Social Change is a Team Sport, and Other Stakeholder Capitalism Wisdom from Jay Coen Gilbert

As a McKinsey consultant turned founder of a sports apparel company, turned co-founder of the benefit corporation movement, turned leader of an economic systems change movement, Jay Coen Gilbert sees his professional journey as a process of awakening and widening the aperture of his impact lens.  As the kickoff speaker for CASE’s 2021/22 Executive Speaker Series, Jay demonstrated how his life’s work embodies this year’s series theme: “Business’s Imperative Now: GOOD.” 

View the conversation here, or see below for a few (of our many) takeaways.

An evolving perspective, grounded in experience.

By continuing to practice curiosity and an open mind, Jay has used each of his professional experiences to build a foundation of knowledge that leads to a next level of impact.  As co-founder of a for-profit business, he explored the ways in which an individual business could be impactful – first through charitable giving, but also through exploration of organizational culture and treatment of employees.  The informality of this process led him and his co-founders to create B Lab, where they could work to set standards for a more holistic business relationship to social and environmental impact. Through the growth of the B Corporation and public benefit company movement (now encompassing over 5000 companies including Patagonia, Kickstarter and Coursera and issuing tools used by over 80,000 companies in 60 countries), Jay and his team recognized the limits of focusing on the “four walls of an individual business” and so worked to engage the aggregate power of communities of businesses.  Now, as CEO of Imperative 21, Jay is working on “resetting the rules of capitalism so that every business can work to create shared wellbeing on a healthy planet” through shifts in policy and cultural norms.

“The great game of business has evolved. It needs to be played within the boundaries of the planet. We’re moving from a company perspective to a systems perspective. And we may need to move from these practices being voluntary to required for all.”

Celebrate progress … and also be honest about the daylight between words and actions.

In his current work, Jay acknowledges that while there has been progress in the reformation of business, it is not a linear path. In fact, he said, “The distance between what is needed and what we are doing collectively for stakeholder capitalism is not a gap, it’s a chasm.” The statements and discussions from business and political leaders about stakeholder capitalism demonstrate an important shift, and yet so many structural and cultural impediments stand in the way of it becoming a reality.  Jay shared the example of Business Roundtable (BRT) Chairman and JPMorgan Chairman and CEO, Jamie Dimon, referencing legal impediments to moving JPMorgan to adopt the stakeholder governance practices that the BRT collectively defined as the purpose of business.  While Jay acknowledges the significant distance between what we are doing and where we need to be, he is careful to do so with curiosity and clarity – and not with shaming or condescension. 

“By 2030 all large companies are going to have to change their governance to stakeholder accountability or they will lose their license to operate. I believe it will happen.”

Do it together with others.

Jay encourages us to move beyond the mythology of the heroic individual, and to embrace the “team sport” nature of social change. He shared the example of the early B Corp adopters, who were self-identified as leaders in their industries – but knew that they were limited in what change they could achieve alone versus together with others as part of a collaborative movement.

Racial equity as a new leadership core competency.

Jay spoke about how different it feels to facilitate groups of businesses and how much time has to be taken to understand motivations and help people reach consensus. He also spoke with particular empathy and humility about issues of race and how they are changing leadership norms. “Digging into issues of race has been among the most rewarding and joyful of things I’ve been involved in in recent times. It’s taken a willingness to be vulnerable and it’s been scary. But sharing when you’re confused, in community with others, has been powerful.” Jay believes that showing up with curiosity and vulnerability about race is a core competency for leadership in the 21st century. “As a white man, I’ve been rewarded for projecting certainty. It’s been challenging to create speed bumps for myself so I can slow down and listen.”

We ended the conversation by asking Jay a few “lightning round” questions:

Q: What drives you?
A: Becoming a good ancestor.

Q: What’s your superpower?
A: Finding great partners.

Q: What book/movie/podcast most influenced your life?
A: Book: “Where Do We Go From Here” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Podcast: “To See Each Other” by The People’s Action Network

Q: What gives you hope?
A: The increasing number of people willing to be vulnerable. When I experience people doing that, I know there is growth possible on the back end of the vulnerability – and that gives me hope.

Please join us for two more exciting speaker events in 2022, as part of this year’s CASE Executive Speaker Series:

  • February 2nd: Michael McAfee, President & CEO of PolicyLink, discussing a CEO blueprint for racial equity
  • March 16th: Audrey Choi, Chief Sustainability Officer for Morgan Stanley, discussing investments in social change