Making Business Better

1 August 2014

CSR is an acronym for “corporate social responsibility.” It’s the way a business entity regulates itself in areas such as health, environment, human rights and other externals to its primary mission.

BP is a big oil company, and not an acronym for anything. Founded in 1909 as the Anglo-Persian Oil Co., it changed its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. in 1935, to British Petroleum in 1954 and to BP in 2001. In 1999 Christine Bader ’93 went to work for this nonagenarian corporation, and by her own admission, she fell in love.

The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist is the story of that romance, and it’s not exactly happily-ever-after.

The honeymoon was sweet. Bader (below) went to Indonesia, where BP was overseeing extraction of natural gas from the Tangguh gas field, one of those risky energy sources that high prices have made potentially profitable. BP knew the risks included environmental damage, political unrest and local economic disruption.

Christine Bader ’93

By most accounts, including her own, Bader and BP did well with their social responsibility in Tangguh. She moved on to China, where BP was collaborating with a Chinese company; that work seemed more frustrating.

Back at corporate headquarters in London, BP paid Bader to work part-time as an adviser to the United Nations special representative for business and human rights. Bader is justifiably proud of the results of this work, the “Ruggie Principles,” which protect and respect human rights in business. She started full-time at the UN in 2008, yet her heart belonged to BP.

If this is a love story, then in 2010 Bader found her lover in bed with the babysitter.

In the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes. Workers die. Crude oil leaks. BP backpedals. At a 2010 hearing Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) summed up how bad BP looked: “There is a complete contradiction between BP’s words and deeds.”

Bader can’t disagree and suffers a crisis of confidence. After a chat with a friend—also a Corporate Idealist, one of the sad ones “so marginalized that they don’t even know” they have no power in the corporation, Bader asks a probing self-critical question:

“Am I that deluded as well? Do I sound just as ridiculous, talking about the great things BP has done on human rights on a few projects in far-flung corners of the world, when the company’s behavior much closer to home appears to have been the opposite of exemplary? … Perhaps.”

This is brave writing, because this reader can only reply, “Well, yes. You sound like a lover betrayed, but trying to believe.”

Now a visiting scholar and lecturer at Columbia, Bader believes Corporate Idealists can “nudge our companies toward a vision of a better future.” Nudge is also the title of an important 2008 book that argued for a “libertarian paternalism” to offset the false assumption that most people make choices that are in their best interests. Perhaps this is also true for corporations—which are, after all, our fellow citizens, for better or worse.

Bader extends her metaphor this way: “The honeymoon is over. … It is time to settle in for the long haul, recognizing that my partner isn’t perfect and loving him all the more for it. Despite the failings of big business, I find myself still optimistic about its ability to make a positive difference in the world.”

It’s cause for some optimism that Bader and others like her are working to maintain the conscience of companies like BP. It’s not enough to make me trust the company, but it helps.

Corporate Idealist is no chronicle of natural selection. Bader was not a young person passionate about oil drilling who evolved an ideal view of the industry; she went in as an idealist to make business more responsible.

That’s the paradox of the Corporate Idealist. Milton Friedman wrote that, within the law, the only social responsibility of business is “to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” The Corporate Idealist is no more engaged in those activities than the army chaplain is in fighting the war. What’s the difference between a Corporate Idealist and a Military Chaplain? In the daily battles of business, there are no believers in the foxholes.


What Did Zeke Emanuel’s Mother Put in the Cereal?

28 August 2013

Amherst Magazine, Summer 2013

 Why write a memoir? Ezekiel J. (“Zeke”) Emanuel ’79 suggests a reason for his, Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family:

“For years,” he writes, “I had been jotting down random stories and memories I wanted to share with my children.” As family lore, Brothers Emanuel excels. It’s funny and poignant, a ’60s childhood starring three little rascals who try their parents’ patience with their pugnacious pranks. Zeke, the oldest, was studious and bossy but got into plenty of mischief. So did Rahm, who became mayor of Chicago, the city where they grew up, although he was “quiet and observant.” Baby Ari, now a fabulously successful Hollywood mogul, the model for the abrasive Ari Gold on HBO’s Entourage, was “forceful, rambunctious, highly social and hyperactive.”

Zeke Emanuel '79Zeke Emanuel ’79, brother of Rahm and Ari

Perhaps the leading American bioethicist, Zeke is vice provost for global initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He served in the Obama White House and chaired the bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health. But this is not an intellectual autobiography.

Neither is it a tell-all political or celebrity memoir, although it does expose some childhood mayhem. There was vociferous arguing around the Emanuel dinner table, fisticuffs with neighborhood kids and scrapes with teachers and police, all happening amid the social and political upheavals of the ’60s. The boys’ mother was an early and active supporter of labor and urban civil rights. The issues of the day were their daily bread.

A revealing chapter in his education and this book comes when Zeke, after his bar mitzvah, takes up study of the Pirkei Avot, a compilation of Jewish ethical teachings and maxims. The story of the way he learned to understand his family’s ethical foundation is best understood by reading it, but he summarizes it neatly: “Somehow, we all feel obligated to do good.”

We hear less about Emanuel’s education at Amherst, where he wasn’t all that happy. One of his college buddies meets Emanuel’s mother, of whom the friend recalls, “She always seemed a tiny bit dangerous.”

Dangerous and fascinating: Marsha Emanuel emerges from Brothers Emanuel as the character you wish had a bigger role. “My mother seemed a sort of expert nurturer, a woman who could make any child feel safe, secure, and valued,” Emanuel writes. “She was a highly intelligent, energetic, and motivated woman who was denied other careers, and motherhood was her profession. At the time it was a logical and productive way to channel her energies. I suspect that millions of other mothers in these pre-women’s-liberation days did the same.”

That passage’s uncritical acceptance of early-’60s sexism begs for deeper reflection. Marsha suffered “emotional storms,” as Zeke recalls them, and “tempestuous moods.” Why so moody? An intelligent, educated woman gives up career for family, has to explain to others that her political activism is not harmful to the children and then sits glumly in the station wagon on family vacations. Her problem, you might say, has no name, except that Betty Friedan exposed it in 1963 as “the problem that has no name.”

The boys also suffer under uncritical gender essentialism. Their angry and sometimes violent acts are praised. “[W]hen problems arose we did not have many ways to discuss them deeply. … So early on we internalized the notion that it was easier to give someone a kiss or a hug or a punch than to struggle to elucidate the nuances of our private feelings and emotions.” Emanuel says this is a “paradox” in a family that liked to talk so much. But might the boys’ violence have some relation to their mother’s silence?

Emanuel also suggests a second reason for writing a memoir:  to answer “the cereal question.” The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once begged him to introduce her to his mother, “to find out what she put in the cereal.”

Brothers Emanuel provides a sort of answer: travel, love and laughter, mixed with Jewish social gospel. If this is unsatisfying as a “how-to” guide for perplexed parents, Emanuel eloquently concludes that he is the product of an improvisatory riff of “jazz parenting.” That explanation works, especially if you believe what Louis Armstrong said when asked to define jazz: “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

As Emanuel writes of his childhood, “I saw that a man’s work was important, that he must pursue it tirelessly, and that it might require certain sacrifices.” I learned to write at the same time and place as Zeke Emanuel did; I’m sure that by “man” he means “person.” The person whose work and sacrifices I want to hear more about is Marsha (Smulevitz) Emanuel, the mother of three remarkable boys, whose tantalizing tale remains to be told. k

Paul Statt is a communications consultant in Philadelphia.