Can we #rethink the corporation for a more #compassionate world?

Site where George Floyd was arrested and killed. Pic by Fibonacci Blue under Creative Commons license

Just when we thought the world was in the grip of the novel coronavirus and the virus alone, out poured news, pictures and videos of protests across the US.

Elsewhere in third-world India, the constant stream of weary, hungry and impoverished migrant workers continued their long walk to their respective home villages.

“I can’t breathe,” the choked words of George Floyd from under the knee of Derek Chauvin on a fateful May day in Minneapolis continue to haunt me as also, I’m sure, millions of humans across the globe.

#BlackLivesMatter was trending once again, but not before Floyd succumbed to a combination of factors, including the strain on his neck and chest as the white police officer pressed on for much longer than he should have. Was it necessary at all?

What is necessary, in my humble opinion, in the distraught world of today is for powerful corporations to take up the baton for humanity. A baton that our so-called world leaders seem to have either forsaken or, worse, using it instead to beat down the already oppressed and the underprivileged.

“Why corporations?” one might ask. I know corporations are not designed for the general good or thought to be operating that way, even though most of them have tacked on the CSR label in their annual reports. The key words for them are “profit motive” and “shareholder value.”

Corporations are also known to play it safe (especially in India, for instance) and avoid doing anything or making statements that may put them in the crosshairs of incumbent governments — even if that would be the right thing to do per the prevailing sense of civility, equality or justice.

But there are signs of a groundswell of change. And it is my sincere hope that this wave becomes a force to reckon with and sweeps much of the world for years to come, wherever political and economic oppression takes place.

Is the corporate tide turning?

While some outspoken CEOs and business leaders have made the right noises in the past whenever a widely reported instance of injustice, racial or otherwise, came to light, I think it’s perhaps for the first time a continuing stream of influential voices is visible.

“Corporate America is adding its voice to the protests sweeping the country following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, promising to make their companies anti-racist, announcing contributions to civil rights organizations and using words like “abhorrent” and “senseless” to speak out more strongly against police violence and racism” reads the opening graf of a Washington Post report, very aptly headlined “With protests, silence is ‘not an option’ for Corporate America”.

There’s a flurry of activity on Twitter, whose CEO Jack Dorsey has newly emerged as something of a hero (though a controversial one at that) who dared to take on the mighty misinformation machine also known as Donald Trump. Unfortunately, Trump happens to be the current president of the USA, the most powerful nation on earth that so many others look up to.

One indication why I think that things are a bit different this time when it comes to corporations doing their bit, at least in speaking up, is that there’s a whole spreadsheet of statements by some leading tech companies on racial justice, the BLM movement and the Floyd episode. It’s compiled by The Plug (Twitter handle: @tpinsights), a curator of news about black founders and innovators. (While there are several contributors, the owner of the sheet is another Dorsey, Sherrell. The two are not related I think.)

Emphatically coming out in support by such powerful corporations as Apple, Microsoft, Nike, Merck and others, I believe, is the need of the hour. Their millions of employees across the world look up to the leaders at the helm to soothe their collective anger and do something — anything — to set things right.

Talking of my own experience, for instance, I felt good when Girish Mathrubootham, the CEO of Freshworks where I currently work, shared in a town hall that the company opted for a “no-one left behind strategy” when the livelihoods of suppliers and vendors were at risk due to the nationwide lockdown announced in India late March. (It meant continuing to pay those suppliers and vendors during the lockdown, in addition to paying salaries to the regular employees.)

Different companies would, of course, commit resources differently to a cause, depending on their financial status, reputation and inclination. But knowing that they do care for good causes and for the society at large — and not merely their own assets and short-term profits — is a welcome change in a weird world.

What is making the world increasingly weird, and in fact, inhabitable, is the lust for power and unhindered greed to exploit people and the limited resources of the earth. Covid and racial unrest are, in all probability, merely symbols of a bigger malaise.

I’m not going to cite statistics here, but in the age of information glut available at a click or two, it shouldn’t be difficult to come round to the view that global disparities and inequities are growing alarmingly (barring a few exceptions perhaps, such as the Scandinavian countries). Why, look at the UN’s Human Development Index or the ‘most livable cities’ studies for different countries if you wish.

All these traits — lust for power, greed, hatred for the other — are nothing new to humanity, I know. But while in earlier times when the people of a land lived by the generosity or cruelty of the king or the queen who ruled them, in an increasingly industrialized and ‘information’ized world, the power to make a difference to the quality and dignity in the lives for tens of millions is getting concentrated in the hands of the giant global corporations. The annual revenue generated by some of them, in fact, rivals or exceeds the gross domestic products of entire countries.

Some of what I’m saying may seem a bit out of sync in a time when nationalism, not globalism, is the new mantra. But I’m not sure if we can simply yank ourselves away from the complex global supply chains and lazy habits we have been honing to perfection all these years. Personally, I think it might do the planet some good to move toward more local setups for manufacturing and food production as well as distribution.

Nevertheless, the growing significance of corporations in their respective regions — and the sway they have with political leaders — may not change all that much anytime soon.

Which is why I believe that corporations can become the new change agents for the society at large. We all know the power of brands, which are owned by corporations. To bring any significant change at an impactful scale, however, they must balance their political influence with the pull of their brands for responsible consumption and the engagement of their employees for effective implementation.

For this to happen, the very structure and purpose of the corporation will have to be rethought and redefined — from profiteering and short-termism to long-term value generation and accountability for wellbeing of most people in their circle of influence. Out goes the quarterly obsession with shareholder value and in comes the drive to improve all stakeholders’ lives. No longer the need for cut-throat competition in a race to the bottom but a welcome coopetition to jointly nudge people toward the pinnacle of human aspirations (which, again, should be measured not in SUV-sizes or GDPs but in terms of happiness and health).

You get the idea.

And when a sufficient number of corporations are able to do that, maybe it becomes possible to weather Covid-like storms more humanely. Maybe the migrant workers will reach their homes in comfort and with dignity. Maybe the likes of Derek Chauvin would be compelled to take their knee off — or better still, wouldn’t feel the need to put it where it didn’t belong in the first place.

Author of Strings of the Soul on Kindle, I write on tech, meditation and the human condition