The fourth annual Positive Business Conference took place at Ross School of Business Thursday and Friday. The conference engaged approximately 400 local and national entrepreneurs in lectures and interactive sessions presented by executives of the nation’s leading companies — Microsoft, DTE Energy and Whole Foods, among them — to encourage passion and positivity in the business environment.   

This year’s theme, Positive Leadership: Practices & Inspiration, was enacted to focus the conference on “purpose, spreading knowledge and fostering a community of leaders to make the world of work a better place,” according to the official event announcement. Central to the conference was an emphasis on personal and social values in the work environment, in addition to economic value.  

The two-day event consisted of several sessions that featured faculty and staff from the Business School, as well as external business leaders, who presented on topics ranging from recent scholarly research to personal experiences in business.  

Chris White, the managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations — a research initiative at the Business School that explores leadership, ethics and culture within organizations — was on the event’s organizing team.

In an interview he noted the Business School’s emphasis on action learning, which models real-world problem solving, and its role in the conference.  

“Michigan Ross, and the University of Michigan, has a unique opportunity to both advance great research, which we do, but also be a convener of business leaders,” he said. “At Michigan Ross, we try to combine those two to create action learning opportunities for our students as well.”

White explained many of the leaders attending the conference host and serve as mentors for student teams throughout the year.

He also said — reflecting on a panel that comprised three Business School faculty members who discussed ideological splits in business — academics and scholars play a big role as public intellectuals and there are important conversations occurring in the business world that affect not only students but broader society as well.

“At a conference like this, we try to bring together people who have experience and strong opinions to try and shape that conversation a little bit,” he said.

With regard to a key takeaway from the event, White echoed the remarks of Business School Dean Scott DeRue who described business as an important source of change.

“(DeRue) described business as one of or the most powerful force for positive change in the world,” he said. “When you look at the ability to sustainably address world issues then business has a real role to play in that.”

Microsoft Philanthropies

On Thursday Mary Snapp, President of Microsoft Philanthropies — a group that heads the technology giant’s philanthropic initiatives, imparting technology and talent, among other assets, to external organizations around the world — discussed the role of philanthropy in Microsoft’s culture.

To contextualize her presentation she noted the world has reached a fourth industrial revolution — the age of information or the age of big data. She described this revolution by explaining it has three components: physical, pertaining to the creation of mechanisms like robots; biological, work in genetics, research and health; and digital, with regard to the internet. These features have created disruption for individuals and among businesses that, she said, must be addressed.

She compared today’s industrial age to the era in which horses were no longer being used for transportation and agriculture. People whose jobs relied on the use of horsepower needed to adapt; a similar issue must be addressed today with changes in technology.

“We understand that with opportunity does come challenges — challenges to traditional jobs, the notions of what is private and what is not, particularly in the health areas, the issues of accessibility, particularly in emerging worlds are huge,” she said.

Snapp said people often look to Big Tech companies and blame them for having caused an income divide, for decreasing job opportunities as a result of increased technological innovations and for sparking a polarization, for example, between urban and rural parts of the country. Snapp said Big Tech companies have a role to play in reversing these issues.

“Big Tech does have a responsibility, Big Tech does have an accountability for this work,” she said. “In fact, the goal of the work we do is to ensure that we can move people forward and technology forward, without leaving people behind.”

Snapp discussed the work Microsoft has done to sustain communities amid technological innovations, with a focus on empowering individuals.

“The Microsoft mission stated is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more,” she said. “Unless we address these issues of income inequality and job disruption at this particular inflection point, we will come nowhere close to meeting the mission of the company. It is important for us.”

Fostering digital skills among high school students is one step Microsoft has taken to encourage careers in STEM fields, but also to promote critical thinking. Through the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools program volunteers from Microsoft and other technology companies help high schools build computer science programs.

She also discussed the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy, a program to foster technology-related middle skills — those which fall between a high school and college degree —  among military veterans.  

Additionally, Snapp emphasized the importance of companies being involved in their communities. She said Microsoft is one of the largest employers in the state of Washington, and that the company has been very involved in the community there, but not necessarily in the way some may expect.

“Recently we came out with a five-pronged strategy for the last legislative session,” she said. “One of the things that surprised most people who read about it was a focus in Washington state by Microsoft on race and justice reform.”

She said the goal of the strategy was to work with law enforcement and other companies to enhance data analysis that will ultimately enable parties to “engage more thought leadership” on the issues of race and justice reform and potentially provide better training methods from people in law enforcement.  

