Action, Not Words, Advance the Purpose Agenda

Last year at SAP Ariba Live, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Professor Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of Grameen Bank.

It was an honor to sit across from one of my personal heroes and listen as he shared his three greatest ambitions for the world: zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero net carbon emissions.

Professor Yunus has dedicated his life’s work to championing microcredit financing for the poor. By loaning small amounts of money to impoverished individuals, Professor Yunus posited that they would make good on the loans and become self-employed or grow small businesses. And they did. But today such programs are in jeopardy and their future uncertain, leaving millions hanging in the balance.

It is hard to imagine anyone predicting — let alone preparing for — the global coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has dramatically affected every aspect of our lives, with stay-at-home orders effectively shutting down economies and supply chain disruption limiting the delivery of both critical and basic goods and services. COVID-19 is actively challenging Professor Yunus’ goals.

COVID-19 Conundrum

Underemployment, unemployment, and poverty rates are increasing rapidly, especially among minority groups. The World Bank’s June 2020 Global Economic Prospects report shows that when compared with pre-crisis forecasts, COVID-19 could push 71 to 100 million people into extreme poverty in 2020, representing the first increase in global extreme poverty since 1998, and effectively wiping out progress made since 2017.

Net carbon emissions are down and projected to be seven percent less in 2020 than in 2019, but this is only due to the coronavirus pandemic halting trade and travel. To date, no global initiatives or governmental interventions have resulted in even this modest level of decline.

We should not expect this trend to continue nor to set us on the recommended path of 45 percent carbon reductions from 2010 levels by 2030. As history has shown, carbon emissions following global crises tend to rise quickly upon economic recovery.

Shareholder Versus Stakeholder Value

The Business Roundtable, members of which are CEOs of major U.S. companies, promised stakeholder over shareholder value in 2019, prioritizing “a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment, and economic opportunity for all.” However, a year later, too few of the organization’s members have adopted policies and procedures that would benefit the marginalized of society.

Whether businesses like it or not, the public is holding them to a higher standard, and demanding their participation in the collective good. Corporations hold tremendous power to drive real change.

Knowing that Professor Yunus’ goals cannot be achieved in a vacuum, nor in only prosperous times, how can we ensure that we fall on the right side of history as we personally and professionally aim to come out stronger as a global community?

Getting to Zero

All of us — who are global citizens first, and then corporate citizens — should challenge our employers and those whom we give our business to address the very real challenges surrounding global poverty, unemployment, and carbon emissions. Action, not words, is needed to advance a true purpose agenda at the world’s largest companies.

As a service provider and partner, SAP, like so many other corporations, should be held to the highest standards. And to the company‘s credit, we have launched several programs and engaged in many discussions with customers to provide support during this difficult time.

However, I encourage customers, partners, and employees to challenge us, ask us how we are measuring up against our promises, and demand that we do more. We need to look beyond the corporate social responsibility pages of our website and truly understand our carbon footprint, our global giving, and our focus on the environment to be able to develop economically sustainable products and services.

Corporations should also engage employees in a conversation about causes they care about, empowering them to build ideas into the corporate policy and driving real change at the board level.

Finally, where appropriate, businesses can support the launch of social enterprises through partnership with local communities and advocacy groups, helping to identify problems and collaborating to build innovative solutions.

Professor Yunus is an inspiration because he took a stand and saw it through. He has effected meaningful change. What I remember most from our interview is how he talked about having the courage to achieve his goals, even when everyone said he would fail. It is about time the corporate world did the same.


Baber Farooq is senior vice president of Product Strategy for SAP Procurement Solutions at SAP.