Social Activism in Today?s Corporate Culture

I remember the day during Foundations when we discussed an article by Milton Friedman, which detailed his thoughts on the role of the corporation in society. Friedman believes that the role of the corporation is to create value for its shareholders and that taking care of greater society is the role of the government and nonprofit sector.

I remember writing across the top of the article at the time “I HATE THIS ARTICLE!” Little did I know that Friedman?s thoughts would surface in any future discussion about the role of business in society. But Friedman surfaced again last week in Cumnock 103, when Judith Samuelson spoke to a group of approximately 60 students from HBS and other Harvard graduate schools who are interested in a greater role for business in resolving social and environmental problems.

Judith Samuelson is the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute?s Initiative for Social Innovation through Business (Aspen ISIB). Based in New York City, the mission of Aspen ISIB is “to increase the supply of business leaders who understand?and seek to balance?the complex relationship between business success and social and environmental progress.” Samuelson was brought to campus by the Consortium on Global Leadership, a young club at Harvard that is comprised of students from the business, law and Kennedy schools and seeks to foster leadership and dialogue on global issues through a multi-disciplinary approach.

One of the distinct parts of Samuelson?s speech was her analogy of the spheres of influence in business to different slices of pie. The first and plainest slice describes a business that is a good corporate citizen, pays its taxes, doesn?t pollute, places executives on non-profit boards, and believes in workforce development. The second slice describes business innovators, those corporations who have the above traits plus find creative ways to add value to society. Examples might be Starbucks offering great benefits to its hourly employees or Ben and Jerry?s supporting numerous environmental and social initiatives through its ice cream flavors.

The last slice of pie describes businesses that are social entrepreneurs, but not in the sense that we normally speak of a social entrepreneur at HBS. These are businesses that take risks to improve social well being, even at the risk of shareholder value. An example might be a multi-national company that exposes governmental corruption, and therefore loses future contracts, but forces a local government to be less corrupt. The question for us as future business leaders is, what type of company do we want to run, and what impact do we want to have on society?

The choice does not have to be that difficult. As Mardie Oakes (OH) reminded the audience, “Businesses that are environmentally smart can do better financially. For example, reducing waste means more efficiencies and lower costs…Students do not have to leave HBS believing that the choice to do well by doing good is always detrimental to your bottom-line.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Samuelson discussed a three-year survey of MBA students that will soon be published by Aspen ISIB. In the survey, the majority of MBA students stated that they expect at some point in their careers for their personal values to clash with the values of the firms in which they work, that they will feel significant stress by these incidents, and that they will want to leave their firms. Samuelson encouraged students to feel empowered if they face a situation in which they question the values of their firms and to make a conscious decision to make a positive difference rather than just walk away.

So often at HBS we focus solely on strategies and mechanisms to make profits grow. Especially in my second year, I?ve realized that the vibrant discussions I had during first year on the role of corporations are not as frequent. But soon we will all be in a position to wield the power of our firms to improve the social and environmental well being of our communities. I hope that if you read this article, you will take a moment to reflect on how you envision making a difference in your community through business.