THE BLOG

Global Business Leaders Can Help Drive Positive Social Outcomes

10/18/2010 01:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With global markets in turmoil, governments around the world have been busy putting out the fires of market-originated crises and laying the groundwork to rebuild in their aftermath. They have done so sometimes individually and sometimes in coordination with one another, utilizing gatherings such as the G-20 meeting, which convenes in November in Seoul.

Yet governments, whether alone or in concert, can move us forward only so far.

If past financial dislocations are any guide, business and the markets must do their part to fuel economic recovery and generate new development. This fall's G-20 meeting will be accompanied by a parallel B-20 Business Summit of global businesses -- a positive sign that the international business community is recognizing and embracing the critical and transformative role it can play on the global stage.

I believe that business, arguably the most powerful resource on the planet, must take a leading role in addressing the challenges the world faces, and not just in the economic sphere. Environmental degradation, global climate change, poverty, disease, and human exploitation are all concerns that business should help address. All the better if this responsible reaction to the world's problems can promote profits at the same time that it improves quality of life. When businesses work to solve social problems, they endorse connectivity and collaboration. The goal is to increase the velocity of commerce that drives progress and creates newly-empowered generations of consumers eager and prepared to embrace the security and rewards of middle class life.

Yet, traditionally, most business schools and global businesses have focused on the developed world, largely ignoring three-quarters of the world's population. This mindset is shifting dramatically, not only out of a sense of social purpose, but also because it has become increasingly clear that the world's future economic growth lies outside the developed nations. Business schools and the graduates of our programs have an obligation to create knowledge and advance business approaches that will enhance social and economic welfare in these developing countries and further accelerate the rise of a new global middle class. At Wharton it is central to our mission: business can and must be a force for good.

For what is missing in many developing market economies is management capability and the sense of entrepreneurship that allows people to create their own destinies by building new enterprises. After all, the next generation will encounter business challenges and opportunities that don't yet exist. People need to be able to develop the skills that will enable them to adapt to the changing marketplace, whether that means launching a new business, embracing a new business model, finding a new way to communicate, or pioneering a new technology. Business leaders in growing economies who seek to make a global impact will need to adapt to international business practices, regulations, ethical standards, and demands for transparency. This is where business schools can and should play a major role.

We need to develop new approaches to building opportunities and enterprises in every region of the world, while at the same time empowering future business leaders to embrace the potential for private enterprise to serve the public good. As Dean of the Wharton School, I have witnessed first-hand the talents and values of this new generation, and I am confident that under their leadership, we will see the emergence of a new economic architecture -- one focused on expanding prosperity for all, rather than on maximizing profit for a few.

Meanwhile today's global business leaders must continue to examine their roles in addressing economic challenges and creating social value. At the Seoul Business Summit in November, international business leaders will gather to discuss ways to reenergize trade and help jumpstart the post-crisis recovery trajectory. This is incredibly heartening, for such gatherings are just the kind we need to re-engage business leaders in a thoughtful goal-setting discussion about facilitating freer trade and investment flows, helping the financial markets serve society's interests, and promoting worthy environmental and social responsibility agendas.

Thomas Robertson is the dean of The Wharton School