By Robert Strand, CRB Executive DirectorBusiness

“Business is ruining the planet.” If you were to visit the Haas School of Business this past week you likely walked past this graffiti scribbled on the side of the Student Building.

What sort of ill-informed saboteur would write such a thing?Business 2

Turns out, about 2/3 of the American public share such sentiment according to Pew. (UC campus police can thank me for narrowing the pool of suspects down to just over 200 million people.)

In a large survey conducted by Pew, 64% of the American public replied that “large corporations” had a negative impact on the way things are going in the country. (25% stated positive impact with 12% not responding.) To provide some context, 51% replied that the entertainment industry was a net-sum negative for society and 45% replied the Obama administration was such. Only 22% replied that churches and religious organizations had a negative effect – indicating the comparatively favorable status of religious institutions in the U.S.

What I find most interesting about this survey is that the folks at Pew elected to break out questions regarding large corporations from small business. In stark contrast, only 19% of the American public responded that small business was harming society with a whopping 71% replying that it was a positive force in society. This is pretty much opposite response than what was given for large corporations.

One might provocatively conclude that Americans dislike large corporations more than Hollywood but like small business more than God. Hence our saboteur would have likely been more in line with public sentiment by writing “Large corporations are ruining the planet.”

The Center for Responsible Business partners with and also receives financial support from a number of large corporations. So I do not take it lightly when I write this. But I would do a disservice to our corporate partners and society at large by not acknowledging and engaging head on with the criticisms about large corporations. Moreover, at the Haas School of Business we are proud of our defining principle to question the status quo. To really live this principle, we must apply it even when it may be more convenient not to.

So I tee up the question for ongoing conversation: Why does the public distrust large corporations?

I believe that a sliver of understanding may be achieved when we consider the differences between large corporations and small business. I am increasingly interested in the important role of empathy to enable the well-being of individuals, organizations, and societies. I think consideration regarding the role of empathy may provide part of the answer.

Small businesses are more likely to be seen as real people. When we go to the corner bakery to buy our bread we get to know the person on the other side of the counter. She lives in our community and we may have children at the same school. We see one another’s faces and as a result our interests become more aligned because of that wonderful human emotion of empathy. When the person with whom we engage smiles – we feel a degree of their pleasure. The opposite holds true too, that when we see someone in pain – we feel a degree of their pain also. Unless one is a psychopath, the simple act of seeing another human being makes it more likely that we will take into account their interests and well-being.

Large corporations are not often seen as real people but, rather, as behemoth entities with a corporate logo in the place of a human face. And by virtue of their success and growth, the opportunity for empathy is not often possible for the employees who reside within them. By and large, employees within large corporations are increasingly distant from the stakeholders of the large corporation given global supply chains and global distributions networks. It is unlikely that employees of large corporations see more than just a small percentage of the corporation’s stakeholders and it is even more unlikely that these employees live within the communities of their stakeholders.

This is the breeding ground for mistrust.

I leave this piece open-ended without a tightly wrapped conclusion because I wish to encourage a continuation of this conversation as part of what we do at the Center for Responsible Business.

Therefore, instead of a conclusion, I offer the objectives that I laid out during the interview process for the Executive Director role here at the Center for Responsible Business for which I was so fortunate to have been selected. I am but 10 weeks into my role and while I have a great deal yet to learn, I am increasingly convinced the objectives I offered during the interview rounds are sound. These are:

I envision the CRB to serve as the platform through which Haas can:

  • Be a leading edge forum to critically reflect upon the role of business in society.
  • Deeply integrate sustainable and responsible business considerations throughout all curriculum and activities.
  • Achieve sustained global recognition for promoting sustainable and responsible business.
  • Radically redefine a new narrative for business through which sustainable and responsible business becomes the mainstream.

Our graffiti artist utilized the exterior of the Haas School of Business as a forum for critical debate. Let us now bring that debate within the walls of the business school. I invite you to join me in these critical conversations. Our mission is to redefine business for a sustainable world – and we invite everyone join us. Together, we can challenge us all, provoke us all, and ultimately help us all along the journey to a more just and sustainable world.

I would like to extend a special invitation to our graffiti artist friend to join us in conversation. We have our next open-door “Coffee with the CRB” event on November 7. The coffee is on me!

Previous What the Sharing Economy Can Learn From Fleets Next Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing: The Next Wave