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Tag: ceo activism

CEO Activism Trickling Down to Smaller Brands in Abortion Debate

It was slow in coming, the CEO response to anti-abortion laws across Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia, Indiana and others. But it came. Just not from the CEOs you might have expected to lead the charge for women’s rights and equality.

It came from the CEOs of B and C and D list companies, most of which you’ve never heard of and won’t remember. CEO activism is trickling down from the most rich and powerful CEOs to a widening group that feels a responsibility to speak up for what it thinks is right.

Three weeks ago, seven women CEOs put a full page ad in the New York Times with a call to action: “For too long, corporate America has been largely silent on speaking up for sexual and reproductive health and rights. That must change. Today, we loudly and boldly declare that we will not be silent in defense of fundamental human rights and we challenge our peers in the business community to do the same. Now is the time to speak up.”

Last week, the CEO of SeekingArrangement, Brandon Wade, spoke up in his own way, committing to paying for travel and abortions for those who are unable to access abortions in their home state. He was moved to act upon learning that the law in Alabama would be hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable women.

On Monday, more than 180 CEOs, organized by Planned Parenthood and other rights organizations, signed an open letter in a full page ad in the New York Times entitled “Don’t Ban Equality: It’s time for companies to stand up for reproductive healthcare.”

The ad provides a business perspective on the abortion debate, framing it as a question of equality, which is critical for business success: “Restricting access to comprehensive reproductive care, including abortion, threatens the health, independence and economic stability of our employees and customers. Simply put, it goes against our values and is bad for business.”

It might seem distasteful to frame this discussion as one about business. But the CEOs are speaking from a distinct and legitimate perspective. Every issue, from immigration, to education, to health care, to LGBT rights, has a business perspective that enriches discussion and debate. Will this argument change the average person’s mind on abortion? Probably not. But it should certainly give politicians, who are responsible for their constituents’ broad interests, pause.

The social media reaction has been predictable – employees applauding their CEOs for standing up for their rights, consumers threatening to boycott brands, deleting their Yelp app, and those that feel unelected CEOs should leave the matter to politicians.

The glaring absence, of course, are the A-list CEOs. While the CEOs of Netflix and Disney have said they may stop filming in Georgia, one of the states with new legislation and a huge film industry, it’s clear they are being driven not by their own values but because their actors are flexing their own huge power. The five pages of names on a CEO letter that objected so quickly and in unison for LGBT rights in 2016 have been almost entirely absent from the current discussion. People have noticed.

CEOs Taking on Doug Ford in Fight for Universal Basic Income

Floyd Marinescu had been studying the idea of universal basic income for a couple of years when Doug Ford took over the premier’s office in 2018 and cancelled Ontario’s pilot project. The CEO of C4Media saw how a guaranteed basic income could help abused women, exploited workers, and the sick and encourage entrepreneurism. And he saw how his own successful business was disrupting the labour market, over time making it harder for Ontario workers to survive. So he publicly challenged Doug Ford, something most CEOs were loathe to do about anything. In doing so, Marinescu and the more than 120 CEOs who signed an open letter supporting universal basic income changed the policy narrative, helping to build grassroots support for a program that government would be hard-pressed to enact alone.

Marinescu and Pythian CEO Paul Vallée, who co-led the CEO group, are among a new generation of Canadian CEOs who believe they have a role in civil society, and as owners of their own companies are unhampered by many of the risks with which  CEOs of publicly traded companies grapple.

Through their advocacy, this CEO group is changing the narrative of universal basic income. By presenting a business case for it, they have made it harder for governments to dismiss the idea, and armed politicians who support the idea, arguing that what is good for the poor can also be good for business. And if that’s the case, exactly whom is Doug Ford protecting by cancelling the pilot project before the data is even in?

Universal basic income is just one of myriad issues that would be more richly discussed if CEOs spoke up publicly and challenged the common narrative. But it takes a commitment to the greater good and broader economic prosperity from CEOs mired in short-termism, and the courage to challenge government leaders prone to vindictiveness to get to better outcomes.

Because most of the CEOs who joined Marinescu and Vallée own small to mid-sized private companies, they are also free of shareholders, boards and other stakeholders that stop leaders of bigger public companies from stepping into the fray of a discussion that doesn’t directly affect the success of their business.

There are signs that more CEOs are getting on board with a growing trend of CEO activism, though. Witness the discussion RBC CEO Dave McKay and Enbridge CEO Al Monaco had at the Canadian Cub in Toronto this week about energy policy. They discussed the opportunity of national prosperity that would come with a proper national strategy on energy, and the consequences of not having one. Yet McKay and Monaco’s call to action is more easily dismissed than that of Marinescu and Vallée, because both of their companies’ fortunes are directly tied to building pipelines.

