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Lessons from a Corporate Idealist: Interview with Christine Bader

A mural of lightbulbs.

Yesterday, we shared a review of Christine Bader’s book: The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. Today we’re excited to share an in depth interview with the author.

In addition to lecturing at Columbia University, author Christine Bader serves as a Human Rights Advisor to BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) and a board member with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a nonprofit that maintains a comprehensive website exposing the human rights effects, good and bad, of thousands of companies worldwide.

Her work and conversations with her peers inspired her to write The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. In the book, Bader reminds people working at corporations that as marginalized as they may feel, they are part of a global community making a real difference. A few weeks before the release of her book, I asked the author about the challenges these changemakers can expect to face in their careers and about her vision for how corporations engage in social change.

Why did you write this book and, more specifically, why right now?

I started thinking about writing this book when I was living in Indonesia and China and writing back home to friends and family about the work that I was doing for BP, and people found it really interesting. I realized that a lot of people didn’t know that companies had people like me doing the kind of work that I was doing — investing in the communities living near big projects– and that it wasn’t for public relations purposes; it was inextricably linked to the success of the business. This was just really quiet, patient, fascinating work.

Then I thought, “Okay, maybe there’s something to tell here” but it was really after the Deepwater Horizon disaster when I felt almost forced to write the book. I had left BP by then, but the BP that emerged in the aftermath of that disaster just did not resemble the BP that I thought I had gotten to know for a while, the one that went above and beyond what was required by law anywhere to protect people and protect the environment. It really made me wonder if I had learned anything at all in the previous nine years that I’d been with the company.

I started talking with a lot of the people I’d gotten to know over the years who were also working in big companies on sustainability or social responsibility and more responsible sourcing practices, like my friends who work at The Gap or other apparel companies in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster who similarly thought, “We’ve being doing great supply chain work for decades now and still we can kill 1200 people in a heartbeat, so what does this mean to actually do this work inside a big company?” And I realized that we saw a lot of the same themes and shared a lot of the same challenges and that we really have a collective story to tell, so that’s what inspired me to finally get going on the book.

Throughout the book, I kept thinking “this all sounds great when business is going well, but when push comes to shove, does profit trump it all”? Do responsible business practices go out the window when that’s at stake?

What I experienced in my first two assignments with BP was that investing in human rights and investing in communities was critical to ensuring that we could make any money. And I think the business case is much clearer in, for example, the extractive industry: in oil, gas, and mining, you really can’t get a project up and running and have it operate smoothly if the communities around you are rioting and sabotaging your equipment. So it’s not just nice to have philanthropic gestures, it’s essential to the business, and people are realizing that in the apparel and light manufacturing sectors, too. Investing in the health and wellbeing of workers means that their productivity is higher and their turnover is lower, and that’s good for the bottom line.

With financial downturns either for a particular company or for the economy, some philanthropic activities go away, but I’m actually okay with that. I want companies to be really rigorous about finding that sweet spot where the interests of the company and the interests of society align. That’s when it doesn’t go away, right? That’s when it doesn’t go away in financially tough times, because it’s so well embedded and so integral to the success of the business that it can’t be cyclical.

The work of Corporate Idealists continues to be an uphill battle. How we will know when we’ve reached the top of the hill? How do you define success- whether on a global scale or at a single company?

This is a little bit depressing, but it reminds me of this article that was in The Onion where the headline was something like “Dell Becomes Number One Computer Hardware Manufacturer, Decides to Close Up Shop”, quoting the CEO saying something like: “we have reached our goal and now we’re done. Thank you all very much.” The problem is that, like with many advocacy groups, unfortunately, we’re never going to be done. I could wax poetic about a day when nobody gets hurt in the course of doing business and that all companies realize that what’s in the interests of society is in the interests of their bottom line, but unfortunately, I don’t think that will ever be the case.

I think that success, like the work of the Corporate Idealist, is incremental. I want to see more companies on that list of companies with human rights policies, I want to see more companies trying to implement the U.N. Guiding Principles on business and human rights and sharing with all of us what is working and what isn’t, and I want corporate idealism to seem like less of an oxymoron than it does to some people today. But I think that there will always be jobs for the Corporate Idealist, because the infrastructure we have built up around our globalized consumption unfortunately means that there are going to be people who fall through the cracks. So there will always be jobs for people who are trying to fill those cracks.

