Musings on books, technology, entrepreneurship, nonprofits and umm.. everything else …

Over the last weekend, we went over several interesting case-inspired discussions in our social impact class at Wharton over a morning session on one day and a marathon 4.5 hr session on another. We kicked off the weekend with a case on the Norwegian Sovereign Fund divesting itself of Walmart a few years ago.  We spoke about what the company could have done and what the fund could have done that might have caused different outcomes. This led to an engaging conversation around socially responsible investing and the spectrum between silent responsible investing vs. active shareholder advocacy. We followed this up with COSCO and sustainability reporting in a Chinese State Owned Enterprise setting. Along with the Merck river blindness case, these provided a good juxtaposition to explore “do no harm” as an approach towards corporate social responsibility vs. “do good” as an approach. Thomas Dunfee’s work provided a good set of questions to ponder over in this context as well.

We moved on from this discussion to the next logical extension – doing business while doing good. In this context, we discussed One World Health and their business model, as well as Unilever and their Project Shakti campaign in India. We spoke about what it means to be a BoP customer in terms of quality and unit of consumption of product, and discussed how distribution models could inherently have empowering positive externalities – for example by working through women’s self help groups. For me, Aneel Karnani’s work on the myth of BoP marketing was bang on target in terms of several issues that he identified as legitimate reasons to be cautious about jumping on the BoP bandwagon without really understanding the nuances involved.

In the closing hour of the lecture portion of the course, we moved on from these specific cases to the more abstract notion of where to act, given all these different ways in which an individual or company could contribute towards social impact. In this context, some of Prof. Hsieh’s earlier work on a Rawlsian approach to business organizations provides an interesting backgrounder.

Watercolor portrait of John Rawls by Mardy Rawls

In this work Prof. Hsieh discusses whether multi-national corporations have a responsibility to provide aid to employees in developing nations over and beyond what the market might prescribe. Should they be held up to the same human rights standards as nation states? At a personal responsibility level, he also talks about the “natural duty” to support and further just institutions. What I found interesting here was also how by elevating the “social good doer” as a “role model” or a “social enterprise” or a “CSR activity” as individuals and corporations we are able to go ahead with our business as usual in our daily lives. Putting Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. King on a pedestal makes it easier to say how it is not easy for an ordinary human being to stand up for what they think is right. Classifying the Norwegian Fund or REDF or other socially responsible investing initiatives as “outside the norm” exonerates our businesses from attempting to conduct themselves better. As Prof. Hsieh pointed out in class, the “social impact” of a large fraction of companies making small changes to their business practices would overwhelm any changes brought by a much smaller chunk of impact investing dollars. Towards that end, it was interesting and impactful to see the discussion converge towards what are the different things we can do as individuals and as employees in corporations. A final thought that came to mind was that of Viktor Frankl as I read his “Man’s Search for Meaning”. I believe that we should do what we find meaning and fulfillment in, and the value for society will follow. At some level meaning is embedded in our connection to the community around us so doing something we find meaningful should, more often than not, lead to social good as well.

Fascinating course overall. We now have one more weekend of classes where we as teams of students go over project presentations on our chosen organizations and discuss them in the context of what we learnt in class.

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