For years, Mikkel Svane drove the same route to drop his kids off at school every day. It took him down Valencia Street in the heart of San Francisco, past a Planned Parenthood clinic. And almost every day, he would pass protesters holding pictures of torture and violence, alongside religious imagery. He’d try to distract his kids, not knowing how to explain why these “obsessed people” came to be standing in front of a health clinic, holding pictures of the Holocaust.
The CEO moved to San Francisco from his native Denmark with his customer service software company Zendesk, and he was surprised to encounter such fierce protest on this issue in a place like San Francisco in 2019. In Denmark, abortion has been settled law since the 1970s, and it does not continue to provoke the kind of violent debate that still rages in the U.S.
“It feels like organized oppression of a whole segment of the population,” Svane told Fortune. When he had the opportunity to sign a petition to protect women’s reproductive freedoms, it was an easy decision.
Svane was one of more than 187 top executives to sign a full-page ad in the New York Times in June called “Don’t Ban Equality,” which stated that undue restrictions on the full spectrum of reproductive care, including abortion care, were “bad for business.”
The letter, organized by Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, American Civil Liberties Union, and McPherson Strategies, appeared just weeks after several southern states passed legislation to highly restrict and even outright ban abortion.
“This is not the future that I want for my kids,” Svane said. “I have a personal opinion on this, but I also believe that, as a company, this is a cause that makes sense for us.”
Nearly 200 more executives would sign the letter in the following weeks. Many of the signees represented businesses that were either directly related to women or women’s health, including female-focused retail brands like Eileen Fisher and Outdoor Voices, as well as healthcare startups like Aunt Flow. But an overwhelming number of the signees came from companies that ostensibly had nothing to do with women or their reproductive health—including more than a dozen tech companies like Yelp, Postmates, Tinder, and Timehop.
For corporations—especially in the land of Silicon Valley and tech start-ups—supporting women’s reproductive freedoms is good business. Many of their users skew female; they are increasingly attracting (or trying to attract) women employees, and for apps that rely on gig workers, abortion bans can even mean lost hours as contractors are forced to seek care out of state.
For the tech world, which has increasingly been associated with sexism, fraternity culture, and predatory executives since the Me Too movement, this public move of speaking out on abortion rights marks a huge shift in attitude when it comes to women’s health and abortion—topics that CEOs of all backgrounds have historically avoided.
It’s No Longer Valuable Being Agnostic
Nearly two years before the open letter appeared in the New York Times, NARAL first started testing the waters for business engagement on the issue of abortion. When businesses, even in often conservative southern states, started speaking out against so-called bathroom bills and in favor of trans people, NARAL decided that companies might be ready to engage on abortion, too, then-vice president for special projects, Amy Everitt, told Fortune.
“It would seem that they were falling prey to the false narrative that this is one of the most controversial issues in America,” Everitt said. “The reality is that it isn’t. Seven in 10 Americans support access to reproductive freedom.”
A June poll conducted by NPR, PBS, and Marist found that 77% of Americans supported a woman’s right to an abortion under at least some circumstances, and support has stayed relatively stable over time, according to data from Gallup.
Susan McPherson, whose firm McPherson Strategies helps companies engage with issues of social responsibility, was careful to frame reproductive freedom in terms of “pragmatic business issues” when working on finding CEOs to sign the letter, she said, and pointed out the tech world’s struggle to attract and retain women employees.
Only 25% of technical jobs are held by women, according to the non-profit National Center for Women & Information Technology. Those women are also much more likely to leave their jobs than their male counterparts, with the quit rate at 41%—more than double men’s 17% rate, according to the same report.
“Inevitably, these are traditionally more ‘bro culture’ companies,” McPherson said. “To appeal to women as customers, to appeal to women as employees, they have to show they are being more female-focused.”
And while CEOs are indeed increasingly stepping out of the C-suite and into public debate—a political awakening Harvard Business School professor Rebecca M. Henderson recently called as monumental a moment in the business world as the “transition from analog to digital”—abortion is a new issue in this arena. But it’s beginning to gain the attention of big business.
Vikrum Aiyer, vice president of public policy and strategic communications at delivery service Postmates, said his company’s CEO signed the letter because of his belief in equality, speaking of “the CEO statesman,” the idea that business leaders can affect policy and government change. But he also acknowledged that about 60% of Postmates’ consumers are women, as well as nearly half of their bike couriers and many of the business owners that operate in their network, a good portion of them living and working in states that have enacted abortion bans.
“That not only is harmful for that person’s well-being if they need to realize immediate care, but it also means that it undermines the vitality of our own platform,” Aiyer said, “if you have potential couriers that feel they need to leave their community to seek that treatment, if you have potential businesses that feel that they need to shutter their stores for a few hours to seek that treatment. And that provides both an economic harm to that community and the platform.”