I’d like to talk about the issue of what some have gone so far as to call new colonialism. I see a parallel between business and some of the thinking around the work of philanthropists or NGOs in the developing world in that these organizations impose themselves on a community, often with good intentions, but ultimately doing more harm than good. This is a complex issue and I’m not sure there is one answer – but my fundamental question is: is this just how globalization is playing out in these parts of the world and, if so, is it enough to give the community a seat at the table? Or is there more that we can be doing?

When I was working with BP in Indonesia, the project that I was focused on was in West Papua, which is a very remote part of the country. We were very conscious about not wanting to create a sense of dependency, and of trying to see if we could actually refute the resource curse. The resource curse is the phenomenonon –ironic, but tragic– that communities that discover natural resources usually end up worse off when those resources are developed. So we brought in all sorts of experts from around the world to advise us on resettlement (there was a village that had to move to make way for the plant that we were building), to advise us on community development and community engagement, and to try to see if we could be there in a way that empowered, rather than disempowered, local communities. To be honest, the jury is still out. I think that that project is going better than most other extractive projects that you could point to, but frankly that’s not saying much.

It will be generations before we know whether we’ve gotten this right and the outcomes aren’t really in the company’s control, so it would be hard to know if anything that we did directly caused how it turns out. I think that it’s all part of the big picture. As with any sort of development or service work, it’s really hard to say how this is going to turn out, but I do think that we have to try.

You talk a lot about the nonlinear career path available to people interested in this work, and the pressure you felt early on to gain fluency on the business side of things in order to exert influence on “above ground” issues. Without implying that your work is near over, I wonder if, looking back, you could share any steps or missteps that you found were especially formative, for folks who are looking to get in to this field.

I’m glad that I seized these seemingly random opportunities when they were presented to me. Going to Indonesia and going to China seemed pretty far-flung, but I’m glad that I did and I’m glad that I was very open in talking with people about what I was interested in, because that created opportunities for me to work in this space. When I got to Indonesia, there wasn’t a job working on social impact-related issues that I applied for. I went out there as a commercial analyst, but I was talking to anybody who would listen about the fact that I was really interested in the company’s role in society, so when the tiniest opportunity arose for me to help out with something at all relevant, people turned to me and said, “Hey, I know this is something you’re interested in. Do you want to help out?” I’m a strong believer in thinking out loud about what you’re interested in, because that creates opportunities.

Things that I regret? I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed in more mainstream business roles in one of the big business units, because I might have been in a position of a different kind of influence. It’s really hard for me to engage in hypotheticals, and I do know that when there was the possibility of my doing that kind of role, it simply didn’t interest me. It didn’t excite me, so I probably wouldn’t have gained any more seniority or influence or experience of the kind that I wanted because I wouldn’t have been awesome at it. It’s always hard to think about it in hindsight, but I’m really grateful for the series of opportunities that I’ve had and having created the space for them to emerge.

I’d love to get your reaction to Henry Ford’s definition of idealism: “An idealist is a person who helps other people to be prosperous.” Others say that idealism and prosperity don’t coexist all that well. How would you describe the relationship between being an idealist and making a profit, or helping others make a profit?

That’s a fantastic quote. For me, an idealist is someone who has a vision of a better world and believes that we can move in that direction — maybe not get there entirely, but believes that we can take significant steps in that direction. A Corporate Idealist believes that business is a way to help us get to that vision. I suppose part of that vision of a better world is about many people becoming prosperous, but it’s not just the people inside the company, it’s everybody who that company touches, and it’s the people who use the company’s products and services that should be better off for having done so. That everybody all along the value chain who has contributed to that product or service is better off because of it, and that the planet is better off because of it. I’m going to need to contemplate that a little bit, but I really like that quote.

To learn more about Christine and her work, visit and follow her on Twitter.

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About the Author | Kari Mirkin's underlying philosophy of work in the nonprofit sector is that we need to ensure equal and easy access to the things that make us who we are: the arts, culture, and lifelong learning. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, she received her Master’s of Nonprofit Organizations from Case Western Reserve University and spends her time as a Consultant with Grants Plus and member of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network's national board of directors. When she's not cheering on the Cavs or scouting out the nearest coffee spot, you can find her posting on Facebook,Twitter and LinkedIn.

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