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By Traci Rosenthal
This year’s Klion Forum coincided with the start of the fall semester. A semester that unfurled with the world in a continued state of uncertainty and tumult—the COVID-19 pandemic is creeping into its third year of existence, the temperature is undoubtably rising, and systemic racism is still a daily reality in classrooms, boardrooms, and public arenas around the globe. By all accounts, the outlook feels bleak, which is why we assembled a panel of diverse voices to discuss how to rethink business and society for the future.
“Even if things feel a little grim, you'll find other people that you can work with on important issues,” Laura Boudreau, Columbia Business School Assistant Professor of Business, recently told the virtual audience at The Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics’ 2021 Klion Forum, the Center’s premiere speaker series established in memory of the late Stanley R. Klion. Boudreau, along with fellow panelists Macellum Capital Management CEO Jonathan Duskin, Ben & Jerry’s Head of Global Activism Strategy Chris Miller, and Cue Ball CEO Tony Tjan, unpacked these important issues and discussed how they are making an impact with moderator and Bernstein Faculty Director Modupe Akinola.
Purpose Versus Profit
The idea of tradeoffs—namely swamping revenue for mission—is a major factor in why companies shy away from purpose-driven activism. However, Tjan dispels this misguided theory, saying, “I fundamentally believe that purpose and profit are mutually reinforcing allies. In fact, I feel that purpose must come before product, and product before profit, and if you do those things in that sequence, you can create enduring value.”
Tjan also brought up the idea of short-termism, calling it “a killer” to both purpose and profit. In the circumstances where Tjan was afforded the luxury long-term timeframes, he has been able to slowly enact positive change and encouraging shifts in culture—a far cry from the negligence bred by short-term thinking. For example, after reading a 2015 New York Times expose that revealed the unsafe and unfair working conditions for nail salon employees—the vast majority of which are Korean and Chinese immigrants—Tjan made a decades-long commitment to put an end to the exploitation of these women and empower this class of microentrepreneurs to fight for regulations and elevated pay.
Straight to the Source
“We are not experts on these issues, but we bring in people who are to help guide our strategy for how we tackle equity issues inside the company and how to stand as allies in the fight for racial justice externally,” Miller said. By building a wide network of consultants—from well-known corporations to grassroots groups—Ben & Jerry’s has the authentic familiarity and understanding to take an informed stance on a variety of activist matters, including marriage equality, climate change, racial injustice, and animal rights. “Bringing these voices to the table doesn’t happen enough,” he said.
The company’s most recent development in advancing racial equity comes in the form of a new ice cream flavor, of course. The pint, named Change is Brewing, is an initiative to spark investment in Black communities instead of racist systems of policing. And as always, Ben & Jerry’s is leading by example, commissioning Black-owned businesses to provide each component from the edible ingredients to the packaging design.
Diversity and Vertical Mobility
Inclusive hiring and monitoring practices are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving organizations and bridging the current human capital gap, which is why Duskin believes in intense training and hands-on development to get diverse perspectives to the top. This is true particularly for companies that represent and cater to underrepresented populations. Duskin sits on the board of Citi Trends, a retail clothing chain that serves urban communities—80 to 90 percent of their customer base is African American. However, when Jonathan joined in 2017, there was a clear lack of diverse representation at the top. “Hiring is easy, but grooming people to the manager, associate director, and VP level and bringing them up through the organization is what’s so important.”
Humanistic leadership and real change—or actualizing the win-win where every shareholder, stakeholder, and ancillary individual benefits—is not only happening at companies where the sole mission is societal improvement, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility. “We've been seeing a lot of very highly skilled employees at companies that may not be mission or purpose driven, especially in the tech sector, starting to organize and push their employers to advocate,” Boudreau said. Looking for ways to turn ideas into action? Boudreau suggests forming a union, staging a walkout, or putting together a petition. Although management input and backing will boost your cause, revolutions don’t have to start at the top.
So, even though news updates seem morose and ambiguity abounds, hope is not stifled—this year’s Klion Forum made it clear that influential and authentic leadership is alive and well. “We’re at a time where we have a lack of faith in many government institutions, and for better or for worse, corporations are incredibly powerful entities,” Miller said. “The opportunity to be a part of corporate advocacy for change and acting within the context of the greater societal good—and not for your own self-interest—is a really powerful opportunity.”