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“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, Christopher Marquis and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Companies can also prioritize businesses with women or people of color ownership in their purchasing and procurement processes. While there has been some attention to buying from Black-owned businesses following the George Floyd murder, I have not seen any companies roll out systematic programs. Many governments have such programs and companies should do so as well. […]

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Companies can also prioritize businesses with women or people of color ownership in their purchasing and procurement processes. While there has been some attention to buying from Black-owned businesses following the George Floyd murder, I have not seen any companies roll out systematic programs. Many governments have such programs and companies should do so as well.


As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Christopher Marquis.

Christopher Marquis is the Samuel C. Johnson Professor in Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University and author of BETTER BUSINESS: How the B Corp Movement Is Remaking Capitalism (Yale University Press, 2020). His research focuses on how businesses are creating more resilient and sustainable capitalism by focusing on the elusive triple bottom line of environmental, social and financial performance. Prior to joining Cornell, he worked for 10 years at Harvard Business School where he developed an award-winning course on social entrepreneurship and authored more than 50 Harvard business cases on sustainable business.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Sure, it is my pleasure! I grew up in a pretty standard US suburban environment in the 1970s and 1980s. Think of movies like ET where each house has a generous yard and young kids are able to ride their bikes around with a relative degree of freedom. But unlike ET, which was set in California, I grew up in Pittsburgh, and during that time there was significant economic distress, as the US steel industry, which was centered in Pittsburgh, collapsed. But unlike some other rustbelt cities, Pittsburgh was able to reinvent itself around healthcare and information technology. A big reason likely is because of the two large universities there, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. One of the unique features of the city I did not realize until later is that it has significant ethnic diversity from different European countries, with large communities of Italian, Irish (which is my ancestry), German, Polish and other Eastern European locales. I think that many of my interests in economic development and culture stem from the issues I saw and different people I interacted with during my upbringing.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One book that immediately jumps to mind is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This may surprise those who know me, but as I think back on all the books I have read, it is defiantly one that resonates the most strongly. I read it at least three or four times during my high school and college years; and remember how compelling I found it then. I lived for a year in Ireland and even went to England to visit Bath, where Austin lived and some of her books were set. While I don’t have any particular interest in Georgian era England, I think what drew me to this book is that it is deeply focused on social relations, social class interactions and cultural norms as displayed in manners. I later earned a Ph.D. in sociology, and studied some of these issues more formally, particularly in relation to more modern topics like corporate behaviors. I think we all have latent interests that shape us in ways that we don’t realize at the time, and focus our attention on certain topics versus others. I think Pride and Prejudice helped me understand some of my latent interests in life which have only become clearer later on.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Much of my academic research and teaching is on corporate responsibility and sustainability issues in China and, before COVID-19, I would spend 2–3 months a year in China. I think I think I am a relatively pragmatic person, and many Chinese people are relatively pragmatic which is one thing that draws me to working in China. I have two Chinese quotes that inspire and guide my work. The first is ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s quote that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” How I interpret that quote is that the key thing is to just start working on something. So many large projects may seem overwhelming and so paralyze people and prevent action. But this quote reminds us that it is important to just get started. Relatedly, a second more recent quote is Deng Xiaoping’s “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” When Deng came to lead China in the late 1970s he decided to transition the country from a fully planned economy to one that incorporated market elements; and this change has led to what is seen as the Chinese economic miracle. The idea of the quote is when crossing a river, you may not know how you will get to the other bank when you start, but you need to go step by step, find your way incrementally over time, from stone to stone. I think these two quotes encapsulate how I approach work. You don’t need to have a vision of how things will be in the end or the final product. Just get started and figure out the details as you go along, and be willing to pivot if needed.

How do you define “Leadership”? What makes a good leader?

