05/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Remembering Ron Brown and Crafting an Agenda of Sustainable Commerce

While most of us might not pause on April 3, it is a date that should resonate with every American. It is the anniversary of the death of Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown. Secretary Brown and 34 other people, including more than a dozen dedicated public servants, lost their lives 13 years ago when, during an official trade mission, their plane crashed into a lonely mountainside outside Dubrovnic, Croatia.

It is interesting to imagine what the first African-American to chair the Democratic Party would say about the first African-American to serve in the Oval Office. Both were dedicated public servants who believed government has an important role to play in uplifting the lives of ordinary people. Secretary Brown also believed deeply in the power of markets to serve the public good.

When he ascended to the helm of the Commerce Department in 1993, it was a time of economic upheaval. The Iron Curtain had fallen, initiating a wave of privatization as economies awoke from socialism. Mature markets in Western countries were deregulating large industrial sectors. Across the world, countries were tearing down tariff and non-tariff barriers through bilateral and regional trade agreements.

Amid these rough currents, Ron Brown saw business and exports as powerful levers for good. Secretary Brown pioneered the notion of commercial diplomacy, a policy of encouraging capital flows and corporate investment toward impoverished areas or post-conflict regions. In service of this idea, he hopscotched across the world, from the war-torn Balkans to post-Apartheid South Africa to the slums of Gaza City. In all of these varied instances, Ron Brown consistently championed the constructive application of capitalism to address sectarian conflict, political disputes and social inequities.

Today, we find ourselves struggling in another period of economic turbulence. Recent headlines are filled with horror stories of financial traders run amok and corporations earning bailouts at the expense of taxpayers. While the private sector has been responsible for some of these ills, we need to rediscover the hope and potential of entrepreneurship and innovation - led by the business community.

If Ron Brown stood among us, I believe he would espouse the power of responsible business and advocate for a new contract between citizens and companies. He would demand that we see the interdependencies between public service and the private sector. As Secretary Brown campaigned for commercial diplomacy around the world, it is time to apply its lessons here at home.

In these difficult times, we need political leadership to highlight the positive impact of business and call attention to a new model of commerce, call it sustainable commerce. We need an approach that is market-oriented and mission-driven. As government attempts to reverse the recession, we need new models for commercial gain and social return. At a time when traditional sectors have failed the public, we need new leadership to create trust and demonstrate how business again can serve as a force for good -- creating jobs, generating incomes and driving social impact.

Already, the success of upstart companies such as Honest Tea, Blue Avocado, Method, New Resource Bank, and Tesla Motors demonstrates the ascendance of ethical brands, profit-oriented businesses endowed with a sense of service in their corporate DNA. Such companies drive margin and mitigate externalities, serving shareholders and stakeholders. These contrasts actually complement each other, building consumer loyalty and generating profits. Yet the firms that pursue such a dual bottom line would benefit from simple measures of support.

This moment calls for political leadership to embrace initiatives that support social entrepreneurship and cultivate "common good" capital markets. We do not need more subsidies but smart policies that align incentives and stimulate growth. For example, one could imagine the federal government encouraging standardized metrics to define social return on investment; developing lending programs that provide early-stage capital to social ventures that pursue a double-bottom line; and exploring regulation to create new hybrid corporate forms that blend a for-profit/non-profit mission. Secretary Brown endorsed programs such as "empowerment zones" to transform neighborhoods through economic development and job creation - maybe today we need into "sustainability zones" to promote localized social entrepreneurship and sustainable commerce.

Looking ahead, I know that Secretary Brown would assert that American business has a crucial role to play as we reinvent our economy and reinvigorate our society. He would insist on an agenda of entrepreneurship and innovation. He would seek to create community through commerce. In a time of turmoil, let's learn from Ron Brown and the dedicated public servants who died with him in Dubrovnic. Their example should remind us as to the power and promise of business to change lives for the better.

In memory:
Ronald H. Brown
Duane Christian
Adam Darling
Gail Dobert
Carol Hamilton
Kathryn Hoffman
Kathy Kellogg
Charles Meissner
William Morton
Lawrence Payne
Naomi Warbasse