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Redefining Business

Looking to the 2019-2020 Academic Year: Letter from the Executive Director

Dear Friends of the Center for Responsible Business:

The fall semester is off and running here at U.C. Berkeley and the halls of Haas are buzzing with energy.  As we have now entered a new academic year, I would like to offer some reflections and aspirations for the year ahead.  On a personal level, I recently celebrated my fifth anniversary here at U.C. Berkeley. I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished together but I must admit that I am increasingly impatient for us to collectively affect even greater change at a systems level.  It is exceedingly evident the American variety of capitalism is not working to ensure a sustainable future. We have an opportunity, and dare I say a responsibility, to tackle this head on at Berkeley.

The mission of the Center for Responsible Business (CRB) remains to develop leaders who redefine business for a sustainable future.  We are committed to our CRB strategy to identify focus areas and subsequent streams of activities based upon matching our greatest Global Challenges & Opportunities with areas of Berkeley Strength.  This has resulted in three focus areas for the CRB – Human Rights & Business (launched 2016), Sustainable Food (launched 2018), and Sustainable Innovation (launching 2019) – about which we have curated a suite of courses, events, Berkeley-Haas case studies, and collaborations.  These focus areas guide our work to attract strategically relevant Companies and Individuals to serve as our close partners and supporters.  Through this, the CRB is proud to have Patagonia (including Patagonia Provisions), Microsoft, Levi Strauss & Co., and General Mills Natural & Organic (including Annie’s) as our CRB company partners… and we have our eyes set on bringing in a couple more strategic partners.

With respect to Global Challenges & Opportunities, the CRB is working to usher greater engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at Haas and across U.C. Berkeley.  Recognized as the world’s largest materiality assessment, the SDGs represent a succinct expression of the world’s greatest challenges. The SDGs draw upon Planetary Boundaries from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and a number of other globally recognized initiatives that help to engender a common understanding of our greatest global challenges.  I have honestly been somewhat surprised at how slow the U.S. and U.S. universities have been to embrace the SDGs, which launched in 2015, in comparison to elsewhere in the world. I spend a period of time each year in the Nordic region, where the SDGs can be seen everywhere from government policy, business strategy, university communications and coursework, and all the way to childcare facilities where ways to address elements of the SDGs are taught to toddlers.  U.C. Berkeley can be a force to usher the SDGs into the U.S. context and serve as a platform for subsequent collaborations enabled through the common language of the SDGs.

Speaking of a common language and a significant effort to address our greatest global challenges, I have been so inspired by the establishment of the U.C. Berkeley Strategic Signature Initiatives.  Led by Chancellor Carol Christ, the initiatives created during 2018-19 asked the university the following essential questions of purpose: What are the issues facing our state, our nation, and our world that Berkeley is uniquely suited to address through its teaching and research?  The resultant answers are now codified as the UC-Berkeley Strategic Plan as the following six initiatives:    

1) Sustainability: Environmental Change, Sustainability, & Justice

2) Democracy: The Future of Democracy

3) Equality: Equality, Equity and Opportunity

4) Inclusive Intelligence: Artificial Intelligence in the Service of Science, Work and the Public Good

5) Health & Wellbeing: Charting a New Course to Health & Wellbeing

6) Public University: Public Research University of the Future

These are, by definition, areas of Berkeley Strength coupled with Global Challenges & Opportunities.  Because we had enacted this very approach as our own guiding strategy, the CRB is remarkably well positioned to ensure Haas is a conspicuously strong contributor to support our U.C. Berkeley strategy.  Please, take some time to study the U.C. Berkeley Strategic Signature Initiatives.  This gets at the heart of the very purpose of a public university.

As we look to the 2019-2020 academic year, the CRB is taking bold action.  As our longstanding Sustainable Investing & Finance focus area has been elevated to the level of our parent organization, the Institute for Business & Social Impact to enable even further collaborations across Haas, we then realized the opportunity to launch Sustainable Innovation as our newest focus area.  Considering the innovation ethos of the Bay Area, the concept of Open Innovation that was born at Berkeley Haas with Professor Henry Chesbrough, and our embracement and competencies in systems thinking, we will explore and inform how companies are utilizing sustainability as a driver for innovation.  We see incredible opportunity ahead to further leverage our Berkeley Strengths to realize solutions for a sustainable future through the Sustainable Innovation focus area.

I came to Berkeley five years ago from Copenhagen, Denmark because I believed, and continue to believe, that U.C. Berkeley presents the greatest potential we have to challenge the status quo of American capitalism and that Berkeley can assume a lead to usher in a new era of sustainable capitalism in the United States.  In the Nordics, I came to realize a very different model of capitalism that I found much closer to a version of sustainable capitalism than what I experienced in the U.S. Since the advent of the SDGs, Jeffrey Sachs and team releases an annual index of country level performances against the SDGs.  In each of the five years this report has been generated, the Nordics have dominated with Denmark as #1, Sweden as #2, and Finland as #3 in the most recent iteration.  One of the biggest differences I experienced is the willingness and ability to address systemic problems in the Nordics with systems thinking, whereas I have come to recognize that we have a tendency to push every problem in the U.S. onto the individual.  This is a huge problem when we consider the systemic challenges represented by the SDGs.

I have been working to capture the comparative lessons I have drawn in an in-progress book I am writing, “Sustainable Vikings: Nordic Leadership in Sustainable Capitalism.” In each of the upcoming months, I will publish a chapter from this in-progress book on the CRB blog.  This book will serve as the base text for the Haas undergraduate course I teach in the spring semester, “Sustainable Business in the Nordics”, and, come August 2020, I will utilize this text as part of a class through which I will lead a group of 70 Berkeley Haas Executive MBA students to the Nordics to explore sustainability in a Nordic context firsthand.  I warmly welcome your input along the way and the opportunity to discuss with you further.

These are trying times.  I have found that on any given day I oscillate from great hope to despair and back to hope in short order.  But I do tend to land on hope. And why?  It’s our students.  In addition to my children Mikkel and Jonas, it is our incredible students who give me such great hope.  I am inspired by our students with their talents, desires, and abilities to redefine business for a sustainable future.  The Business Roundtable recently announced their redefinition of the purpose of business.  I’ll just say that I am glad these American CEOs have finally caught up with our students who have long known that the purpose of business is much more than just profits.  As oxygen is to the body, profits are to the company: necessary for survival, but a pretty lousy thing for which to live.  

Our students demand that business fulfills a greater purpose.  And that gives me hope.

Onward!!!

Robert Strand, Ph.D.

Executive Director

Berkeley-Haas Center for Responsible Business

P.S. The CRB is a fully self-financed entity within a nonprofit university.  If you believe in our work and have the means to support us, please visit our donation page.  For major gift considerations, please contact me directly at rstrand@berkeley.eduThank you.

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