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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Whole Foods Market Co-Founder John Mackey on Entrepreneurship, Education, and Capitalism

“If you can make a profit, it proves that your business model is good,” says Mackey.

Image Credit: Pixabay

There are many similarities between the natural and organic food movement and the alternative education movement in the US. Both began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely on the political left, as part of a countercultural rejection of the status quo. Since then, both movements have moved into the mainstream and continue to shape the way people eat and learn. 

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the expansive growth of Whole Foods Market, the grocery store chain that John Mackey co-founded and led for 44 years before stepping down as CEO in 2022 after overseeing the company’s acquisition by Amazon. Under his leadership, Whole Foods Market grew from one store in Austin, Texas, to 540 stores with annual sales topping $22 billion. It helped to change the way many people think about producing and consuming food by focusing on sustainable agriculture, local growers, and the benefits of healthy eating. 

In my recent LiberatED podcast episode, I talked with Mackey about his entrepreneurial journey and solicited his advice for today’s education entrepreneurs who are reshaping American education by launching creative schooling options, such as microschools, learning pods, online learning platforms, homeschooling collaboratives, and similar models.

“I was going to be an elementary school teacher,” Mackey told me, explaining that he didn’t include this part of his life story in his latest book, The Whole Story: Adventures in Love, Life, and Capitalism. Before he turned to food, Mackey was passionate about education and was studying in college to be a teacher. “At that time, I was an educational radical and I was reading the books of that era,” said Mackey, referring to authors such as John Holt, who coined the term “unschooling,” and Ivan Illich, who wrote the book Deschooling Society. “I definitely was thinking outside the box. I hated the bureaucracy of the public school system,” said Mackey.

He may have continued to pursue a career in education if it hadn’t been for the principal at the school in which he was doing his student-teaching practicum. “I was very effective in teaching kids how to read, but one day the principal asked me not to come back to his school any longer because I was a troublemaker,” said Mackey, explaining that the principal didn’t like how Mackey challenged the school’s rules by having long hair, allowing students to call him by his first name, eating lunch with them instead of with the teachers, and so on. “That was the end of my pathway to education, and I went the food route instead,” said Mackey.

That food route turned out to be a success because Whole Foods Market created value for its customers and, in turn, profits for itself all through voluntary exchange within a free market. In doing so, it changed the way many people in America eat and think about food. Today’s education entrepreneurs who are building the new schools and spaces that families want likewise deserve the profits and gains that come from creating value for others. And just as Whole Foods Market changed people’s thinking about food, today’s education entrepreneurs can change the way many Americans learn and think about education—but only if they can run financially successful, sustainable businesses. 

“If you can make a profit, it proves that your business model is good,” said Mackey. “That’s the way you could do the most good in the world. That’s the beauty of capitalism. It takes the profits and it recycles them either back in investing in the business that you’re in or you can invest in other businesses…Growing the capital pool is essential to human progress. So if you’re not making any profits, you’re holding human progress back. If you have a good school, we need more of them. And how are you going to do it unless you can make money and reinvest it? So that’s my message. I’m saying [education entrepreneurs] have an ethical obligation not only to themselves, but to the rest of the world to become profitable so that they can grow and take their good educational ideas and share that with more students who need better education.”

Soon after this podcast episode aired, I began getting messages from education entrepreneurs grateful for Mackey’s insights. “When you asked him about being OK with being mission-driven and making a profit, it really hit home!” said one microschool founder.

For too long, most K-12 education has existed outside of the free market, controlled and run by the government. This explains why we have such breathtaking innovation, variety, and abundance in so many other areas of our lives—but not in education.

Until now.

Today’s education entrepreneurs are creating a vibrant, diverse, decentralized marketplace of education options for families. The new schools and spaces I visit exude joy, with young people eager to go to school and sad when the school year ends. By running financially sound small businesses, education entrepreneurs can spread this joy and make a large, positive, and enduring impact on how US children learn. 

For those who say education is too important to be left to capitalism and the free market, I say it’s too important to be in the hands of the government.