Like nearly all of us living in the United States, I come from a family of immigrants.
My great-grandparents on my father’s side emigrated from Italy, and my great-grandparents on my mother’s side emigrated from Ireland. Everyone settled in Pittsburgh, where I spent a wonderful, middle-class childhood listening to my relatives debate traffic going “dahntahn” and telling me to go “warsh” up.
As a white girl born into an educated family, I grew up privileged. I didn’t know it at the time, but I do now.
I graduated from college, signed on to AmeriCorps, moved to Orange County, California, and began volunteering as a residential counselor in a group home that served at-risk yet academically capable girls. The experience was life-changing, and after a stint in the nonprofit sector, I now find myself leading a corporate foundation.
In the 16 years I’ve been in Orange County, I’ve witnessed first-hand the growing inequality between rich and poor, not just in my own neighborhood and up and down the freeways, but around the world as well.
And while magnificent strides have been made to cure social ills, too many problems still exist, and we are living in an unprecedented time of global change and volatility.
The private sector is primed to serve as the catalyst and leader for advancing social change. I offer three examples for what business can do to solve the complex issue of inequality and promote sustainable development.
Example 1: Mobilize corporate volunteers.
At my company, we have a vibrant employee volunteer program. We send colleagues to soup kitchens, to schools, to developing countries to share their expertise and skills, and so much more. Volunteering builds empathy, resilience and agility. Corporate volunteers tap into meaning, purpose and connectedness. Volunteers can encounter leadership growth and partake in experiential learning opportunities.
Facilitated correctly, volunteering provides a transformative experience that should move the volunteer – that should hook the volunteer into further action-for-good. Company by-products are increased retention, enhanced skill development, a more networked corporate culture, and inspiration in droves.
Example 2: Address the skills gap.
Let’s face it: the skills gap isn’t shrinking. According to this recent Wall Street Journal article, the number of available manufacturing jobs has been rising in the U.S. since 2009. In the Global Opportunity Network’s 2016 report, it was noted that “Youth all over the world are joining the ranks of the unemployed. Almost a quarter of the planet’s youth are neither working nor studying. Jobless growth is now a global reality for the next generation.”
If our education systems can’t properly prepare us for the world of work, then business must step in with appropriate training and development programs. Here is where the ‘haves’ can most certainly extend a hand to the ‘have-nots.’ Here is where we must run with innovation and creativity to ensure our global economic progress is not forever crippled.
For a sampling of innovation, one need look no further than the national nonprofit Per Scholas. Founded more than 20 years ago, Per Scholas trains unemployed and low-income workers for jobs in technology. The nonprofit creates opportunity, works to close the skills gap, and builds a more diverse IT workforce.
There are fantastic organizations like Per Scholas out there. With the private sector’s help, we can find them, foster partnerships, and help them scale so that together, we can put people back to work in careers, not just jobs.
Example 3: Embrace diversity.
Thanks to McKinsey and countless other studies, we know that companies with more diverse workforces perform better. A diverse organization allows for an inclusive work environment, which engenders a greater number of authentic conversations and relationships.
Talking about diversity both inside and outside the office can help clarify thinking and give voice to those whose stories need to be heard. Businesses can help by encouraging discussions about diversity, inclusion, and equity. Business can offer a blueprint for embracing our differences.
It’s 2017 and business has a responsibility to lead us toward empathy, social impact, and moral imagination and innovation. Yet we can’t just talk about it – we must do. So if your company doesn’t have an employee volunteer program, start one. If your company isn’t addressing the skills gap, figure out how it can. And if your company isn’t charging full speed ahead on diversity, then perhaps you should kick start that conversation.
After immigrants reached Ellis Island, they strengthened this country as they built their new homes. Let us be grateful for our multitude of differences the world over, and encourage business to harness its unique strengths for good.
This post is a part of a new series around responsive and responsible leadership in alignment with the World Economic Forum in Davos. If you’d like to join the conversation, please e-mail PurposePlusProfit@huffingtonpost.com.