Days before being sworn in as the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy urged, “To whom much is given, much is required… At some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each of us—recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities.”
I don’t know if my grandmother realized she was echoing JFK, but she loved that lesson: “to whom much is given, much is expected.” It was her constant refrain during my childhood, and at some point I internalized the ideals of servant leadership and developed an abiding urge to contribute to a better world.
I know many of my peers feel similarly. According to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management, 94% of millennials want to use their skills to benefit a cause. This passion is consistently evident at Berkeley-Haas, and that drive brought me and a group of my classmates to the 2017 Net Impact Conference – looking for answers and opportunities.
At the Conference, it was exciting to hear from private sector leaders who reflected a vision and commitment to create positive change through business. I was especially impressed by companies that were willing to act as leaders – bringing together coalitions, inspiring action, and enabling other organizations to join their efforts.
At Levi Strauss & Co., Becca Prowda, Director of Community Affairs, shared that employees “push themselves to choose the hard right over the easy wrong.” The LS&Co. Collaboratory is one example of the company’s profits-through-principles ethos, and recognizes that LS&Co. can help lead “lasting change [that only] happens when we work together.” Now in its second year, the Collaboratory is bringing together entrepreneurs committed to reducing the climate impact of the apparel industry. These entrepreneurs are given invaluable access to industry insights, mentorship, outside experts, LS&Co. leaders, and a community of like-minded peers, and have the opportunity to receive grant funding from LS&Co. to implement an idea that reduces the climate impact of their organization or the apparel industry.
David Oclander, the Director of Global Social Impact at Starbucks, explained that Starbucks made the decision to “lead by example.” Starbucks started the Opportunity Youth partnership, which now includes more than 50 employers seeking to “bridge the opportunity divide for the 4.9 million Americans ages 16 to 24 who are out of school and not working.” Oclander noted that the initiative’s opportunity fairs can transform communities; for example, a recent fair in Washington, D.C. engaged nearly 7,000 youth.
Ben & Jerry’s is another company committed to leading change, perhaps on an unexpected issue – racial equity. In one of the most poignant panels at the conference, Dominique Derbigny, Associate Director at Prosperity Now, calmly shared the stunning statistics. White households have a median net worth of $127,200, while for households of color it’s only $17,600. 71% of white households are homeowners, compared to only 41% of Black households and 45% of Latino households. Wealth and homeownership create opportunities for families, and these inequities are only increasing. Jeffrey Furman, Chairman of the Board of Ben & Jerry’s, recognized that there’s a “fear factor” inhibiting private sector involvement with racial equity initiatives, but he asserted that “our company would be irrelevant if we didn’t take a stand.”
Reflecting on my experience at the 2017 Net Impact Conference, I am inspired by companies including Levi Strauss & Co., Starbucks, and Ben & Jerry’s that are leading incredible initiatives. However, the Conference also served as a reminder that these challenges can be intractable and exceedingly complex. Each contributor can only do so much, and progress may be too slow to help the many individuals who desperately need change today. These limitations are not an excuse to disengage, but rather an opportunity to recommit with even greater fervor – because “much is expected.”
Abby O’Reilly serves as a student advisory board member for the Center for Responsible Business. She is currently pursuing her MBA at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, focusing on corporate sustainability. Prior to Berkeley, Abby was a strategy consultant supporting clients across industries and sectors. Her work included sustainable supply chain operations, social impact measurement, and inclusive business strategy in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Abby also worked with the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program. She graduated from the University of Virginia with a focus in finance and management.