I’ve thought a lot about leadership through my work. At Harvard Business School where I spent 10 years before Cornell, I taught the core leadership class many times. The idea of leadership, particularly in the business context is generally about being able to motivate a group of people toward some sort of common goal. What I liked about the approach at HBS is that we taught leadership as a very personal topic. Everyone is different as a leader, people have their own personalities, what they feel comfortable doing, and different strengths and weaknesses. Some may lead by inspiring speeches, some by a more reflective or democratic approach. So to be a good leader, it is important to know yourself. Secondly, however, it’s also important to be able to analyze and understand different situations that you find yourself or your company in. People that lead effectively are able to put themselves into the situations that best match their strengths, while also continuing to improve on the areas that are less strong.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

For me, when approaching stressful and high stakes meetings or talks, the key thing is to feel prepared on the topic. This includes starting preparations early and not waiting until the last minute. If I feel well-prepared, I usually am able to relax.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

I believe this is one of the most urgent issues in our world today and it is important to foster further discussions and solutions. However, I also want to recognize that as a white man, I am in a privileged position and so can’t say I have experienced the issues in as personal a way as others have. But still, I am very committed to better understand and do everything I can address the systemic issues that underlie racism in the USA and try to promote justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

You ask about the boiling point, and I think the first important thing to recognize is that the racial waters in the USA have always been close to boiling. From the founding of the USA, a slave economy was integral to the economic success and growth of our country; and even after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and other forms of systemic discrimination were created to perpetuate racism. While videos of events like the brutal murder of George Floyd and other people of color by the police have brought things to a head, these are not new problems; and that they happen every day in places where there are not citizens who capture them on film.

What we need to recognize is that we have deeply systemic problems in our culture and institutions that underly and continually reinforce racism. That is, even without overt racism and bias, the system is set up in a way to sustain white supremacy and thereby systematically discriminate against/oppress people in less privileged groups, especially people of color. Thus, changing the systems of our society and economy is essential, and indifference on the issue is tacitly accepting the racist systems that exist. Such structural changes that are necessary include reform of the justice system, police organizations, and also corporate structures and patterns of commerce in general.

In addition to structural reform, changing individual people’s behaviors is obviously crucial as well. We all have our implicit biases, it like the metaphor of fish not knowing what water is because they have never experienced anything else. This is racism in our country that has been deeply inculcated through culture. While it may be difficult to “remove bias” explicitly, what can be done is to identify behaviors that stem from and reflect bias and make it clear those are unacceptable. A resource I have found very helpful on this topic is Dr. Tiffany Jana’s Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

As an educator, researcher, writer, I think my main contributions are to bring awareness and understanding through those channels. The recent horrible events I mentioned above have shifted my work perspective on this topic and led me to address them in a more serious way.

At Cornell, I teach students who go on to be entrepreneurs and leaders of companies. While the goal of university admissions is diversity, as is the case at many elite schools, when I look out at my classes, a large proportion of the faces I see are white. I teach on socially responsible business and social entrepreneurship and I do cover diversity, equity and inclusion issues when discussing company culture and the importance of just employee practices. But to be honest, in the past this has mainly focused on the “benefits” of diversity i.e. research shows that diversity leads to creativity, better problem solving, etc. and not as much on the justice aspects. I have realized this does not get at the systemic root problems that exist in our workplaces and that I should and can go further. This year when I teach again, I have included new readings on my syllabus to address systemic racism in corporations and will discuss the topic in class.

When I did the research for my book on the B Corp movement, BETTER BUSINESS: How the B Corp Movement Is Remaking Capitalism, I asked many companies about their DEI work, especially their work on the Inclusive Economy Challenge run by B Lab, the organization that certifies B Corporations. In this challenge, companies identify DEI metrics they want to work on and improve and commit to reporting on their progress. Many companies I talked to expressed surprise and disappointment at how they had fared initially in this challenge and that despite being committed to creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive company, they still had problems and still found it hard to change. For instance, companies have HR policies and financial constraints that make it difficult to change many individuals’ pay dramatically, if for example women or people of color were being paid less than white men. But I give these companies credit for being open and transparent about these issues and also their work to remedy them. I discuss these topics in the book to hopefully provide examples to other companies to also focus on improving in DEI.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

The core reason is justice, and I don’t think the importance of this can be overstated. As I mentioned above, the structures and implicit biases in our society have created a situation of systemic racism and also gender discrimination. The system is unjust and needs to change. While so much of the remedies to these issues discussed today focus on public policies, governmental changes, and work at the individual person level, I think more attention should be paid to companies. After all, as employers of the vast majority of workers in the USA, companies are the critical motors of inequality in our society. So, one theme of my teaching is that business has a responsibility to address these issues.

