NEW ORLEANS — John Mackey is far from the self-described Democratic socialist that he was coming out of college decades ago. That all changed when he co-founded Whole Foods Market in the 1980s and earned the nickname of Darth Vader by his “former friends” because he was seen as greedy, selfish and evil.

“Seriously, that’s what people tell me,” he said.

Today, the recently retired chief executive officer of Whole Foods Market, which has more than 105,000 employees and some $22 billion in annual sales, lists Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos alongside John D.  Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie as “some of the greatest people who ever lived because of the great value they created.”

That was just one of the insights on “conscious capitalism” that Mr. Mackey shared in an hourlong presentation during NEXT 2023 conference by Intralox, held March 8-9 in New Orleans.

“I always felt that business is misunderstood by society,” he said. “It’s hated by the intellectuals, but we are the real value creators in the world. We are the ones that are creating the prosperity that lifts everyone up. We’re not understood but judged and attacked.”

Mr. Mackey walked through the highlights of how his philosophy toward business has changed during his 40-plus-year career at Whole Foods from the early days as a struggling independent natural food store to being purchased by Amazon for $13.7 billion in 2017.

“Whole Foods sort of changed America and changed the way people think about natural foods, organic food, healthy foods,” he said.

One key lesson he learned involves how the dynamics of capitalism are so different from competition in the sports world where there is “one winner and a lot of losers” after a long season and a championship game.

“Business is not that type of game,” Mr. Mackey explained. “Business is an infinite game. It’s a game where all of these different interdependent stakeholders are winning.”

While he referred to profits as the red blood cells that keep business running, Mr. Mackey emphasized that successful companies must focus on the purpose of the business and the value it creates for other people, whether they are suppliers, employees or consumers.

However, perpetuating a culture of value isn’t easy. While Amazon maintained a hands-off policy since it purchased Whole Foods, Mr. Mackey said that might not be the case going forward.

“Now that I retired, talking with my successor, he tells me a little different story,” he said during a question-and-answer session. “We’ll have to see how that story plays out.”

Mr. Mackey noted his next venture includes a chain of health-focused restaurants and lifestyle centers called Love.Life! that he co-founded and plans to establish in Southern California in the near future.

“I’m back in startup mode,” he said. “I have no bureaucracy. It’s going to be so much fun.”