American-born Israeli businesswoman Shari Arison, is one of Israel’s wealthiest women and the richest in the Middle East, yet her wealth has not changed her opinion that it’s necessary to do good while doing business. Owner of the Arison Group, Arison oversees a conglomerate of businesses and philanthropic organizations that have managed to integrate values such as sustainability, volunteering and financial freedom within the core of her ventures.

She has adopted a global approach to spreading goodness and awareness of pressing social issues. In 2007 Arison created Good Deeds Day with the mission of inspiring individual service projects around the world. By last year the event had grown to 400,000 volunteers in 50 countries engaged in activities ranging from creating public gardens to painting the homes of senior citizens. Last year she told Forbes that her original vision was to “secure the human existence.”

This turned out to be harder than imagined in convincing others and she has subsequently simplified her mantra to, “think good, speak good and do good.” While Arison considers even a smile to be a good deed, she shared with us how embracing values can be good for business.

At what point did you realize that business needed to change direction, towards a more sustainable path? 

The moment that changed my business vision came when I realized that I didn’t need to fight anymore. Previously, it felt as if I was going into the darkness to light a candle, feeling like I was constantly banging my head against a wall trying to transform my businesses. Creating change and transformation in those days was hard and even though I succeeded amazingly on some I always felt exhausted afterwards.

Eventually I realized that I didn’t need to light the darkness, but rather grow goodness. I did this by surrounding myself with individuals, partners, employees and board members who did good, want good and who understood what I’m talking about. These were people who left behind their “fight mode” and wanted to become part of creating change. At that point I changed the mission of the Arison Group to doing good. Amazingly, just by changing the vision, so many people came on board instantly, because so many people resonated with the idea of doing good. It really changed things for my companies and me.

Is it possible to make a profit while still doing good?

I don’t only think it; I know it, because we’re busy doing it. However, it did take much explaining to employees. For example, at my construction company Shikun & Binui,it literally took ten years for this one person to understand me. The message then slowly spread to the directors and management team as they were unconvinced that you can build a sustainable business and still make money. We have now proven that we can still make money, and that in addition, revenues can even increase year-on-year.

All our businesses work on a value-based model today. The value of Israeli bank, Bank Hapoalim, in which we have a 25 percent ownership, is financial freedom. We give people the awareness, education and tools to make better choices in their life. We instill values and still make money.

Can you give some examples of these results?

I’ve developed 13 values that we apply when doing business, many based on the variety of companies we operate. For example, during negotiations one of our values is Purity; that’s not something you hear about in business very often. The value of Financial Freedom was inspired by our bank, Sustainability from Shikun & Binui, Abundance from my water company Miya and Vitality from our Salt of the Earth company. We also have organizations dedicated to giving and volunteering, based on inner peace.

The management of Miya once approached a negotiation with these values in mind. It was certainly not the usual way of doing a bid and the team came back to me and said, “We’re going to lose, we’ll never get this project.” I recall saying, “If you don’t get the project, then you don’t get the project. We’re going to work in a way that’s pure and transparent and with integrity.” People have forgotten many old values, where a handshake was a done deal. It’s been forgotten. I’m leaning towards these higher values in a practical, business way. In the end, we did win the bid and we’re also well respected by this particular country and its people. I believe that’s the only way to do business.

What are the biggest challenges facing business today?

If there’s no planet, there’s no bottom line. People don’t seem to get that and I think that’s our biggest challenge. There are many people who want to make a difference in the world but the environment hasn’t been given a chance to catch up yet. Leaders who want to do good and create transformation, especially in public companies, will always be faced with issues around their bottom line and the biggest challenge is making people understand that you can make a profit while still doing good for people and planet.

How do you make companies more transparent? Capitalism has been given a bad name over the last ten years, how do you win people over and make them feel part of a new economy?

Nobody is going to buy lip service anymore. People can feel what’s happening, but it takes time for them to see the transformation. For them to see change, it has to be real. You need to engage people and make a difference to their lives in a practical way. This is why banks have such a difficult time. Despite the changes we’ve made at Bank Hapoalim it’s a slow process. People gradually see the changes, but are still living in the past, thinking about what banking used to be.

For a long time people didn’t see what I was doing and didn’t understand. When I talked about Good Deeds Day they’d say, “Okay, but what difference will it make?” This year, in Israel alone, 550,000 people and 8,000 projects signed up in one day to go out and do a good deed. We calculated 2 million hours of volunteering that day. When people see tangible change around them they can see the difference it makes. This can take time.

Do you think business has a role above and beyond that of national government; to create infrastructure?

Israeli president Shimon Peres has been saying for years that governments have borders and businesses don’t. In today’s world businesses can make a huge difference. For instance, The Arison Group is global, found on five continents and 40 different countries, employing 27,000 people. We build safe water supplies and provide banking and financial services, yet we’re also involved with communities and employ local people. Part of our business model is to offer financial freedom training in these countries – that can have a huge impact on society.

Do you think business might be a solution to the problems we’ve been seeing in the Middle East for the past 2,000 years?

There are already many businesses that are cross-cultural and across the borders of the Middle East and they normally choose to be very quiet about it. I think human beings, people, will end up making a difference. It won’t come from governments. I’ve seen this through Good Deeds Day because we’ve brought all cultures together with this event – the Arabic community, the conservative Jewish Haredi community, the non-religious and people from all ages. Everyone generally wants the same things: to be happy, healthy, prosper and grow. These things come from people.

What values are needed to create a real leader?

Someone who has a vision, a passion and never gives ups. You have to be very persistent with your vision. If you visualize the kind of future you’d like to create, and take the steps in order to create it, you need a lot of patience. Most people won’t really understand your vision and by the time they “get it,” it’s already common knowledge. Leaders get a lot of flack because they’re usually ahead of their time. It takes a lot of time and a lot of faith. A lot.

Sustainability has become a common word these days. What would you say is the next big thing?

I’m going to say it in one word: caring. The world needs to wake up to the fact that if we want a common future, we need to care about each other and ourselves. We should understand that we’re one humanity and one planet with a common future.

Why is it important for women to be empowered in the work place?

I believe in balance and for a long time people thought I was driving a “women’s” agenda. This was because I promoted a lot of women on boards and management teams and had them run my companies. I believe that whoever is right for the job and works hard should get the job. Not because it’s the “right” thing to pick a woman because current trends are around gender issues. Women have a lot to offer, as well as men. Each are different and bring something different to the table. Women bring intuition.

I really believe that women should be women. For a long time, and in order to survive in a work place, women tried to be men. Rather, their gift is actually about being a women, bringing compassion, intuition, caring and insight to the workplace and creating balance. Men should understand that women belong, and it’s not a case of one or the other, it’s one and the other.

In the past men might have been threatened by powerful women rising through the ranks but there’s a place for everyone and a place to allow individuals to flourish. If you create a work environment where everyone brings out their best, you have a better collective. It empowers everyone as an individual and all of us as a team.