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Emerging practice areas: John Tyler

john-tylerThe Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is acclaimed for its commitment to improving education and entrepreneurship through innovative practices. The foundation’s general counsel walks the foundation’s talk by advancing innovation in both fields.

John Tyler joined the foundation as general counsel in 1999 and became its chief ethics officer in 2004. During that time, he has helped the Kansas City-based foundation as it used its roughly $2 billion in assets to improve the world by empowering people and communities through entrepreneurship and education. He’s also been busy on that front himself, as he helped to start the foundation’s charter school and works on the foundation’s grant-making efforts.

Where he has truly been a pioneer has been his work to boost entrepreneurship, including education programs for entrepreneurs, and to improve access to capital, specifically new forms of business. Tyler has been at the forefront of establishing the field of social-purpose businesses, designed for entrepreneurs who want to make money but also have a focus on improving the world, much like the foundation for which he works.

The entrepreneurs Tyler seeks to assist are looking for payoffs that are beyond financial profits in seeking to do social good. Ben & Jerry’s was a corporate pioneer in the arena, selling ice cream while emphasizing environmental responsibility and sustainability, Tyler said.

“We’ve got this emergence of things like benefit corporations and social-purpose corporations, and low-profit limited liability corporations,” Tyler said. “Some of what I’ve tried to do is create awareness about these forms and the opportunities and challenges that they present.”

Before joining the Kauffman Foundation, Tyler was a litigator at Lathrop Gage, working on cases involving trademark and copyright law, employment law and environmental law. During that time, the graduate of Notre Dame Law School also did nonprofit and pro bono work on the side. When the position at the Kauffman Foundation came along, it appeared to be an excellent opportunity, Tyler said.

“As a litigator, there were a lot of creative-thinking and problem-solving and strategic-analysis skills that I continued to get to use and have them make a difference in a different kind of way,” Tyler said.

Tyler’s work has led him to design a curriculum on the subject for Columbia University, author or co-author nine academic or law-review articles and become a sought-after speaker at conferences and guest lectures.

Tyler became involved in the field in 2006, when he attended a meeting organized by the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., to gauge interest in businesses that emphasized social good and discuss whether new forms were necessary. In 2010, Maryland passed the first legislation establishing benefit corporations, and 32 other states have followed suit. Companies establishing themselves under this form include Plum Organics, Patagonia and Kickstarter.

Interest has picked up since then, Tyler said.

“There is increased attention to wanting to have the ability to make decisions based on outcomes other than profitability and maximizing investor return,” he said. “Both are good things. I’m not anti-for-profit, I’m very much pro-for-profit, but at the same time, I think there are benefits to having other options where there’s clarity around what the fiduciary duty is and what the legal accountability is.”

His next focus will be bringing these new forms of business to Missouri through legislation.

“I think there are some people that are wanting to start and grow their business in Missouri,” Tyler said. “They aren’t interested in forming out of Delaware; they want to be a Missouri business and would like to have some of the flexibility that comes with being a Missouri benefit corporation.”

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