Building a Bridge Between Capitalism and Equity

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A Community Contribution by Stephanie Grise

When Judge Wilson handed down his ruling in what St. Louisans refer to as “The Stockley Verdict,” I was shaken. That ruling, which decided the fate of a law enforcement officer on trial for taking a life, caused me to question my role in our community as an attorney committed to social justice and as an attorney of color. Reading the judge’s words and opinions, I reflected on how the prosecutors presented the case, and it hurt me deeply to conclude that the system was designed to create a presumption of either guilt or innocence depending solely on how someone looked. From the circumstances that led the officer to pursue the victim that night, to how the circuit attorney’s office decided to file the charges and present its case, it seemed to all revolve around the looks of the victim. On top of it, the judge filled his written opinion with accolades for the police officer but only dismissive and racist comments about the victim. The verdict serves as a painful reminder that the system is loaded against poor communities and communities of color.

By this time, I had practiced law for 14 years and had gotten involved in my community’s social justice efforts. Yet we still ended up with a verdict that reflected how little change had been made. For more than a month, people protested because the community was in pain. I asked myself, How could we rebuild our community in a way that made us feel that all lives were valued? How could I use my relationships to encourage those of privilege to spend their resources in ways that would promote equity? In my searching, I wondered if Conscious Capitalism could be the answer. In fact, I was so deeply curious about Conscious Capitalism as a potential solution that I registered for the annual conference just a few months later.

En route to the conference, I struggled with a pivotal question: Could capitalism and equity really coexist? Like many people who feel we have lost the true essence of capitalism, I felt like each concept lived on opposite sides of a river and there was no bridge. I had seen it in so many companies that ran diversity and inclusion initiatives that were full of platitudes but lacking in substance.

Here’s the issue that kept coming up in my head: In a society that embraces an economic system that puts the power to create wealth into the hands of individuals, how do we motivate those with resources to invest in increased access to opportunity for those who have been denied those resources for generations, even if the return on that investment isn’t realized in the near term?

Applying the principles

As I started to understand from the annual conference, Conscious Capitalism attempts to reframe the traditional definition of that economic system around four principles: Higher Purpose, Stakeholder Orientation, Conscious Leadership, and Conscious Culture. Of the four, Stakeholder Orientation resonated with me both in how I live my personal life and how I build personal and professional relationships. But it’s also the strongest opportunity to bring equity and capitalism together in a substantive way.

When organizations commit resources to equity, diversity, and inclusion, they sometimes scratch their heads when, after lots of fanfare and celebration around the launch, their initiatives don’t stick. And, thinking about “capitalism” in the traditional sense, I can see why! The economic system supports private decision-making processes, implying that seeking engagement and involvement from those who do not have access and resources is not required. Stakeholder Orientation is more than just knowing who the stakeholders are and acknowledging them; it requires engaging them, powerfully.

With my feelings from the Stockley verdict still raw, and sitting through a two-year experience where the cost of equity—financial, emotional, temporal—was determined to be too high, I wanted to put all of what I learned at the annual conference together, to think about how a corporate culture that truly wanted to elevate all of humanity might approach Stakeholder Orientation.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Stakeholder engagement is critical: Conscious Businesses should be thoughtful about who the stakeholders are, what they want, what they need, what motivates them, and what values they contribute to organizational culture.
  • How stakeholders are engaged sets the tone: Conscious Businesses should involve stakeholders early and often, not just in the introduction of the idea but in the ideation, the decision-making processes, and the implementation of the program.
  • It’s okay to be uncomfortable in this space: Conscious Businesses should engage stakeholders in a meaningful way, even when difficult, and even if they are told something they don’t want to hear. Conscious Capitalism teaches that only this kind of full stakeholder engagement leads to the greatest value creation for all.
  • Developing a program to provide access to the disenfranchised does not give license to victimize them: Conscious Businesses should be respectful and empowering. Stakeholder engagement is about acknowledging that everyone who touches an organization has something to contribute and should be empowered to do so.
  • Be thoughtful about who defines “success”: Conscious Businesses should work with people directly impacted by the systemic challenges the programs are designed to address, in order to truly create meaningful change.
  • Diversity is not a brand: Conscious Businesses that care about creating inclusive environments for their employees, customers, and investors should treat diversity as an integral part of their culture, not a catch-phrase on a website.

There has been a spate of companies in the media making political and cultural missteps with respect to diversity. How might the most recent situation at Starbucks (where an employee called the police on two black men waiting for a business meeting, after one of them asked to use the restroom) have been handled if Stakeholder Orientation was front-of-mind?

Here are some ideas:

  • Proactively solicit feedback from customers about their in-store experiences, then develop corporate policies.
  • Look at safety measures to identify instances where implicit bias against a group or group of customers was present.
  • Before entering new communities, engage with future customers to identify their wants, needs, and expectations.
  • Conduct ongoing training to meet store and business responsibilities in a conscious, compassionate manner.
  • Periodically evaluate corporate culture for all stakeholders, and find outside accountability partners.

How would you advise your Conscious Business to respond? I see the reorientation of stakeholder integration towards stakeholder engagement as the bridge between traditional capitalism and equity that will free Conscious Businesses to truly elevate all of humanity.

Stephanie Grise has been practicing law for nearly 15 years and is currently corporate counsel with a large financial institution. She is also committed to her community, serving on the board of a holistic legal aid organization, and coaching an empowerment program for girls. She lives in St. Louis with her spouse and two children. Read more about Stephanie on LinkedIn.