Kicking-off Season 2: A look back, a big thank you, and a look ahead


Welcome to Season 2 of the Purpose Inc. Podcast.

This episode is a look back, a gigantic thank you to my guests from season one and a look ahead to season two.

Michael Young:

Welcome to the Purpose, Inc., the podcast where we discuss corporate purpose and stakeholder capitalism. I'm your host, Michael Young.

And we're off. Hello again. This is the first episode of season two of the Purpose, Inc. Podcast. I'm Michael Young and it's great to be back in the studio. I've taken a break from season one and I'm now kicking off season two.

So, it's great to be back in front of a microphone and I'm really excited about the second season of Purpose, Inc. and what I want to do here is lay out some of the topics that I want to discuss in season two but also take a moment to look back at season one and highlight what I've learned and share some of the key insights of season one from my guests because many of those takeaways are, in fact, the starting point in the continuation of the discussion for season two.

When I started the podcast back in January of 2020 this year which seems like lifetimes ago, at that point, Davos was wrapping up and corporate purpose and sustainability and stakeholder capitalism were seemingly firmly on the agenda. And then in March, kaboom, out of nowhere, COVID, global recession, millions unemployed and then a few months go by, and we're reeling from that. And then we have the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the Black Lives Matters protests and calls for real change around systemic racism.

The thought of corporate purpose was interesting and important and vital before all of this. It literally morphed into then the most important conversation that we're having right now about the role of society, the role of the corporation in society. And in season one, I spoke to some incredible leaders and thinkers and doers in the space of corporate purpose and sustainability in ESG, folks that are on the front lines of helping organizations both internally and from the outside to move toward a more inclusive and just form of capitalism. And I'm incredibly grateful to each of those guests for engaging with me in this important dialogue.

I just wanted to take a quick moment to review each of those guests and talk briefly about what they shared and some of them will probably be getting calls to come back. They're all getting calls for referrals and a number of them have already provided me with referrals for season two.

When I started the podcast and it sort of was like moving, right? What do you do when you don't know what to do? Well, you call a friend, right?

So, and the first friend I called was Anthony Goodman who's in the board advisory practice at Russell Reynolds. And I basically just called him and he generously stepped up and offered to come on the podcast and share his thoughts about the role of the board in achieving corporate purpose. And Russell Reynolds does every year some proprietary research around board trends and this idea of diversity on the board which is a big idea anyway but it really came to embody one of the more important questions about corporations and who's running the board and what's the diversity of the board. So, that was actually again, a very prescient conversation and one that I planned to revisit specifically about the board. So, Anthony came on and really broke that down for me.

Next up was Balaji Ganapathy who's the global head of CSR at Tata Consultancy Services, the big global IT consultancy. And we talked about that his organization's efforts to help marginalized communities learn new skills and new digital thinking and talked a lot about the philanthropy work that they do around STEM. And Balaji, really lit the path for me in many ways around a lot of big ideas in corporate purpose and he actually landed one of the more memorable sound bites that purpose is the new tech. And I'm actually going to, they've done a Pitch for Purpose program and I hope to have the winner of that startup competition on the podcast this year. So, more from TCS for sure.

Then back to asking friends for help, an old colleague and a former client, Josh Gosliner who was then at Juvo. We talked about how Juvo's using cell phone data to build credit history so the unbanked and underbanked in the developing world can get access to mainstream financial services as opposed to usurious money lender a money lending in many, many parts of the world.

Then another lucky break, Alice Korngold, author and consultant and speaker, author of the book, A Better World, Inc. on how corporations can solve the world's problems and we had just a really broad and open-ended conversation about the role of corporations. And I remember asking Alice if corporations can be trusted and she said point blank no which then opens up a whole another set of questions about how we need to measure corporate purpose and corporate action.

Caroline Rees from Shift who's a real expert in human rights and she really unpacked human rights as they relate to corporations and the actions that corporations take and the impact on vulnerable populations. And she also landed the idea that business models must align with purpose and that's a theme I heard numerous times. But Caroline really helped me really understand that.

