Corporate America: A Vehicle for Social Change


Recently I was asked to be the alumni speaker at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies’ Senior Banquet at the University of Richmond. Did I think I was old enough or wise enough to be the alumni speaker? Absolutely not. Did I go and give the speech anyway? You bet. I did, however, make sure to point out at the beginning of my speech that I am hardly an expert on life at the ripe age of 24. There are, though, a few things I do know, one of which is an unsettling trend I felt compelled to share with the Jepsonites.

Over the last two years, many of my friends have expressed the belief that once they get older and make their millions, then they can become philanthropic and get involved in their communities. We leave social responsibility at the doorstep of our offices to be picked up on our way out.  We have separated business and philanthropy from one another, reasoning that profits from business will go towards philanthropy. But the reality is that we live in a capitalist system where businesses can act as a powerful force for good – and are often rewarded by consumers when they do so.

There is still an opportunity for those of us who do not go to work for nonprofits or public service positions to be change agents, yet the majority of us forget this while we are caught up in our daily work routines. One of the things that frustrates me about corporate America – besides the fact that there aren’t unlimited snacks – is that many businesses still think being an advocate or philanthropic means an outward flow of funds and resources. Reality Check: brands that align with a relatable social issue will create significant benefits – for their consumers and their bottom line.

This is the message I aimed to impress upon the Jepson students. Most of them will go to work in corporate America, and when they do, my hope is that they will remember to align their expertise and competencies with the concerns of their customers. Business goals and consumer insight – paired together with a social issue – will create a brand that will stand out as a leader from its competitors.

I used our recent work with the New York Life Foundation as an example of how an organization can leverage its resources to rally around an issue affecting their customers. The Foundation’s efforts to empower educators to better support their grieving students served to reinforce New York Life’s identity as a life insurance company that cares about the lives of its customers. The results were better training tools for educators, a better understanding of grieving student’s needs, and a better brand for New York Life. We always tell our corporate foundation clients that writing checks is great, but owning a social issue and working to address the root of the problem is even better.

I’m proud to say no one booed me off the stage, or started playing the Oscar music when I went 35 seconds over my allotted time. Rather, students and professors alike seemed to have taken the journey with me and came to the realization that as individuals – and as a nation – we can do better. And we can do this, by using our jobs as vehicles for social change.

While the Jepson curriculum is centered on ethical decision-making and creating positive change, this message applies to soon-to-be grads everywhere. Expect more from yourselves and from our nation, and use that passion to improve the circumstances of others.

– Lucie Dufour, Associate


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