Can Business Be a Force for Social Justice?


Al Fuller | CEO, Integrated Packaging Corp.
“Social entrepreneurship—the act of creating an ongoing concern for the specific purpose of helping people help themselves and their families..."

What role can businesspeople play in fostering economic and social justice? That was the topic of an intriguing panel discussion organized at MIT Sloan and held on August 31 via Zoom.

The event, which was called “Managing for Economic and Social Justice,” was cosponsored by the MIT Sloan People & Organizations Club; the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan; and the MIT Sloan Student Life Office. The featured panelists were Al Fuller, CEO of Integrated Packaging Corp., a privately held packaging manufacturer; Julie Bertani-Kiser, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Recology Inc., a San Francisco-based resource recovery, waste collection, and recycling company; and Gayatri Agnew, Senior Director, Walmart Giving. The panel discussion was moderated by two MIT Sloan MBA students, Dana Mekler and Nick Brenner, who are also pursuing master’s degrees from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Barbara Dyer, Senior Lecturer and Executive Director of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan introduced the event along with Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning and Alvin J. Siteman (1948) Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at MIT Sloan. Dyer asked the audience to imagine a much better future—one where businesses could play a role in achieving social progress. Zuckerman Sivan said it was a great moment to start the MIT Sloan School’s fall semester off with a conversation emphasizing the “wider frame” of improving the world that is part of the school’s mission.   

The panelists each discussed their work and its relationship to social responsibility and then addressed questions from the audience. What follows are a few highlights of their remarks.

Gayatri Agnew: We all have the ability to influence the world around us

Gayatri Agnew said that she came to Walmart six years ago to “change the world” by influencing conditions at one of the world’s largest employers, where she works on human capital programs. She stressed to the audience that we all have the ability to influence the world around us—even if we’re not top executives.  “I have a tremendous amount of influence” at Walmart, she noted, even without being a senior vice president. Finding purpose in work, she said starts with who you are, she said, and she advised the MBA students in the audience, when considering job options, to think not just about where and what you’ll do but also about how and why.

Agnew noted that in recent year Walmart has, with the support of the Walton family, raised wages for frontline workers and has launched a program to give its associates— Walmart’s term for its employees—inexpensive access to courses, including courses leading to college degrees or skilled trades. By investing in frontline associates’ training, she said, the company hopes to lower turnover, because employees working toward a certification or degree are more likely to stay with Walmart until they complete their program.

Agnew said every aspect of Walmart’s operations has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; for example, the company has experienced runs on numerous products, such as toilet paper, and has had to make changes in areas such as supply chains, store hours, and store cleaning and stocking procedures. And, unlike many companies, Walmart, as an essential business, has been hiring: Agnew said the company has hired 250,000 Americans since the start of the pandemic, many of whom were furloughed from other jobs.

Julie Bertani-Kiser: Use positional authority empathetically

Julie Bertani-Kiser explained that Recology is 100% employee-owned through an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan). She said that more than 80% of the shares are owned by non-management employees like drivers, equipment operators, and laborers, and a majority of the company’s stock is minority-owned.  She added that Recology executives see themselves at working for the ESOP participants and retirees and as a result take a long-term perspective, seeking to make good decisions for the long-term health of the company.

Recology is an essential business, Bertani-Kiser said, but its business was down during the lockdown because many of its small business customers were closed. However, she added, the company made the decision to continue wages and benefits for all employees through May—even those for whom it did not have a full workload.

Bertani-Kiser urged the audience to think about how they would like to be treated when making decisions affecting employees or customers. She advised managers to use their positional authority wisely and empathetically.

Al Fuller: Helping families escape poverty

“I’m a social entrepreneur, so my prime objective is to create a going concern that allows for continuous and sustainable community impact,” Al Fuller explained. “That’s our business purpose.” Given long-standing disparities—lower average incomes, higher rates of incarceration, and shorter average lifespans—faced by Black Americans, Fuller decided that he wanted to spend his business career in a way that would help many Black Americans. His plants have all been located in urban areas in the U.S., and he said jobs at his company, which offers employees profit-sharing, have helped hundreds of families escape poverty.

But Fuller noted that there are other ways that businesspeople can support social justice.  “Social entrepreneurship—the act of creating an ongoing concern for the specific purpose of helping people help themselves and their families—is a tough and sometimes a thankless job,” he said. However, he added, “you can help improve social justice issues without being Black, without being poor, and without being a social entrepreneur.” For example, many large companies are now issuing statements about the need for racial equity; if you go to work at such a company, Fuller noted, you can use those official statements as a “backstop” as you seek to apply them in your own area of the organization.

Fuller raised a question: What does it mean to you personally to promote social justice? He asked the audience to consider a series of questions:

  1. Have you ever been a victim of police maltreatment?

  2. Has a member of your immediate family ever been falsely arrested?

  3. Have you ever lost an opportunity solely because of race, gender, or sexual orientation?

  4. Do you have a relative currently incarcerated who has received a very unfair sentence?

  5. Do you personally know working families with children where both parents work but together make less than $40,000 a year?

  6. When walking or driving in certain neighborhoods, do you have a fear of bodily injury?

    Fuller said that he can answer yes to all six of those questions, and he encouraged MBA students in the audience to gain an understanding of what we need to do to address inequities common in the United States. “You can learn, because you are our future leaders of America,” he said.

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