Erik Nesler: Preparing the world's next business leaders

Wednesday, October 31, 2018 - 6:34pm

Erik Nesler

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BlackRock, the $6 trillion investment firm, announced early last week that it plans introduce a suite of sustainable exchange-traded funds. Customers will be able to choose an investment vehicle that will invest their funds in environmentally sustainable enterprises. Brian Deese, the global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock believes the new offer is a business imperative: “Sustainable investing is becoming mainstream investing."

This is not BlackRock’s first socially responsible decision — in January this year, Laurence Fink, the founder and chief executive of BlackRock, wrote a letter to the world’s most powerful business leaders saying their companies need to contribute to society if they want to receive financial support from BlackRock. It’s energizing to see Fink use his clout (BlackRock is the world’s largest investor) to make such demands.

In addition, Fink was one of the first corporate chiefs to back out of the Future Investment Initiative in Saudi Arabia after the suspicious disappearance of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. His refusal to attend reveals his actions support his beliefs against corruption.

BlackRock clearly supports the argument that private sector organizations can achieve impressive financial results while having a positive impact on society.

As an undergraduate student studying at the Ross School of Business, this idea has frequently surfaced. My peers and I have been exposed to a multitude of private sector organizations that use their power to work toward solving some of the most pressing challenges our society face. This exposure (through coursework, extracurriculars and various programming) can be attributed in some part to the hard work of Jerry Davis, the associate dean of the Business School.

Davis leads the Business+Impact initiative – a multidisciplinary initiative that provides programs and opportunities to students with the skills and knowledge to become “social impact leaders.”  Davis and his colleagues define define social impact as promoting “a significant, positive change that addresses a pressing social challenge.”

The Business+Impact initiative has created a slew of opportunities for students pursuing careers that positively impact society, regardless of whether those careers are in the private, public or nonprofit sectors. Students of all majors and disciplines can take advantage of different courses, lectures, summits and challenges offered every semester. (A comprehensive list of the available opportunities can be found at www.RossImpact.com.)

I could tell during my conversation with Davis that he was committed to the Business+Impact initiative. His enthusiasm over procuring the next generation of social impact leaders was contagious. This enthusiasm, paired with his retelling of how he managed to become interested in this work, was inspiring.

Much of Davis’ early research focused on corporate governance for large American corporations and the effects of finance on society. Davis began noticing during his years as a researcher the far-reaching implications of the tech boom on the U.S. economy. With the displacement of millions of American jobs that are now outsourced or eliminated, Davis realized the private sector (what remained of it at least) needed to have a more positive impact on society.

The Business+Impact initiative  mirrors well known initiatives at other prestigious universities. In fact, business schools across the globe have made social impact and sustainability (more broadly known as corporate social responsibility) core pillars of their curricula.

This strategic modification of the curriculum comes as a response to students’ dissatisfaction with the most recent financial crisis. Business schools, as the common stereotype goes, are breeding grounds for selfishness and greed – and the financial crisis served to reinforce that stereotype. Schools began teaching the world’s next business leaders that they should consider the effects of their decisions on a variety of stakeholders (including employees, the community and the environment) instead of simply shareholders.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently began offering a new course on the ethics and regulation of technology and artificial intelligence, and Stanford University plans to follow suit this upcoming semester. These courses will teach students to consider what is right and wrong when it comes to developing innovations that can have destructive implications for consumers.

As universities concentrate on corporate social responsibility, the next generation of business leaders will be more willing and prepared than ever to tackle the pressing societal issues of our time. Hopefully we will see more Laurence Finks in corporate America.

Erik Nesler can be reached at egnesler@umich.edu.

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