York City hardware store, a Portland, Ore., pizza joint, an English pub and a Finnish nightclub. Organizers of events generally learn about the Carrotmob concept from news stories or find it online. Schulkin directs them to a how-to guide, sets them up with an official Carrotmob website and organizes a conference call to answer questions.

Schulkin has been wrapped up in another venture, a company called Virgance, which he co-founded last year with entrepreneur Steve Newcomb. Virgance is a for-profit enterprise designed to incubate projects that promote social change while also making money. Nearly half its 15 employees are Stanford grads. (A word taken from Star Wars: Episode 1, "virgance" connotes the birth of a powerful new force in nature that can be used either for good or evil.)

Carrotmob lives under the Virgance umbrella with a handful of other projects, all of which depend heavily on the tools of modern organizing—email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter. The largest project, One Block Off the Grid, organizes groups of consumers to purchase solar panels at a significant discount. For each regional campaign, 1BOG conducts a selection process to find an ideal installer. 1BOG operates in a number of cities in California as well as in New Orleans, Denver and Phoenix; it will expand soon to Miami, Austin, Honolulu and Bergen County in New Jersey.

Carrotmob's event at Epicenter attracted more than 200 people (who ordered scores of lattes and salads and chocolate croissants). The café saw a sevenfold increase in business compared to a regular Thursday evening. The owners were particularly happy with the free publicity, and one of them, Chris Quaintance, '96, said, "It's certainly nice to get a jumpstart" from socially conscious diners.

Schulkin, a communications major, spent four or five years after graduation puzzling about how to use social networking to take on climate change and other social issues. He worked at day jobs—temping at Google, then working at a San Francisco company that specializes in urban-adventure games—and brainstormed Carrotmob at odd moments.

When he talks, one can almost watch his mind kicking into gear. He's pleased that Carrotmob can impact individual stores. But just imagine if millions of customers banded together. Couldn't they influence multinational corporations?

Get ready, Oral-B and Adidas and General Mills: Brent Schulkin has an idea.

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