Business & Society Conference: Using Business to Drive Social Change

by Carole Gaudet, published Mar 10, 2014

“Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of the world’s population who are living in extreme poverty has declined by half, with nearly a billion people removed from subsistence or extreme poverty. About three quarters of those have been in China, which alone has raised 680 million people above extreme poverty.”

What has driven this phenomenal move out of poverty for so many people?

Carttar, senior partner and co-founder of The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit advisor and strategy consultant for mission-driven organizations and philanthropists, has an answer.

“I can assure you, it’s not social programs,” he tells an audience of students at the Tuck School of Business, gathered for the 12th annual Business & Society Conference, held February 27 and 28. “The credit goes to capitalism and free trade, the fundamental engine for improving people’s lives.”

Carttar gave the opening keynote speech for the annual, student-run conference, which explored how to use business to drive social change. The event brought together 26 presenters from industry and academia, and offered panels and speeches across a wide variety of topics, including ethics, climate change and social entrepreneurship.

Carttar’s talk highlighted the many paths students can take throughout their careers as they look for ways to address society’s problems. The most powerful thing they can do as they move forward as business leaders, he says, is to use their talents and energies to create the most healthy, productive, profitable businesses possible.

“I’m not talking about a check-the-box corporate social responsibility program. I’m talking about using your talents and your abilities to aim higher – to create businesses that truly add value to people’s lives, with not just average products, but great products. Not just employees, but a commitment to individuals that enables them to earn a good living, develop their capabilities, raise good families and invest in their communities. Not just complying with the law, but thinking seriously about the elements within which your business operates that are truly material to long-term sustainable health.”

As senior partner with Bridgespan, Carttar helps to lead the group’s work, which its website calls a “collaboration with social sector leaders.” Bridgespan works on issues related to society’s most important challenges in three areas: pathways to opportunity for disadvantaged populations, environmental sustainability, and civic engagement.

“Nonprofit leaders excel in their ability to inspire their associates, stakeholders and funders around the fundamental value of the work they’re creating,”Carttar tells the packed room on the conference’s Thursday evening kickoff. “The single most important lesson I’ve learned – the number one thing – is the power of mission. What nonprofit leaders excel at, in comparison to for profit leaders, is the ability to inspire, which is material to for-profit businesses.”

“Show me any company that’s been sustainably healthy over time, and you have the basis for a compelling story about mission. Leaders that create really great products and work cultures also excel at creating the context of a compelling mission. And they aspire to create products of amazing value.”

The nonprofit world is rapidly evolving away from the old models of soliciting charitable contributions to solve social ills. New approaches are gaining momentum, such as social impact bonds, public-private partnerships and ways to collectively create impact. Each one of these topics, and more, were explored during the Tuck conference.

“I’m excited about the idea of accountability for social return,” Carttar said. “There are real opportunities here.”

Carttar points to examples like social impact bonds that represent a financial innovation, as well as trends like microfinance, which he calls “an explicit focus on creating new markets that will attract mainstream capital.”

“Microfinance has proven to be a robust market, getting interest from mainstream financial institutions around the world. That’s a victory for impact investing, and there are other efforts going on that are similar to this.”

The Center for Business & Society supports the annual student-led conference that brings together leaders from a wide range of fields to discuss the important role that business can play in creating a healthier and more sustainable world. Each year, students develop the theme and bring together an array of corporate leaders, industry experts, and academic scholars to explore current practices and future opportunities as businesses engage in solving global challenges.
Students blogged about their reactions to sessions throughout the conference. Read the blog here.

Photos: Paul Carttar; students welcome attendees at the Business & Society Conference