In February 19, 2016, three of NYU’s professional schools – the Stern School of Business, the Law School, and the Wagner School of Public Service – co-hosted the sixth annual Social Innovation Symposium. Despite all falling under the umbrella of NYU, it was a relatively rare instance of cross-institutional collaboration, and one that was indicative of business’s changing approach to social impact and responsibility.
The day consisted of a multitude of events featuring notable professionals from both the public and private sectors. Among these was Dalila Wilson-Scott, Stern alumna, current Head of Global Philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), and president of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. Dalila kicked off the morning with a conversation, moderated by Stern Professor Karen Brenner, which set the tone for the rest of the day.
Contrary to what some may have expected, Dalila did not arrive at her current position from the public sector, or even with extensive experience in social enterprise outside philanthropic leadership in JPM; instead, she came directly from within the banking industry. Prior to heading JPM’s Global Philanthropy, Dalila worked as a Senior Strategic Planning Director focused on evaluating new business initiatives for the bank, and then in JPM’s Merger Integration Office, where she oversaw the merger of JPM and Bank One, one of the largest in the history of the financial services industry. She views her background and foundation in banking not as incidental to her current role, but rather as requirements for it. As the Head of Philanthropy, Dalila said, she fields and considers esoteric and industry-specific questions that demand an intimate knowledge of JPM’s values and operations. This experience ensures that the decisions she makes are in line not only with what the bank stands for but actually does.
Dalila’s story, in addition to other talks I attended during the day, made me reflect on the traditional perception of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as confined to – and assigned to – a specific type of individual who may be isolated from what a firm really does. This perception may lead others in a company to resent or isolate their own CSR initiatives, since they may view these projects as attempts by outsiders who don’t understand the business to siphon profits away from the company’s employees, even if for important PR or social reasons. Indeed, CSR initiatives are often treated by corporate leaders as side-projects, or at least tangentially related – if at all – to core business operations.
Dalila’s history of knee-deep involvement with the industry and her company before getting involved with its social impact is part of a recent trend bucking this pattern; her colleagues can’t perceive her as anything but committed to their core business missions, and she is able to credibly connect her philanthropic decisions with those principles. While human rights experts and environmentalists can certainly meaningfully contribute to CSR initiatives, recent experience demonstrates that CSR initiatives are most effective when they enjoy broad-based employee buy-in and support. The best way to guarantee this support is to ensure that such initiatives are relatable to those engaged in the business of… well, business.
Despite recent shifts, business expertise still tends to be undervalued in the field of corporate-driven social change. CSR initiatives and businesses alike would benefit from properly valuing the centrality of the former to the latter.
Kimberly Rodriguez is a Stern MBA 1 student and graduate fellow with the Center for Business and Human Rights.