Paul Holmes 25 Oct 2016 // 8:30PM GMT
MIAMI—“The idea that the only purpose of capitalism is to maximize profits it just as much a belief as the idea that Jesus Christ is coming back a specific time and specific place,” MBAs Across America founder and chief executive Casey Gerald told the audience at PRovoke16, at the culmination of a presentation sponsored by Ketchum, during which Gerald urged public relations people to take the lead in persuading companies to make a real difference in the world.
Gerald—who grew up in an impoverished suburb of Dallas—had launched his presentation by recalling his fin de siècle experience. “I come from a small town in Texas,” he told the audience. “We thought in 1999 that was Jesus was coming back and we all went to church and expected the world to end.”
He went on to draw a line between the world in which he grew up—a world in which people believed the prophecy of the Bible, who took the text of the gospels as unquestionable truth, who believed that suffering was necessary for salvation, and the business realm he learned about studying at Yale and Harvard and now spends his life trying to change.
“Today we believe in prophecy of Tony Robbins, follow the cult of HBR or Fast Company, we take the text of technological process as unquestionable truth, we believe that suffering is a necessary consequence of the capitalist system.”
His conclusion: "We do not live in an age of disbelief. We desperately want to believe in something, someone or some institution."
But he questioned the messages that business executives predominantly hear, quoting IBM chief executive Ginni Rometty’s assertion that the current era that will redefine relationship between man and machine. “I think that’s wrong,” he told the audience. “I think it’s all about changing our place in the world.”
Gerald and three friends cofounded MBAs Across America after getting together at a party toward the end of their time at Harvard and finding a share passion for using the knowledge they had gained for some larger purpose than simple profit. Having received relatively little support from the hierarchy at the school, it is perhaps not surprising that his approach to driving change sounds radical.
“The hierarchy Is dead,” he told the audience. “Maybe more accurate to say it’s dying or on life support. So many institutions have found themselves in a crisis of confidence, a crisis of trust.”
Gerald was interning at Lehman Brothers, and on his first day the company fired 3,000 people. “The CEO came in and told us—probably advised by people like the people in this room—that this was a cyclical business and the company would bounce back. Three weeks later he was gone.”
But at the same time as the collapse of faith in institutions, there has been a new wave of individual empowerment. “There has never been a time when more people could do more stuff with less permission.”
The result, he said, is that “we are all entrepreneurs now.”
But he questioned how people think about entrepreneurialism. “The culture would have us believe that the entrepreneur is a wiry guy hunched over his computer in his mom’s garage, making something that will change the world.” Typically, that means making products that make people’s lives incrementally easier of better.
“But if only these ideas are allowed in the entrepreneurial tent we are screwed,” he said. “Because there are people who are overlooked and undervalued and we need to turn our attention to them and find solutions that change their lives.”
MBAs Across America has sent out an army of 68 MBAs, who have traveled over 40,000 miles into 41 cities to work with 73 entrepreneurs in the heart of America, from a barber shop in Detroit that collects hair to accelerate compost that is then used to plant trees in Detroit, which has lost half of its urban canopy in the past decade to a woman in Montana who makes workwear for women and says: “When women put on a pair of our pants, they’re not just putting on canvas, they’re putting on another identity of feeling more badass.”
Said Gerald: "There are extraordinary people across the country and all they need is a little wind at their back."
To help with that, however, companies need to rethink their approach to social issues. He cited a course taught by Rebecca Henderson at Harvard Business School called reimagining capitalism. Henderson starts her course with a Venn diagram showing “all the things that make money” and “all the things that do good.”
“The intersection of these two circles, she calls bucket one solutions—a business case. We can do well and do good at the same time. The problem is that bucket one only gets us to about 15 percent to where we want to be. The second bucket is innovation, where a a leader or an organization accepts short term losses for long term gains, like Paul Polman at Unilever or Elon Musk at Tesla. But bucket two only gets us to 60 percent of what we want to see.
Henderson has studied the entire history of capitalist societies to find out how more dramatic changes—the end of slavery in the US, the end of child labor in the UK—are made. “The only time we have got to bucket three solutions is when there was a social awakening.”
And that, he says, is where public relations people come in. “If there is a question burning in your mind, if there’s a problem that just won’t let you go, if there’s a system that is so broken it makes you want to cry, if there’s a friend or stranger who’s problem has become your own, if there’s a gift that you have that led you here in search of a way to give it, then you have found your why. And you hold once spark to this great awakening.
“These problems cannot be solved unless the people in this room are motivated. We need a social awakening to accomplish true social, corporate good."