Your passion always has been creating businesses that improve people’s lives. As we emerge into a post-COVID world, and given the growing inequities exacerbated by the pandemic, what is the role of business as we work to build back better?
COVID-19 has adversely impacted nearly every business around the world, including our own, and there will be challenges for many for some time to come. At the same time, the pandemic has shown there is more that unites us than divides us. If we put our heads together, we can come up with brilliant solutions to our biggest problems.
The pandemic has shown us the need for an economy that doesn’t leave anybody behind. We face so many challenges: the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity; rising inequality alongside diminishing trust in public institutions; new technologies and their impact on privacy; mass migration, civil unrest and poor economic opportunity; democratic backsliding, nativism, xenophobia ... the list goes on and on.
It is tempting to compartmentalize and look the other way. But business as usual is no longer an option. As crises intersect and reinforce one another, leaders across business, government, civil society, and the philanthropic community must work together to advance collaborative, global solutions. Ever the optimist, I am confident we can and will.
It’s not all doom and gloom. There is an enormous amount of economic opportunity to be seized. If we lead with bold action and courageous collaboration, together we can contribute in meaningful ways to improve people’s lives.
That was part of my reason for founding The B Team. We need to orient business toward a broader bottom line that values people and the planet alongside profit.
Speaking of The B Team, creating positive social and environmental change has always been at the heart of your brand. In 2013 you co-launched The B Team, which has been instrumental in calling for a new sustainable economic model. What are the key elements of that model and what has The B Team been able to achieve? What are the most prominent challenges for achieving its mission?
People everywhere deserve the opportunity to lead their lives with dignity and a sense of security. All people — not just the few — must benefit from economic growth. The global public demands it. The well-being of future generations and the health of our planet depend on it. And business has the power to help drive it. That’s why, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, The B Team’s overarching mission is to help build a more inclusive economy by 2030.
An inclusive economy will bring a new definition of success in business. It will encourage long-term solutions in finance and investment and create new norms around a broader bottom line. Companies and markets will measure and report on what matters. Company results will need to reflect all elements that drive an inclusive economy, which means taking account of environmental, social, and governance metrics alongside financial results.
The B Team Leaders have helped demonstrate the feasibility and necessity of holistic leadership, leading to new norms and standards. Businesses are taking bold steps to adopt principles of inclusive growth, from Danone pioneering the “Entreprise à Mission” model to align its social and environmental objectives with its purpose; to Natura &Co’s 2030 “Commitment to Life”; to the United Nation’s Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance that Allianz, PensionDanmark and others have joined.
There are limits to voluntary business action, however, and a crisis of conformity continues to plague leadership and the private sector at large. We cannot drive the greatest transformation of our lifetime toward a more inclusive and sustainable economy without closing gender, generational, and racial gaps in leadership. And we won’t secure an inclusive economic future until we address existing norms, policies, and incentive structures that are unfit to support bold thinking and action by business leaders.
Inequality is now a major risk and challenge to business and government alike. In the current pandemic, how can business help address challenges such as vaccine inequality? What are the best ways for the private and public sector to collaborate on solutions?
COVID-19 has exposed enormous rifts in our willingness and capacity to come together as one human family and tackle global challenges. Vaccine inequality remains a real problem, and the story of governments’ vaccine procurement has shown just how devastating the impact of vaccine nationalism can be. It is also short-sighted, because only a comprehensive, joined-up global response will help us eradicate COVID-19 for good.
But there are also positive stories. Our foundation, Virgin Unite, has worked with a great group of partners to help bring together a donor collective to work with the brilliant Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to support their COVID-19 response. It’s precisely these kinds of public-private partnerships that will help us make progress in tackling global challenges.
As you reflect on the trajectory of your businesses and philanthropy, what advice can you offer future business leaders and emerging philanthropists?
Screw it, let’s do it. We don’t have time to wait around for the perfect answer. We’ve got to get out there and make change happen for our children, our grandchildren, and generations to come.
Embrace diversity and inclusion. Wherever you are and wherever you’re headed, make it a priority to achieve equitable representation in leadership. If we all look the same, chances are we all think the same — and the same old thinking is not going to spur the innovation and bold leadership needed to meet this moment. To change how we do business, we must change who is in leadership positions.