The Business of Societal Relevance

By Shannon Schuyler

Staying relevant in a crowded marketplace requires that businesses embrace change. It doesn’t matter if you’re a start-up or if your company has been around for more than 100 years. To stay relevant, you need to adapt to changing business models, demographics, and technologies.

The same goes for corporate social responsibility (CSR). For CSR to be relevant and have an impact, it needs to be an essential part of an overall business strategy, and often innovative, unexpected, and disruptive. In some cases, businesses embed societal issues in their strategy from inception—such as with the buy one-give one model popularized by Toms Shoes—but in most cases, they need to create, pivot, or fully redesign societal investments to be integral. 

At PwC, our purpose is to build trust in society and solve important problems. Because society’s problems continue to evolve, the way we address them cannot remain static. We will not solve the issues we’re facing today—racial tensions, political unrest and global instability, devastating natural disasters caused by climate change—unless we come together across industries and sectors to put our collective financial strength to work on creating real change. And while the money does matter, it’s a question of not only how much we invest, but also how we engage our people, expertise, capacities, and products. Ultimately, CSR needs to be about where and how we focus our efforts to ensure that responsibility reflects relevance.

Equity, not equality

According to PwC’s 2017 Young Workers Index, nearly 16 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds in the United States are not participating in school, jobs, or training. If we do nothing to address this, we risk future instability and leave billions of dollars in economic growth on the table. This is why we stress equity over equality. Equality assumes that everyone benefits from the same support and guidance, despite our inborn advantages or disadvantages, more often than not determined by one’s zip code at birth. Equity, on the other hand, is about tailoring supports to meet specific needs and interests. While the inequities in our society are too large and complex for any one organization to solve, for PwC, acting responsibly as a business means using our skills and unique resources to come up with solutions to address these inequities and ensure as level a playing field as possible.

Engagement to drive change

For our firm, pro bono engagement has become a place where purpose, CSR, and innovation intersect to drive systemic change. These are not “one and done” volunteering efforts or stand-alone solutions, but rather projects to build capacity and address inequities for long-term impact. For example, a PwC engagement team leveraged its experience in cost modeling and data analysis over a 10-month period in 2017-2018 to help bring much-needed prescription medications to more clinics serving low-income patients across the country. The team did this by improving the organization’s supply chain processes and operations, using medications that would otherwise sit unused on shelves in warehouses and pharmacies. In another example from last year, a pro bono engagement team helped a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping kids from returning to jail improve its business operations. The organization trains inmates to become fitness coaches, and it clearly has a successful program model—95 percent of participants avoid re-incarceration. However, the organization needed to learn how to turn these metrics into an effective fundraising strategy.

Closing the opportunity gap

Digital literacy has quickly become both a fundamental life skill and a path to employment. More than 50 percent of today’s jobs require some familiarity with technology, and experts say this percentage will increase to 77 percent in the next decade. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are likely to be one million open tech jobs by 2020, more than half of them in computer science.

But only 40 percent of schools teach computer programming and only 15 states have K-12 computer science standards, and students from underserved communities often have less access and more-limited resources to precisely the education and training they’ll need for a tech-guided world. It’s important to note that students need more than access to classes in coding—they need mentoring and career advice, financial literacy skills, and mechanisms for avoiding excessive college debt. They need opportunities to learn not only about fields in STEM, but also about the middle-skills jobs employers will need to fill. And we need to address these problems in the context of equity: Where are the gaps in access and opportunity most glaring and most detrimental to individuals, to communities, and ultimately to the future of American business?

Closing the opportunity gap means recognizing and addressing systemic disadvantages—and it’s never been more important for communities or for the marketplace. And this problem won’t be solved without commitment from businesses, educators, and nonprofits. For us, this has meant pivoting toward a more holistic approach to addressing the opportunity gap with a program we call Access Your Potential. Leveraging the digital acumen of our firm’s partners and staff, we’re working with networks of educators and nonprofit collaborators to scale our efforts in the communities where kids have less access and greater need. The initiative supports the development of financial literacy and digital skills among youth, with mentorship from PwC professionals.

Making a business case for diversity

Research shows that diverse teams generate more revenue than their industry peers, and companies with at least one woman on their board yield higher net income. A diverse leadership also leads to higher levels of innovation. We’d been reciting these findings, and talking about diversity and inclusion for a long time, but change just wasn’t happening fast enough. So we adopted the position that CEOs need to actively press for more diversity, and our chair and senior partner, Tim Ryan, led the charge. We launched CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion in June 2017, and in just a year, the movement has grown to include more than 400 heads of companies, universities, and a law firm, all working together to combat bias and enhance inclusion in their organizations.

But this is not a numbers game. It’s about recognizing unconscious bias, encouraging difficult conversations, and transforming our work cultures. In its first year, CEO Action sponsored three major summits and a “Blind Spots” bus tour that traveled to college campuses from coast to coast. We brought competitors in the marketplace together, many for the first time, around an issue that affects all of us. Diversity and inclusion may well represent the largest opportunity we have for the United States to reach its potential.

Responsibility is not strategy

Strategy is about meeting business objectives. If you can’t do that, you won’t survive. Responsible business leadership—which is how I would define the initiatives I’ve described here—should be about innovation, designing solutions, and inventing the means and methods to drive real change, as well as questioning how you can enact your purpose more powerfully. And while actions often speak louder than words, we also need to be talking about some of the biggest social issues of our time. Issues like #MeToo, immigration, and gun control have become an important part of the business conversation. We must keep pace with changing business models, challenge conventional thinking, invite unexpected collaborations, and stay relevant by never standing still.

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