There once was a Business Leader who imagined that business could be a force for good in society. “Business doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game with winners and losers,” she thought to herself, “business can bring out the best out of all of us and be a tool to find creative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems!”
I should start by confessing that over the past three years I have been wholly dedicated to an entrepreneurial venture. I frame this as a confession because I’ve spent most of my academic and professional life focused on international development, involved in initiatives ranging from microfinance to workforce development and grassroots politics.
The circles I have frequented tend to have the predisposition that Midas’ touch converts everything to gold, destroying life in the process.
Reflecting upon the cognitive dissonance generated from being both historically anti-business and undeniably in business now has lead me to the broader tension between business, society, and morality. In various forms, this has been a central concern from the inception of the idea of capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries, as economist Albert Hirschman lays out in The Passions and the Interests.
The invisible hand was hoped to be a force for good — leading people to unknowingly work to the benefit of others. In more recent times, we’ve heard about B Corps, BoP Protocol, Corporate Social Responsibility, Fair Trade, inclusive markets, the Triple Bottom Line, Responsible Capitalism, Social Business and an endless list of other terms which present a claim for a way of running business that is good for business and for society. Recently, leading business thinker and strategist Michael Porter has joined the chorus by arguing for a new paradigm: Creating Shared Value.
For critics, these repeating calls of a business for good sounds like Aesop’s fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It is one thing to say, ‘We’re conducting business differently’ and it is another for it to be believed. This skepticism is augmented by cases where companies have made a PR move focused on appearances rather than substances. Skeptics are thus dubious of the motivations of any business working with the community.
But business does not have to be a zero sum game. There are exceptional individuals in the business world that are undoubtedly a tremendous force for good.
Reflecting on my experience, I would suggest a faith in karma pays dividends. We’ve gone from small scale societies where everyone knows each other and what they have done to anonymous metropolitan spaces with highly mobile individuals, and now the pendulum is swinging back. In an increasingly hyper-connected world, information and reputation spreads easily as Guy Vaynerchuk’s highlights in his discussion of personal branding.
My business has worked hard to maintain ties with the nonprofit sector that I came from. Initially, it was just pro-bono work and a way to keep my feet on both sides of the fence. We started offering our services at no cost to organizations like the International Federation for the Red Cross and Red Crescent without any objective, just thinking it was the right thing to do. This decision has led to a testimonial, new commercial leads, an International Project of the Year Employee Engagement Award and even mention in Harvard Business Review. This could not have worked out better if I had planned it. Not only because I could not have predicted it, but more importantly because such a transactional and strategic approach would have killed the sequence before it had even begun.
The central take away from the Shared Value approach is that we each have different things to offer and different needs at any particular moment. The cynical interpretation of this is that business can reap the money while claiming to provide others some nebulous value.
The wiser approach, for all involved, is to explore the multitude of things we have to offer in partnership.