Snapp noted this issue does not sound like one a Big Tech company would address, but it is something Microsoft employees asked the company to engage with. She said furthering positive business and the social impact of big tech companies is a collaborative effort.

“Not surprisingly, this is all a partnership,” she said. “No one company can do it, no one nonprofit can do it, no one business school can do it, no one visionary leader can do it. It takes a lot of people working together — aligning toward the same goals.”

Talks on Detroit

Jerry Davis, professor of Management and Organizations at the Business School, facilitated another session titled “The Revitalization of Detroit: A Story of Commitment, Creativity and Partnership,” which brought together four panelists whose work shapes rebuilding efforts in the city.

Panelists included Maurice Cox, Planning Director for the city of Detroit; Susan Mosey, Executive Director of Midtown Detroit, Inc., a nonprofit planning and development agency; Keith Owens, Senior Editor of the Michigan Chronicle, a prominent African-American publication in Detroit; and Jerry Norcia, the Chief Operating Officer of DTE Energy. They focused on how businesses, entrepreneurs and community leaders, among others, work collaboratively to create a more sustainable future for the city.

In his opening remarks, Norica discussed the role of DTE in reshaping Detroit. He said the company’s commitment to energy is twofold, highlighting the contributions of committed employees.  

“When we talk about serving with our energy, we’re first talking about serving with the energy of our employees,” he said. “It has a double meaning for us. Without our employees, we’re not able to serve. When you think of our traditional products — we serve with natural gas, we serve with electricity, which really continues to be the foundation of progress in the communities we live and serve.”

He said DTE can’t see its own success without the success of the community and the success of its employees.

Similarly, Cox said he hired 30 new professionals to help in the planning efforts — forming a sort of “startup” initiative, while Owens emphasized the role of entrepreneurs in Detroit.

Owens also noted revitalization did not occur overnight, but is continuing to be built on groups that have been dedicated to keeping the city thriving for several decades.

“It’s important to realize we hear a lot about the headlines of Detroit coming back and its revitalization particularly in more recent years,” he said. “People need to understand it wasn’t as if all of the sudden, everybody swooped in and nobody was doing anything before… There are so many groups that have been working on the ground and keeping Detroit going so that when the commitment was made to save it, there was something to save.”

In terms of collaboration, Davis highlighted the importance of different groups coming together to foster change. For example, speakers — despite their varying backgrounds — emphasized a critical focus on reinvigorating neighborhoods as opposed to the central city.

DTE has helped entirely relight Detroit with LED lights. Norcia highlighted the critical role Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan played in expediting that process, explaining the mayor encouraged the relighting of neighborhoods.

“‘By the way,’ [Duggan] said, ‘I want you to start in the neighborhoods. I don’t want you to start downtown. Downtown is fine from a public safety perspective,’ ” Norcia said. “Actually downtown Detroit is one of the safest districts probably in the country. The neighborhoods were experiencing a lot more violence, a lot more public safety issues. So he wanted the neighborhoods to be relit first.”

Similarly, Cox said his job has been to foster growth among neighborhoods to improve the lives of the 700,000 people still in the city.

“I couldn’t be more honored to be part of what is an extraordinary recovery story,” he said. “It has started thanks to many of the people on this panel at the very heart of the city — downtown, midtown, riverfront. There’s only one downtown and usually those recoveries start at the heart. There’s also the soul of the city and the soul of the city are many: in Detroit it’s 200 neighborhoods. My singular charge has been to nurture the soul of Detroit so that it can fully participate in the recovery.”

In a different vein, Mosey noted collaboration among several large actors in the city. She said years ago Detroit didn’t have a stable system of community development finance institutions — large national players of capital that use foundation dollars and other forms of funding to provide affordable lending to disadvantaged communities.

Several large foundations including the Kresge Foundation and Ford Foundation helped the city engage with a large national development finance institution called Capital Impact Partners. Several other national institutions got involved with the city as well under the direction of such foundations to spend their investment and grant dollars in Detroit.

“All of a sudden, Detroit had a lot of dollars for actual real estate development and small business development that it never had — hundreds of millions of dollars with all of these PRIs and government funding coming in for very specific kinds of projects…” she said. “[Without] all these different types of programs that are essential to revitalizing districts and neighborhoods, there wasn’t really a viable Detroit. So with that partnership and that strong message and those strong CDFIs all working together collaboratively — so they weren’t all competing for those customers and loans — they were all working together.”

Whole Foods Market

On Friday afternoon, the series of speakers concluded with thoughts on how to augment positive business practices by Walter Robb, chairman of Whole Kids Foundation and Whole Cities Foundation and Board of Directors of Whole Foods Market, as well as Melissa Eamer, Vice President of Customer Experience at Amazon.