That is not to say that McKay and Monaco should not be speaking out – quite the contrary. But we also need CEOs from consumer goods companies, manufacturing and agriculture to speak out about energy policy. Energy and transportation infrastructure matter to all businesses and people. CEOs from other industries are thus less easily dismissed in the discussion because they are advocating for a more successful society for everyone.

Too many of our public debates pit interests of people against the interests of business. Yet so often, what’s good for business is also good for people. We need more CEOs to follow the lead of Marinescu and Vallée and explain why.

Read more about Marinescu’s op/ed on UBI  in the Financial Post here and the launch of the CEOs’ initiative last fall here, in the Toronto Star.

TOMS Founder Blake Mycoskie Dials Up Activism

It’s “a lonely position to take.” That’s what  Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh told TOMS founder and former CEO Blake Mycoskie about his plan to take a stand on gun violence. Get some personal security, Bergh said, according to an excellent piece in Fast Company.

On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Monday night, Mycoskie, announced that he was making a $5 million contribution to organizations fighting gun violence, and had set up on TOMS website a way for Americans to send an actual postcard (nice touch) to their representatives, calling for universal background checks, in 30 seconds. In doing so, Mycoskie has jumped into one of the most polarizing debates in America today, using his company’s weight as a tool.

Mycoskie already knows from experience of what one person can do by intertwining business and social activism. (The 86 million pairs of shoes he’s given away thanks to his business model are a pretty convincing proof point.) His tipping point on gun violence was a phone call from his wife after the recent shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif., near where they lived. She was afraid to take their child out.

This campaign is filled with risk, though less so than you might think. Yes, some stores may drop his brand, while others will become more loyal. But data suggest his target customers will embrace the effort – 71% of millennials expect CEOs to use their positions and influence to advocate for causes they believe in according to a recent Stanford study.

The operational risk is a bit higher. He completely overturned TOMS planned Black Friday strategy with 12 days’ notice.

Here’s what the U.S. site’s landing page looks like today, on U.S. Thanksgiving:

versus what landing page on the dot ca site.

He’ll have data in a few days on the impact on one of the biggest shopping weekends of the year. Did the people who made an impulse purchase or made a purchase to support him after sending their postcard outweigh those who went to the site to buy shoes and bounced because they were turned off by the campaign? Did the news and social media coverage help find new lifelong customers?

One of the important parts of this story, from a CEO activism perspective, is that Bain Capital, which owns 50% of TOMS, said yes when he told partners what he wanted to do. In doing so, Bain is tacitly accepting reputational risk. It’s unlikely that Mycoskie could have done this if TOMS was a widely held public company. Most of the CEO activism that we’re seeing in the U.S. today is coming from CEO founders who control their companies and are immensely successful.

It might seem that the $5 million donations and a postcard campaign are relatively small things when measured against the size of the gun violence problem facing the U.S. Mycoskie chose after all, to address an aspect with almost universal agreement among Americans – universal background checks. Yet he is indeed in a lonely place right now, as Levi’s’ Bergh said. In doing so, he carries the burden of media attention, backlash and reputation risk. In doing so, he has provided air cover for other CEOs who want to step up. The third, fourth or fifteenth CEO to join in his action, faces much much lower risk, as was illustrated in 2016 when Salesforce’s Marc Benioff took a stand against 2016 legislation that was anti-LGBT rights in Georgia. Hundreds of CEOs eventually joined that movement that helped push back on that bill, but mostly their participation will be a footnote.

P.S. Here’s a great profile of Blake Mycoskie from CNBC.


Prop C and the CEO

I wonder how Marc Benioff is feeling this morning. Leading up to the  U.S. mid-term elections, Benioff, CEO of San Francisco-based Salesforce led a spirited campaign for Prop C, which will see Salesforce pay about $10 million a year in additional taxes to support homeless solutions.

Benioff has been the poster child for CEO activism in the past year, taking on politicians in Indiana and Georgia in defence of LGBTQ rights, confronting fellow CEOs in public debates, such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey about Prop C, and alternatively providing air cover for other CEOs to speak up in Indiana and Georgia without sticking their heads too much above water.

With this latest win, what’s on Benioff’s calendar today? He is, after all, the founder, chairman and co-CEO of a publicly traded company. Would love to see an analyses of how much of Benioff’s reputation is embedded in Salesforce’s stock price. At midday today, Salesforce shares were up 5.8% while the S&P was up 1.29%. Over the year to date, Salesforce shares have climbed 27%, versus 1.6% for the S&P. While I’m sure there are board members who are just hoping Benioff is in the office today, they should be doing the math on the halo effect that he’s bringing the company, in its share price and sales by such aggressive CEO activism and reputation building.