Wisdom//

A Challenge to America’s Businesses

"Imagine if each company committed to address one public challenge, drawing on their comparative advantages to make a significant difference, over at least a decade."

SFIO CRACHO / Shutterstock
SFIO CRACHO / Shutterstock

The recent statement by the Business Roundtable redefining the purpose of a corporation to promote “an economy that serves all Americans” was a bold and welcomed step.  It affirmed the shared commitment of nearly 200 CEOs and the companies they lead to “deliver value to our customers”, “invest in our employees”, “deal fairly and ethically with our suppliers”, “support the communities in which we work”, and “generate long-term value for shareholders”.  

Some read the shift away from simply maximizing shareholder value as inspiring; others saw it as misguided.  I see it as an important first step in an environment of the lowest levels of trust in each other and in institutions in generations and a culture that needs strong affirmation that these core American values actually matter.

For the critics who invoke Adam Smith, it is good to remember that Smith not only wrote the Wealth of Nations, but also the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and taught the same substance to the same students for a dozen years.  

Now that America’s leading corporations have redefined their purpose, I want to propose an idea drawn from experience – to challenge each corporation to define one public challenge that they commit to address over at least 10 to 15 years, the minimum time horizon needed for transformational change beyond political cycles.

For more than a decade, AT&T has been working to address the high school dropout challenge.  Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson announced the AT&T Aspire initiative to “work toward an America where every student graduates high school equipped with the knowledge and skills to strengthen the nation’s workforce.”  In addition to investing $500 million in evidence-based solutions to the dropout challenge and to strengthen the school to work pipeline, AT&T also mobilized many of its 260,000 employees to mentor students and connect what they were learning in school to the world of work.  

Through this investment, AT&T looks ahead to the next generation of employees they will hire, and offers students the opportunity to gain technical qualifications and expertise, learn human first skills like leadership, collaboration and empathy and — most of all — give underserved and underrepresented people access to gaining a foothold in a company like theirs.

AT&T committed to address this daunting public challenge over more than a decade with a comprehensive strategy that reflects AT&T’s comparative advantage to help with resources, its people, technology, and innovation.  They supported education becoming a stronger “data-driven enterprise,” while recognizing the power of caring adult mentors and tutors who help create a culture where every student counts.

AT&T’s commitment enabled a consortium of partners to develop a “civic marshal plan” of action that engaged educators, nonprofit leaders, and policymakers in a sustained effort to reach a national goal; supported evidence-based community nonprofits, such as Communities In Schools and City Year, to expand their reach into the very high schools where we lose the most students; and unleashed Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance to organize more than 200 summits in all 50 states to prompt awareness and concrete plans of action to boost graduation rates.   

Public media, from the PBS News Hour and National Public Radio to more than 125 affiliates, joined the effort and have launched three rounds of “American Graduate” to raise awareness, use their convening power, and help keep the nation, states and districts accountable for progress over time.

The Business Roundtable has shown the collective power of America’s corporations to commit to core American values.  Imagine if each company committed to address one public challenge, drawing on their comparative advantages to make a significant difference, over at least a decade.  America would be a very different place, as it is now with 3.5 million more students having graduated from high school rather than dropping out, with better paths to college, the workforce, and the American Dream.  

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