Discussing Business and Society at INSEAD’s Summer Learning Festival

Published by Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society on 09 Sep 2020

In order to continue engaging fellow alumni through impactful online opportunities during the summer break, the INSEAD Summer Learning Festival featured an exciting line-up put together by the school’s Lifelong Learning team. Over 2000 live participants signed up for a total of 7 sessions organised around three tracks: (i) career development, (ii) technology and (iii) business and society. The Hoffmann Institute curated the latter offering four events and kick-started the Festival.

On 6th July, the INSEAD student impact club, INDEVOR, along with the Hoffmann Institute co-hosted an online event with the Paul Polman, Chair and Co-founder of IMAGINE and Hoffmann Institute Advisory Board member. Discussing ways to, “Build Back Better: For a green, inclusive and resilient recovery," Paul explained the importance of a sustainable recovery model in a post-COVID-19 world and the proactive role businesses can play in redesigning economies.

Encouraging everyone to get involved in transformative change, Polman said that the companies that will survive in the long run, “are the ones that contribute to a better world, and provide bigger services than what serves their own interest.” He further elaborated that every business needs to take more responsibility for its externalities and impact. “Less bad is not good enough anymore,” Polman voiced, “We now need to start showing that we have a positive influence on this world.”

The Summer Learning Festival kicked off the 9th July session with the question, “What happens to the European Green Deal in post-COVID world?Frans Timmermans, the European Commission Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, spoke to Katell Le Goulven, Founding Executive Director of INSEAD’s Hoffmann Institute, and Kevin Tayebaly, Co-Founder of the ChangeNOW Summit. Timmermans explained that the Green Deal is a plan to decarbonize the European economy by 2050 and incorporate the positive sides of this revolution while warding off its negative effects. The session called on businesses to be on board with the Green Deal, as it will function as a growth strategy out of the crisis and ensure the financial resources put into the recovery create a better, fairer society on the road to neutrality by 2050.

As Timmermans put it, “when society is changing profoundly, as it is today, if you are optimistic about your position in the society that is coming, you will accept a temporary downturn, but if you feel that change means loss, then you will resist any kind of change.” Embracing the Green Deal would tweak priorities to renovate homes and buildings for better energy-efficiency, or creating jobs in the renewable energy sector to demonstrate that people will gain from the Deal.

Prioritising lessons from female leadership during the pandemic was the focus of the 15th July session, “What We Can Learn from Women,” with Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, MBA’84 and CEO of 20-first. Citing transparency and decisiveness as the key characteristics of women leading countries that responded well to the pandemic, Cox mentioned, “They were very decisive right from the get-go. They locked down borders. They put in policies. They made actions very clear.” She went on to describe how specific traits are stereotypically seen as either feminine or masculine, and how this perpetuates gender inequality.  

The session also brought attention on how men can support women at the workplace. With 20th century seeing the focus on women’s progress, the 21st century appears to be the time for male leadership to set an example for their male counterparts on how to act on and respond to gender issues. Cox explained that while this could appear as a threat to male leadership, the right amount of education and information will help the gender balance. Additionally, men should also sponsor and support high potential women, and pull them into the organisations’ leadership the same way that men are.

Continuing the discussion on a different aspect of inequality was the 16 July session, “Unearthing the Roots of Systemic Racism,” where Sciences Po Adjunct Professor Felicia Henderson explained the historical roots of white privilege and anti-Black racism, which are the two key concepts that sustain systemic racism in the United States and globally. “The social construction of race has been an integral part of US society from the early days of European colonisation,” she explained and emphasized that racial categories were deliberately created to award special legal rights to some human beings while depriving others of basic human rights. She unpacked how these calculated choices were in service to a business model that enriched European countries and European-descended colonists in the Americas while exploiting the resources of both Africa and the Americas.

The panelists then explored the contemporary global ramifications of systemic racism, with INSEAD Professor Zoe Kinias explaining how racist ideology has spread due to the influence of the US on education, media and entertainment. Panelists reflected on potential paths toward dismantling systemic racism including by increasing the hiring and support of Black employees, creating social networks and capital among Black employees and leaders, empowering African institutions so as to avoid modern day extraction (i.e., attracting the best talent away from Africa), and transforming businesses to be more inclusive.

Wanting to transform food and land use systems was the key takeaway of the last business and society session held on 29th July jointly organized by the Hoffmann Institute and the Community Impact Challenge . “Healthy People, Healthy Planet, Healthy Economy: the power of sustainable food systems,” kick-started with André Hoffmann, patron of the Hoffmann Institute and Vice-Chairman of Roche Holdings, by pointing to weaknesses in the status quo. “The value-creation model needs attention. We are consuming nature faster than we can regenerate it. The World Economic Forum states that half of the global GDP- and I would argue 100% - is at risk. Business has to express itself as a force for good by restoring nature,” he said.  

Based on scientific evidence provided by the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), the session presented the structural risks associated with food and land systems and showed how different approaches could unlock huge benefits for people and the planet. An ambassador of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Olam CEO Sunny Verghese showed how, through a series of specific actions, a global food and agri-business company could transition to more sustainable practices.

In covering these topics, the INSEAD Summer Learning Festival highlighted frictions between business and society and, through research-informed discussions, also seeded ideas for new pathways and solutions, in order for the world to recover from the COVID pandemic in a more inclusive and sustainable manner.


This piece was made possible with collaboration from Felicia Henderson, Aubrey Keller (INDEVOR), Adela Chelminski (ChangeNOW), Neil Courtis (Sensible Media Ltd), and Virginia Brumby Ferreira MBA;09J (Co-Lead, Community Impact Challenge (CIC) Academy).


Category:  Learning

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