But even for companies or leaders that may not share my beliefs, there is a strong economic case for diversity too. Significant research across many disciplines has shown that workplace diversity and inclusion can significantly affect both individual-level and company performance. More diverse teams create better and more creative solutions and leads to better employee engagement overall.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader and educator. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

I will focus on what companies can do since that is my area of work and also as I just noted, I believe more needs to be done to bring attention to how business can help create a more just, equitable, diverse and inclusive society:

  1. The first thing is to systematically measure, track and report how the business is doing in regards to DEI issues. Like I mentioned above, even many companies that are very socially responsible on many dimensions learn they fall short when they actually look at the data. Because of the systematic nature of discrimination, differences can arise through very innocent reasons and then become magnified over time. Every company is different and so such work will allow them to better understand what solutions are necessary for their organization.
  2. Second is to commit to structural changes in management and leadership. Executive suites throughout the USA are overwhelmingly white and male. Businesses need to be proactive in getting more women and people of color into the executive ranks. This cannot be done with wishful thinking and talk alone but there must be specific plans and goals, such as committing to adding diverse leaders to positions of importance.
  3. Companies need to also help employees learn about implicit biases, and what is acceptable behavior in the workplace v. not. Work along these lines could be reading and discussing important books like those by Ibram X. Kendi and Tiffany Jana mentioned above, and also bringing in training resources. There are many companies providing DEI awareness training these days.
  4. Companies can also prioritize businesses with women or people of color ownership in their purchasing and procurement processes. While there has been some attention to buying from Black-owned businesses following the George Floyd murder, I have not seen any companies roll out systematic programs. Many governments have such programs and companies should do so as well.
  5. Companies should also use their platform to bring awareness and attention to these important issues in society and the political realm. For example Ben & Jerry’s has done this to much success, creating ice cream flavors such as Justice ReMix’d which draws attention to issues of racial injustices in the criminal system, and the company also has issued statements calling on politicians to address white supremacy.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I’m a generally optimistic person so I do believe that things will improve but I don’t think they’ll ever truly be resolved. The issues of racial injustice and discrimination that shape our world, particularly in the United States are so deeply ingrained in society, that I think it is impossible to ever “resolve” it. As I have discussed above, it stems from our history of slavery and how our social, economic and political systems are all deeply tied to white supremacy.

But the fact that it is significantly on the agenda these days does give me hope that we will all be able to improve as individuals, business leaders and as a society more generally. But we have to take the topic and commitment very seriously and continually work on it. That is the only way to change a systemic problem, through rigorous attention and action. Particularly for companies, the 5 steps I listed right above are important ways to do that.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I think it would be Barak Obama; I hope that you tagging him results in that meeting! Obviously, one reason why I would want to meet him is to understand how he led our country in the face of significant opposition. But also, even more, interesting to me is how he sees his current work and decides how to best use his platform and influence to make an impact today and in the future. For instance, he and Michele Obama founded a movie production company that co-produced the Academy Award-winning documentary American Factory, which I found to be very compelling window into understanding US-China relations, which is more important now than ever. This is a unique path for a former President to take, but does reflect the power of video as a communication medium in our present day. Incidentally, the other producer of American Factory was Participant Media, which is a B Corp.

How can our readers follow you online?

Sure, there are many ways: First, they can take a look at my personal website, and in particular the page on my new book Better Business. Some of my recent research on these topics are on Forbes and Medium. And readers can also connect with me on LinkedIn, and follow me on Twitter.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you! I truly appreciate your interest in my work and also drawing attention to these incredibly important topics.

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