Throughout Robb’s speech, he emphasized the importance of following one’s purpose, no matter how large the company grows. By focusing on purpose, he explained the success of the company will follow.

“My life’s purpose has been about bringing healthy food to the world, and second of all, creating a workplace built on love and respect,” he said.

Robb further discussed four facets of his business model, which culminates in focusing on creating a conscious workplace culture — something he described as the living part of the business.

“Create a little bit of space, and your employees will thrive and come out,” he said.

One of the key aspects of Robb’s speech was how to bring Whole Foods stores to the communities, totaling about 6,300 across the nation, in need of fresh food. He noted in many communities, such as Detroit, people are hesitant of corporations coming in and attempting to change the culture there.

“A lot of people in downtown Detroit have had the experience of corporations coming in and ripping them off,” he said. “It was very humbling to be a large company realizing you have to start at square one with the community.”

In order to better connect with the communities his stores are entering, Robb emphasized the importance of promoting education and information and holding cultural relevancy in the area. He discussed how in order to be successful, a business must be able to evolve to meet the needs of its customers.

“It’s not about this or that, it’s about your ability to evolve, your ability to change,” Robb said. “It is a business necessity to evolve.”


Like Robb, Eamer also discussed how Amazon’s strong mission is part of what makes the company excel in the real world. Throughout her speech, she displayed quotes by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, that highlighted how visionaries create products built on something meaningful, not competition.

“I strongly believe that missionaries make better products,” Bezos said. “They care more. For a missionary, it’s not just about the business. There has to be a business, and the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.”

A Business School alum, Eamer noted that she reflects fondly upon her time at the University, especially because she was surrounded by such motivated, impactful students.

“One of the things I loved most about my time at Ross is that feeling of being surrounded by people who want to change the world,” she said.

Eamer further noted the importance of company culture, as well as mental models, in promoting positive businesses. She said she believes Amazon is one of the best places to fail, as failure leads to workplace innovation.

“I believe we are the best place in the world to fail, we have plenty of practice,” she said. “Failure and invention are inseparable twins.”

​Ross Thought in Action Workshops

The Ross Thought in Action Workshops took place both Thursday and Friday and featured Business School faculty who discussed a wide range of topics related to business improvement, such as the importance of giving and receiving, “bottom-up” organizational change, which addressed hierarchy in business, and science and energy management, among others. These smaller workshops took place in classrooms and offered interaction between attendees and speakers.

Wayne Baker, Robert P. Thome Professor of Business Administration, discussed the importance of generosity and a “giver culture” in business during his session.

In a segment of the presentation, Baker shared a PowerPoint slide titled “7 Reasons Why It’s Hard to Ask for Help.” Among the reasons were an overreliance on self-reliance, the belief that competent people do not ask for help and underestimating others’ willingness to help.

He said one primary problem is people aren’t entirely sure how to ask for help.

“When I say, ‘What do you need?’ a lot of people are stuck,” Baker explained. “They don’t know what they need, because we don’t have practice in figuring out ‘What am I trying to accomplish? What am I currently working on? How can I translate that into a request for a resource that I need?’ ”

Baker also discussed the Reciprocity Ring, an activity that allows individuals to help one another achieve certain goals. In the activity, each individual in a large group makes either a personal or professional request for something important to them. Group members then must use their resources and networks to fulfil the request.

​Student engagement

Few students were in attendance at the conference. Among them were those from the Magnify Immersion Program. The six-credit spring-term program works to bring Positive Organizational Scholarship — part of the Management and Organizations area of study —  to Business School students.

Students from Magnify attended the event to serve as ambassadors, according to Business junior Michael Domiano. Domiano said students in Magnify have learned a lot of people’s unhappiness comes from suffering and difficulty in the workplace — something highlighted throughout the conference.

Business junior Alex Wang said such unhappiness can hurt the business. He said the conference offered a different perspective of business executives who may be seen as stereotypically hardheaded.

“I think it’s definitely a shift in just the perspective of business leaders… the stereotype of very hard-nosed people just concerned about numbers in a lot of Fortune 500 companies,” he said. “The fact that so many C-suite level executives are coming here and trying to learn more about unlocking human potential and resources within their employees shows that positive practices in businesses are becoming more popular and enact positive change.”

Domiano said it has been “eye-opening” interacting with executive and CEOs. Domiano and Wang noted the business leaders have shown interest in what the students in the Magnify program have learned so far. A couple of the visitors led strength-building workshops for the students.  

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