There is perhaps no more central component to the free enterprise system than the profit margin. That margin allows companies to keep running, growing, and investing in the future. That’s Capitalism 101. And it’s a notion that’s worked pretty darn well over the centuries, lifting people out of poverty and broadly raising the standard of living.
So you might not be shocked to learn that, increasingly, that same incentive is driving another worthwhile enterprise as well: Call it everyday problem solving. A positive operating margin, after all, can encourage a company to invest in addressing a societal challenge—be it environmental, economic, health-related, or something else—just as it might steer it to selling widgets, or WaaS (widgets as a service).
As Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini framed it to me in a recent phone call, “No margin, no mission.” That, mind you, is not the maxim of some hard-nosed titan of industry, he pointed out, but rather the watchwords of a group of nuns—in this case, the good Sisters who have helped guide Ascension, the large, not-for-profit Catholic health system, to a comfortable operating margin year after year.
Companies that embrace that mindset have the power to change the world. And indeed for the past three years we’ve devoted an annual issue of Fortune to celebrating those who do. Our Change the World list highlights 56 companies around the globe, brand-name companies and rising stars, that are solving problems, serving others, or helping the planet—and furthering their core business aims while doing it.
One of those companies is JPMorgan Chase, the $105 billion-in-revenue behemoth, which is banking big on Detroit . As Fortune features editor Matt Heimer reveals in his must-read story, CEO Jamie Dimon has come to believe that reviving America’s small businesses and urban neighborhoods will drive growth—rather than the other way around. Matt spent weeks studying Detroit’s battered economy and traveling to the frayed but still vibrant neighborhoods that JPMorgan Chase is helping to rebuild. Politicians and policymakers, take note: The bank’s multipronged assault on Rust Belt stagnation is a blueprint for revitalizing many of America’s hardest-hit cities.
The Detroit project isn’t charity; it’s a natural extension of what a bank does: putting capital in the hands of people who can grow it. That idea, that doing good can be core to one’s business, is also championed by almighty Apple. Whether it’s Apple’s efforts to make coding a “second language” or the company’s ambitious investment in digital health applications, Cook clearly sees a business opportunity in all of it. And that’s a good thing.