DAVOS, Switzerland — When I visit university campuses, I’m periodically asked if students who seek jobs in the business world are immoral, money-grubbing sellouts.
I don’t think they are, for businesses can be a hugely important force for progress. Can be, but usually aren’t. Swirling in the air here in Davos at the World Economic Forum, along with snowflakes, is an important discussion of how companies must do far more to benefit the 99 percent, not just the 1 percent. Enriching shareholders is not enough.
We interrupt this column for a paragraph of cynicism. Tycoons always claim to cherish ordinary people’s best interests even as they rip them off. U.S. tobacco executives have killed more people than Stalin managed to, and pharma executives recklessly peddling opioids may have killed as many people as Colombian drug lords, yet these business leaders sometimes seem to get moist-eyed describing the work they do.
But the business toolbox is too important to give up on. To me, the most interesting people in Davos aren’t the presidents or celebrities, but the social entrepreneurs — those using business tools to address social problems — and their work offers an inspiring window into what can be accomplished.
Christopher Mikkelsen works with two dozen companies, including cellphone operators and Facebook, to help refugees find lost members of their families. His organization, Refunite, once helped two Congolese sisters find each other after 16 years; they turned out to be living just a few miles apart in Nairobi.
Refunite is now helping more than 1 million refugees search for missing family members. It has already helped 40,000 of them connect, and Mikkelsen says this would never be possible if it were just an aid group rather than a hybrid piggybacking on business networks.
Sasha Kramer works in Haiti to address two fundamental problems: a lack of toilets and declining soil fertility. Her organization, SOIL, charges customers a few dollars a month to provide and service composting toilets that turn human waste into safe agricultural fertilizer. The cost is one-third of what a sewage system would cost to operate.
In Kenya, Christie Peacock tackles a huge problem for farmers: Much of the feed, medicine and other agricultural supplies for sale are fake or substandard, including about 60 percent of the fertilizer. When farmers buy fake seeds, their crops fail, and they go hungry.
Peacock previously worked in the aid world, but, she says, “I got disillusioned with the NGO model,” so her company, Sidai, is a for-profit venture founded with startup capital from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
That’s the advantage of a business approach: It is often more sustainable and scalable than a charity. By working with African farmers to improve coffee production, Starbucks helps lift more people out of poverty than any number of aid efforts.
What’s driving the rethink isn’t a tingling of the tycoon conscience but brutal self-interest. Millennials want to work for ethical companies, patronize brands that make them feel good and invest in socially responsible companies.
Doing good is no longer a matter of writing a few checks at the end of the year, as it was for my generation; for many young people, it’s an ethos that governs where they work, shop and invest.
CEOs tell me that this forces their hand. Increasingly, a company that ignores social value loses shareholder value.
When companies with hundreds of thousands of employees elevate women, fight for Dreamers, adopt environment-friendly packaging, when they serve not only shareholders but also the larger society, the impact can be transformational. But enough with the gauzy rhetoric. It’s time for businesses to walk the talk.