Timehop, an app that collects and resurfaces old Facebook, Instagram, and other social media posts so users can share memories with friends, currently has more than 20 million users, the majority of whom are American millennial women, the company’s CEO, Matt Raoul, told Fortune. But that’s not the primary reason he signed the letter, he said.
“There’s also a generation of people coming into the workforce that are expecting something different from a company,” he said, “and expecting a company to talk about values, and to talk about these things, and to have a stance on these things. “It’s not so valuable anymore to be agnostic.”
About 63% of people buy from companies that reflect their personal beliefs, and 62% want companies to take a stand on cultural and political issues that they care about, according to a 2018 study by Accenture. A 2017 study from the public relations firm Edelman found that more than half of 14,000 people polled worldwide even said that “brands can do more to solve social ills than government.”
What’s more, it might not even matter if consumers agree with a particular stance. Upcoming research from Daniel Korschun, a marketing professor specializing in corporate responsibility at Drexel University, found that consumers will respect when a values-driven company takes a position, even if it doesn’t correspond to their own views.
Taking a Stand for Something—Anything
Values-driven companies willing to join contested debates engender a brand loyalty so strong as to be a “gravitational pull,” according to Americus Reed, a marketing professor specializing in social identity at Wharton business school. It’s what Reed calls “identity loyalty,” or when supporting a brand becomes a form of self-expression.
“With that kind of loyalty, that type of person will spend more money,” said Reed. “They will give positive word of mouth to what you’re doing, so you get all of this benefit. They’ll defend you when there’s bad news.”
If someone buys a product because they believe it represents their values, a rival company can’t woo them away simply by creating a better product—they need to change who that person is, which is much harder to do, he said. And those kinds of long-term benefits often outweigh the risks of taking on a divisive issue.
Nike has, for instance, built its reputation in recent years on its willingness to take stands. When the sports apparel brand put Colin Kaepernick in an ad campaign in 2018, some observers were surprised, given how the football player’s protest had divided some Americans. What Nike knew, however, was that its core customer base was both more likely to support Kaepernick than the average consumer and more likely to care about a brand standing up.
“It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it,” Phil Knight, Nike’s founder, told a group at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, shortly after the Kaepernick ads first came out. While some disgruntled people might have burned their Nikes on Twitter, Nike sales overall soared. Following the ads, sales spiked by 31%, and Nike claimed a $6 billion brand value increase, Fast Company reported.
Research and real-life examples have shown that again and again, companies seen as values-driven are increasingly profitable in today’s world. The outdoor apparel brand Patagonia has built its reputation around this idea and even mounted a 2017 campaign in protest of Donald Trump’s move to cut national monuments land. The following year, the company earned a reported $1 billion in revenue and was nominated for company of the year by Inc.
Ben and Jerry’s sells about $1 billion in ice cream per year, all while continuing to weigh in on the top debates of the day, including same-sex marriage, refugees, climate change, and campaign finance.
The list goes on and on, from smaller companies like Brew Dog microbrewery to travel giant Expedia. Customers want to buy from, and employees want to work for, companies that share their values—and are willing to stand up for them.
Building a Values-Driven Workforce
A survey conducted by the Harris Poll and NARAL found that about two in three employed adults found it at least “somewhat important” for their employer to take a stand specifically on reproductive rights. Approximately 60% of respondents said they would be more loyal to a company that offered a full scope of reproductive health benefits, including both prenatal care, family planning and abortion.
More specifically, those factors can determine where millennial women choose to work: nearly three in five said if choosing between two offers, a company’s reproductive healthcare package would be a deciding factor.
User review site Yelp has historically practiced what it preached when it comes to reproductive access. Last summer, staff at Yelp quietly combed through more than 2,000 businesses in its database to sort out so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” from actual reproductive health providers.
These type of centers use deceptive and even bullying tactics to discourage women from getting abortions, but they can appear in Google searches for “abortion care,” despite the fact that they do not provide abortions. Yelp’s CEO Jeremy Stoppelman decided to take on this problem after watching a John Oliver segment, wanting to ensure that Yelp wasn’t providing similar misinformation.
“Equality has always mattered to Yelp and matters to our employees—and to the extent that we can be on right side of history and helpful in terms of standing up for equality, I think that was a big driver for us,” Miriam Warren, vice president of engagement, diversity, and belonging for Yelp told Fortune. “Our employees care about this; they care about it on an individual level; they care about it for their families, and they care about Yelp caring about it.”
This type of concrete action, alongside more broad statements like the “Don’t Ban Equality” letter, are likely to keep happening.
“We’re at a serious inflection point in our country right now, on many issues and on this one in particular. I think that the seriousness of what is at stake is seeping into the C-suite and into companies in general,” NARAL’s Everitt said. “We’re going to see more and more activism around these issues.”
For people who care about women’s access to the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare, the exact motivation—whether for morals or for money—might not matter. Big companies can effectively put pressure on government actors and agencies in a way that individuals simply cannot.
Even if it is just good business.
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