Next up, Tom Szaky who's just an absolute pioneer in in recycling. He's the CEO and founder of TerraCycle which has been working on the elimination of waste for a long time. And one of the things he said that I really thought was interesting is that the goal in reducing waste is not to change consumer behavior so much but to try to build systems around consumers that give them sustainable choice. And so, another one of those big ideas from season one.

Then Linda Seabrook from Futures Without Violence came on to talk about and this was just as COVID was really kind of just starting to take off and rage across the country. And Linda talked about how at-risk employees are even more at risk in the age of COVID and what employers need to do and be aware of and watch for as they observe their employees in this new world and indeed the struggles that that women in particular and women of color face around violence in the workplace and at home and domestic violence. So, a really, really powerful conversation with Linda.

Then Gabriela Burian came on and Gabriela’s from Bayer Crop Science and we discussed ways that her organization is using technology to help small stakeholder farmers. And again, it was a one of those moments in time where the global food system was starting to creak and break under the burden of COVID but also, an important conversation around food production in the developing world and climate change. So, Gabriela really unpacked a lot of big ideas around agriculture and food and small holder farmers around the world. So, that was a really incredible conversation.

I talked to Alison Omens of JUST Capital on how they do research on how organizations are actually performing relative to their commitments for sustainability. And in fact, as COVID was again taking hold and taking effect, organizations that had greater commitments to their employees during COVID were outperforming their peers and were doing just a better job of managing their near-term and long-term risk.

Alzbeta Klein from The International Finance Corporation which is part of the World Bank came on to talk about the work they do in investing in smart energy and why that is the key to climate change especially in the developing world. We talked a lot about cities and the built environment there. So, that was a real eye-opener and a global perspective.

And then Ashley Szofer from STEM Connector came on to talk about the work her organization does in connecting corporations to K through 12 and higher ed STEM programs especially in underserved communities and that was a referral from the folks at TCS.

So, Ellen Jackowski from HP, next up, came on to talk about the work that HP is doing to reduce plastics and recycle plastics in particular and capturing post-consumer plastic. It's what many refer to as ocean-bound plastics, right? So, capturing those at the post-consumer level and then using those materials and putting those back into their products.

And so, that was kind of the first half of the season right there and then right at this point, the murder of George Floyd happened and issues of racism and inequality and excessive violence against African-Americans in particular just came right back center stage. And so, it was right around this time that I talked to Grady Crosby, the chief diversity officer of Johnson Controls, the big firm up in Milwaukee. And we talked specifically about the role that corporations play in society and why corporations as citizens, as entities, they are given and have special powers and with that special power comes special responsibilities and that we must judge corporate citizens by higher standards. And so, that was a really, really important conversation this year.

And then Leslie Slaton Brown, the chief diversity officer of HP came on to talk about how corporations must play a role in addressing diversity and injustice internally and externally and why culture is the driving force for change. So, again, another just incredibly grateful to have had that conversation.

And then I was again, scrolling through, maybe doom-scrolling Twitter but I saw this this article in Quartz and the title was “The Corporate Social Responsibility Facade is Starting to Crumble.” And I thought okay, there's an idea I want to unpack. And so, I got in touch with the author of that piece, Alison Taylor who's the executive director of ethical systems at NYU Stern. And she just came on and really just nailed the issue about the fact that values and purpose and transparency are one thing but if an organization is lobbying governments and regulators to avoid penalties and taxes and disclosure and accountability, the kinds of things that purpose and transparency actually call for, that's kind of a problem. So, again, a really, really powerful perspective there.

Erik Wohlgemuth, the COO from Future 500 then came on to talk about how corporations can and must form relationships with stakeholders. And we talked about a lot of research on this but Future 500's Force for Good Forecast is a real authoritative body of research and analysis on issues and topics and trends and indeed flash points around ESG, environmental, social and governance. And so, we got deeply into that and Erik’s been a great friend to the podcast.

Chris Coulter from GlobeScan again came on to talk about the connection between reputation, brand and stakeholder engagement and Chris is an author and has been writing about the connection between corporate reputation and corporate leadership for a very long time.

Geri Cupi, a London-based entrepreneur and startup came on the podcast to talk about how his firm is using technology to bring greater accountability to the fashion industry, an industry which consumes a tremendous amount of energy and water. And so, how that industry is actually looking to technology for better solutions.

