SEBA's Annual Global Economic Forum Explores Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability

Saint Mary’s College of California School of Economics and Business Administration (SEBA), in association with the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, hosted the 3rd Annual Global Economic Forum on Wednesday, November 14, in partnership with the Elfenworks Center for the Study of Fiduciary Capitalism and the Graduate Business Alumni Council. This year’s distinguished panel explored the question: “Corporate Social Responsibility in a Post-Crisis World: Realities, Challenges and Solutions?”

Dr. Shyam Kamath, SEBA’s associate dean of Graduate Business and Global Programs, and Dr. Jim Hawley, professor and director of the Elfenworks Center for the Study of Fiduciary Capitalism, served as moderators and introduced the three panelists to the 100+ people in the audience.

The panelists included: Dr. Peter Graf, chief sustainability officer and executive vice president of SAP, who oversees strategy and innovation for sustainability solutions and operations; Michael E. Fox, Jr., president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Silicon Valley, a not-for-profit organization that provides job training, employment placement services and other community-based programs for people who have a disability, lack education or job experience, or face employment challenges; and Kapil Sharma, senior general manager – North America for Tata Sons, who manages the North America office of Tata Sons, the $90 billion Indian multinational conglomerate that operates in more than 80 countries with a global workforce of over 425,000.

This year’s global economic forum focused on deep discussions about corporate social responsibility. Graf began the discussion by responding to Hawley’s questions about the Euro crisis and what it portends for the world economy, especially the developed world and the United State, and about the role of corporate social responsibility in the world economy. He provided seven major “statements” in response (see video for detailed explanations):

  1. There is no viable political or economical alternative to European integration.
  2. The euro is designed as a one-way street.
  3. The euro crisis represents the dilemma of political leaders worldwide. Political leaders know exactly what needs to be done, but if they do so they will not be re-elected.
  4. Sustainability is the biggest transformation of force in play today. You can compare it to globalization or the arrival of the Internet - it changes everything.
  5. Sustainability is easy but it needs to compete with all the other businesses cases within the company.
  6. Sustainability must happen at the core of value creation. If you do not tie it to the core of how the company is valued, you will not be able to transform the business. (Example: SAP - software creation; Coca-Cola - marketing; Walmart-supply chain). There is a growing trend in combining sustainability reports with annual reports. This is very important because it is an integrated report that is a result of integrated thinking.
  7. The success of those businesses that lead depends on you. In the past, when watching TV or reading the paper, you were essentially alone. But now, with the Internet, the decisions we used to make alone become social - who we work for, what we consume are social phenomena. “It’s on us to change what’s happening (who we work for, where we invest our money, who we vote for, what we consume).”

Sharma from Tata Sons was asked about the the future of India and China, as well as what role multinational corporations like the Tata Group play in leading corporate change to a cleaner, more transparent and responsible business world? Sharma first took time to talk about Tata Group and its approach to sustainability. There are 100 companies, with $100 billion in revenue and 420,000 employees worldwide, with 60 % of the revenue coming from outside of India. Sharma said, “Corporate diversity has allowed us to look at different geographies in a different way.” He went on to explain that each country in Asia is unique in social, business, development needs and cultural norms. China has been battling a slowdown in growth and a change in leadership and is in a race for commodities and energy with India. Japan is close to falling into another recession, according to the Wall Street Journal. Indian growth has slowed down due to politics. The government must develop policies to create 800,000 jobs per month to maintain its current growth. The rest of South Asia must create 200,000 jobs per month. Even during this economic slowdown, India is still growing at 4-5% annually, China at 7%. Sharma said, “Economists in Asia predict that by 2100, 40% of world trade will be just between India and China alone so, yes, prospects for India and China look good!”

Fox from Goodwill Industries spoke about how the financial crisis in the United States was not one particular industry’s doing, but rather a “partnership,” a “shared responsibility." Specifically, Fox said, it is “the partnership of government, the financial industry, speculators, home buyers, and consumers. Then you add the tools of globalization and technology, and you have a culmination of decades of successful collaboration.” He compared the financial crisis to a plane crash. "Although there are a lot of redundancies built into aviation safety, there’s not one thing that causes a crash but a collection of inconsequential errors that begin small, building on each other to an out-of-control situation resulting in denial, panic and disaster.”

When asked about implementing sustainability on a large scale, Graf spoke passionately about how to implement it within a company in a practical way. He said, “Companies must ask themselves ‘What is my purpose?’ " He cited the example of Nestle, which changed its purpose from being a "food company" to a company offering "health and well being." "If you regard yourself as an "oil company," you will act differently than if you regarded yourself as a "mobility company," he said. "That’s the kind of thinking that usually starts with one person. You have the ability to see the bigger picture- that’s what it takes. These companies will change in time because you will force them to change based on the way you view and use their products. It comes down to: How do you define your business? It’s about what is your mission in life? ... Once you think that way everything changes.”

Ryan Thompson (SEBA alumnus, ‘97) commented, “This is the third Global Economic Forum I’ve attended, and I’m continually fascinated by how the panelists approach such diverse and complex subjects. It’s fascinating to see how differently they think, and yet still find common ground, based on shared core values. In this particular forum, I was impressed by the depth of the conversation about social responsibility. You often hear peoople/companies preach about this as if they are ‘checking a box’ to avoid negative perceptions, so I was encouraged to hear how these companies have authentically melded social responsibility into their core business model in a way which serves everyone’s interests (society, employees, shareholders).”

This event, pioneered by leaders from the Saint Mary’s College San Francisco Graduate Business Alumni Council, is one of many efforts by  SEBA to encourage people to embrace global and responsible business perspectives.

- For a photo recap of the event, click here.

- To view the recorded video of the event, click here.

About Saint Mary’s School of Economics and Business Administration

Founded in 1863, Saint Mary’s College of California is a cornerstone institution of the San Francisco bay area.  After nearly 150 years, with a network of more than 40,000 alumni worldwide, Saint Mary’s tradition of educational excellence is stronger than ever. The School of Economics and Business Administration’s vision is to be an internationally recognized business and economics school for developing individuals who think globally and lead responsibly. Small class sizes facilitate collaboration, accessibility, and engaging discussions with our distinguished faculty, and an interactive learning environment focused on practical business knowledge, serves to provide our students with the maximum return on their investment.

About the Commonwealth Club of California
The Commonwealth Club of California is the nation's oldest and largest public affairs forum. The mission of The Commonwealth Club of California is to be the leading national forum open to all for the impartial discussion of public issues important to the membership, community and nation. They bring over 400 annual events on topics ranging across politics, culture, society and the economy to 16,000 members. The Club has offices in San Francisco and San Jose, with regular events in both cities, as well as programs in Lafayette in the East Bay. For members outside the Bay Area, the Club's weekly radio broadcast—the oldest in the U.S., dating back to 1924—is carried across the nation on public and commercial radio stations.