Tools for Talking to Skeptics

A new semester of teaching my MBA class “Reimagining Capitalism” began last week. My colleague George Serafeim and I have over 300 people taking the course in four classes – nearly a third of the second year class. By way of introduction I asked everyone in my classes to send me a paragraph about why they were taking the course – particularly given that they could be taking obviously useful courses like “Power and Influence” or “Real Estate and Private Equity” instead.

The answers were all over the map. Many of the students have already invested heavily in trying to combine doing the profitable thing with doing the right thing. They want to build careers that will have impact. They’re keen to learn about firms making a difference – the nuts and bolts of building business models that can provide decent jobs while taking care of the community.

Others just want to understand what’s going on. How did we get into this mess? Is there a way out? Can firms really play a role in driving systemic change? If they can, should they? Is it legal to have a purpose beyond maximizing shareholder value? Is it moral?

Some are taking it because they’ve heard I’m a decent teacher or because their partner is in impact investing and they want to be able to talk about it intelligently over dinner.

These are all great reasons to take the course, and I’ll do my best to deliver against all of them. But the one that really grabbed my attention came from a verbal aside at the end of one of the classes. “Will we learn to talk about these issues to people who don’t think they’re important at all?” one student asked. “Will you be giving us the language to have a decent conversation – one about what can be done and how – that won’t degenerate into a shouting match, or hostile silence, or simply seething incomprehension? I can talk to people who agree with me. I need to be able to talk to people who don’t.”

It’s a great question. I have had the privilege of meeting hundreds of business people who are trying to make a difference in the world. Many of them are doing the most amazing things – just yesterday, for example I heard from an HBS classmate who’s working with a Norwegian company trying to transform the expedition business by – amongst other things – powering their cruise ships with dead fish[1] – but in my experience they face two problems. The first is communicating their own passionate sense of urgency without coming off as a tree-hugging greenie who doesn’t understand the cold hard realities of business. The second is translating the deeply held intuition that individual action can make a difference into a coherent account of how purpose-driven firms can indeed help to catalyze change at global scale.

I teach “Reimagining Capitalism” to give my students the tools they need to have these conversations, and I’ve come to believe that I should be sharing them more broadly. I invite you to travel with me.

Free market capitalism is the greatest source of prosperity the world has ever seen, but capitalism is on the verge of destroying the planet and destabilizing society. The good news is we have both the resources and the technology to build a just and sustainable world – and purpose-driven businesses could be the critical catalyst that drives the kinds of global, systemic changes we need to reimagine capitalism in a way that works for everyone. We just need to persuade the rest of the world that this is the case…