April 18

By Rob Garver

In the weeks since the Republican-controlled Legislature in the state of Georgia passed a law making it more difficult for many citizens to vote in its elections — a move that is expected to disproportionately affect African Americans and other minority groups — hundreds of business leaders have signed open letters deploring efforts to restrict access to the ballot box.

The movement has attracted companies associated with the new information-era economy, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as stalwarts of the old guard of American business, such as General Motors and IBM. All four were among the hundreds of companies and business leaders who signed an open letter in support of voting rights that spanned two pages in The New York Times last week.

Seeking shared values

Historically, most businesses have tried to avoid taking stands on issues outside the realm of their corporate interests. But as a younger generation of business leaders and consumers gains influence, that is changing, according to corporate experts.

“What’s happening today is that people want to work for companies that share their values; people consume goods and services from companies that they think reflect their values,” said Craig Robinson, a co-founder of the Leadership Now Project, which helped organize a meeting of CEOs that led to the letter in the Times. “So companies are more than just in the business of creating shareholder value. The broader stakeholder system is today, more than ever, expecting companies to do more.”

According to Robinson, a former senior executive at WeWork and a member of various startup company boards, corporations are very attuned to the fact that younger business executives have expectations about the companies they work for that may not have been as openly expressed in previous generations.

“[They] want to see their values reflected in the brands of the goods that they purchase, but also the companies they work for,” he told VOA. “And in the war for great talent, these are not just secondary considerations. These are really of top-of-mind importance for business leaders, to make sure that they are viewed as a place where the best and brightest talent wants to go work. This is very real.”

Additionally, the studied silence that has often been the option of choice for many companies becomes harder to maintain when increased transparency and searchable databases make it simple to see whether a firm has taken a stand on a salient political issue.

“It can sometimes come across as being complicit when there are, as an example, very blatant attacks on voting rights and you elect to not say something or to not speak out,” Robinson said.

Leadership Now Project

The Leadership Now Project first came together when 10 women, all Harvard Business School classmates, met up at the Women’s March in Washington in 2017. The group’s CEO, Daniella Ballou-Aares, helped build a network of hundreds of business executives across the country determined “to fix American democracy.”

The group was built on four founding principles: the idea that democracy should be protected; that facts and science ought to be respected; that the economy should benefit all Americans now, and in the future; and that diversity in the United States is an asset.

In the years since it was formed, Leadership Now has persuaded more than 1,000 top business leaders to sign on to various commitments, including pledges to improve minority representation on corporate boards, and concrete steps to address the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, when supporters of former president Donald Trump tried to reverse the 2020 presidential election results in his favor.

An opportune time

Robinson said that it is a particularly good time for business leaders to speak up, because the community is now one of the most widely trusted institutions in U.S. society.

Edelman, the global communications firm that publishes a “Trust Barometer” every year measuring the amount of confidence people have in various institutions, found in its 2021 edition that the business world had moved ahead of nongovernmental organizations, the media and the federal government to become the most trusted institution in the country. (All rankings are relative, of course. Business won with 54% of respondents expressing at least some trust in it.)

“Companies have more influence on our politics than perhaps they did in the past,” Robinson said. “The amount of money that pours into elections and to lobbying, and the degree to which our political parties and the government more broadly depends on corporate support also gives rise to a bigger platform than perhaps we’ve seen in the past. … The question is, are you going to use your platform and your influence and your power for good or not?”

Depoliticizing the issues

The pitfall that the Leadership Now Project and other groups like it will have to navigate around is the relentless politicization of issues such as voting rights and racial equity. The restrictive voting laws that business leaders are speaking out about are all the products of Republican-led state legislatures, and speaking out against them has earned businesses a sharp rebuke from the Republican Party, including a threat from Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, that they could face “serious consequences” for speaking out.

Some lawmakers have tried to make good on the threat.

At the federal level, Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri have introduced legislation to strip Major League Baseball of its exemption to antitrust laws after the league relocated the annual All-Star Game away from Georgia in reaction to the state’s new voting law.

After Georgia-based Delta Air Lines issued a statement condemning the state’s new law, Republicans in the state Legislature proposed rescinding a tax break on jet fuel that benefits the airline.

Some Democrats, including President Biden, have welcomed businesses’ response to Georgia’s new voting law. Biden voiced his support of Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game.

“I think today’s professional athletes are acting incredibly responsibly,” Biden said in an interview with sports channel ESPN. “I would strongly support them doing that. People look to them. They’re leaders.”

‘Reframing’ the discussion

Robinson said that the task is “reframing” the discussion in a way that moves it out of the political realm and into the real world.

“Capitalism depends on a healthy democracy,” he said. “Businesses cannot be successful, they can’t operate, if the institutions that support them, that protect them, that give them the cover they need to operate, aren’t functioning. Capitalism needs democracy to work in order for capitalism to work. And social unrest is not good for business.”

Taking issues like voting rights out of politics creates a “safe space” for people to have a discussion, Robinson said.

“We’re not in the business of trying to shame people,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a sustainable motivation. And, in fact, I think people are less inclined to want to step out if they feel like that’s ultimately going to be what happens. So I think we would rather create safe space — the resources, best practices, ideas, and research that allow them to figure out how best to do it — and then encourage them on the way. This whole idea of a cancel culture, I think, makes people really shy when we need them to be bold and show up as leaders.”