Brandon Peele from Ion Learning came on and again, another critical analysis of purpose-led corporate culture. And Brandon talked about the perils and pitfalls of what he refers to as shallow purpose and organizations that just attempt to fake it and that was definitely an issue and a topic and a theme that we looked at last year and we're going to get into again this year.

Melissa Anderson, the founder and president of Public Good Software came on to talk about how her organization connects consumers to social action at the point of news consumption. So, to reading an article, you can actually connect to a charitable cause through the partnerships they have with publishers and brands. So, that was that was a really cool thing.

And then William LaBar from the tech consultancy, CGI came on to talk about how that organization is connecting with STEM education and also building future focused tech workforces in small town America and so, this overlay between where work is happening and the nature of work. And so, a really great conversation with Will LaBar.

And then finally, I wrapped the season with Meg Parker Young who was then at Thomson Reuters but she's since moved on. But Meg came on to talk about the UN sustainable development goal 16 which is and again, not one I knew much about but absolutely turns out to be one of the most expansive and important of the SDGs especially in a modern information led society in a knowledge-based society in which we live. So, that was it. I was telling somebody when I thought about this podcast, when I started, I was hoping to do 10 episodes in season one. That was 22. So, I did 22 episodes with again just some incredible guests.

And really I just want to maybe quickly summarize the big takeaways, right? The things that I think are going to be themes and thematics that I want to continue to investigate and interrogate and unpack with guests here in season two.

So, at the top, every organization, I think one of the things is must live a higher purpose and right related to that is the tone indeed must be aligned. It's this walking the walk idea and purpose can't just be something that leaders are are talking to one another about in the executive suite and congratulating themselves on it at meetings. It has to be lived. It has to be from the top and top down and bottom up and within every organization.

And really central to that is that sustainability and purpose and business models need to be aligned. There can be no virtuous side hustles and there can be no zero-cost virtue signaling either. So, that means that if your ESG report says something and you're lobbying spending indicates another, that's going to get out. That's going to get connected. People are going to look at that and say wow, you're saying one thing but you're actually doing another. So, again, this issue of transparency and accountability.

And really I think that brings us to what is and continues to be an issue of diversity and inclusion and racial justice in our society. And herein is a big payload for corporations because this is going to come down to talent recruitment and customer preference for years and decades to come as organizations are looked at through the lens of how they behave, how they conduct themselves, how truly diverse and inclusive are they.

And we are going to that point have to right some very long-standing and systemic wrongs as it relates to racial justice and pay and equity across the board. So, again just to reiterate, there can be no performative allyship. That commitment is not a social post. It's not philanthropy. It must actually happen in the real world. So, increasingly there's this need to link together goals to measure it, to have incentives be aligned, to have the business and the purpose be one essentially.

Because organizations are going to be held to account whether it's through investors who could be seen as passive regulation, or passive investors are regulators as Erik Wohlgemuth shared. But everybody's looking at this, customers, capital is certainly looking at this. And so, ultimately employees are watching.

Businesses need to recruit that next generation of workers and they expect leadership to pay attention, to take action and not just give these topics and issues lip service and customers are watching. As I said, decisions about brands are being made through the lens of purpose and as one guest said to me, purpose equals purchase.

So, in season two, we're going to dig into these topics and these issues and ideas and look at change and the risks of not changing but also to examine the potentially impossible trade-offs that stakeholder-ism and capitalism require and how we're going to hold leadership to account and how we're going to measure progress.

So, that's it. I'm very excited about season two. I'm thrilled with season one. It's been an incredible journey. I learned so much from my guests and I'm incredibly grateful and I want to thank each of them deeply for their time and their participation with me in this conversation. And then also to you the listener, I want to hear from you and what we should cover.

And if you'd like to send me an email, send to PurposePodcast@Actual.Agency. There's no dot com at the end of that. Okay. Well, that's it. Season two officially off and running and thank you very much for listening.


The Purpose, Inc. Podcast is a production of Actual Agency, helping innovators communicate in a changing world. More at www.Actual.Agency.