Rioters outside the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021. A letter signed by more than 300 MBAs calls on business leaders to protect American democracy: Wikipedia photo by Tyler Merbler.
A year after the January 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, more than 300 MBAs from top business schools have signed an open letter calling on business leaders to take action to protect voting rights and America’s democratic institutions. The letter was sent to the Business Roundtable Wednesday evening (January 26), an organizer of the effort tells Poets&Quants.
“On the heels of the one year anniversary of the January 6th Insurrection against American democracy, we – the undersigned business students – have watched with concern as business leaders largely remain silent and sidestep accountability for defending the integrity of American democratic institutions. We believe more courageous, active leadership is required,” reads the letter, a copy of which was provided to P&Q.
The letter was penned by the Cross-MBA Democracy Task Force, a group of MBAs from five of the country’s top business schools: Wharton, Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business and MIT Sloan School of Management. The 300 signatures so far are from MBAs representing more than 10 business schools and counting.
The front page of The New York Times on Jan. 7, 2021
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a lot of America watched in horror as this insurrection, revolt, attack descended on the United States Capitol, leading to a number of people losing their lives,” says Matt Devine, an MBA2 at Stanford GSB and a member of the Cross-MBA Democracy Task Force.
“I think what was most notable was how quickly what felt like a very universal reaction from the American people changed and became quite polarized. It was almost like light hitting a prism, and people started looking at and interpreting the events in very self-serving ways.”
CALLING AMERICA’S TOP CEOS TO ACCOUNT
The Business Roundtable is a lobbyist association of CEOs from top U.S. companies “working to promote a thriving U.S. economy and expanded opportunity for all Americans through sound public policy,” according to its website. Members include Andy Jassy of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Lynn Good of Duke Energy, and nearly 200 other chief executives.
The MBA task force letter includes three actions the signed business students want to see business leaders undertake:
Enabling employees to be civically engaged in this year’s elections.
Withholding financial support from elected officials in Congress and state capitols who deliberately undermine our democracy.
Leveraging their platforms and influence to support efforts that expand access to voting.
You can read the full letter and see the signatures of the 300-plus MBAs here or click through to the end of this story. Also check out this commentary from January 7, 2021, written by Poets&Quants editor in chief John Byrne: Why Wharton Should Take Back Trump’s Business Degree.
Poets&Quants interviewed Matt Devine, a writer of the letter and task force member, on Wednesday morning. Read the conversation on the next page. It has been edited for length and clarity.
NEXT PAGE: P&Q’s interview with Matt Devine, Stanford MBA, one of the letter’s authors of the letter and task force member.
Westside view of the U.S. Capitol. Wikipedia Commons photo by Martin Falbisoner.
Read our conversation with Matt Devine below. It has been edited for length and clarity.
How did this effort get started?
There has been a group of students that, since the election in 2020, were organized around protecting voter integrity. It was basically just a group of interested students across some of the top MBA programs who were on a Whatsapp chain, talking about democracy as well as the ongoing political situation.
Then, in November this year, there was a smaller offshoot of the group that really felt that there was a voice that MBA students could have. We started seeing over the course of the last year, since the January 6 insurrection, that there were a number of business leaders who were speaking out and taking steps both to withhold campaign funding as well as issue press releases. We saw a lot of different, more extraordinary actions from the private sector, around a number of different issues, including racial justice.
Matt Devine, MBA ’22, is an author of the letter and member of the MBA democracy task force
We started thinking there might be a role for MBA students to model the sort of behavior that we would hope that business leaders in today’s environment would have. We also wanted to acknowledge that the reason that the private sector continues to be as successful as it is, is because of the integrity of the public sector and the trust and faith that people place in democratic institutions.
It started as just a small group of interested students, sharing ideas about what this would look like and what sort of action we could take. And obviously, this very short period of time of two years that we’re in our MBA programs, so we thought that a letter would be one of the better ways to (express our viewpoints) and also to gauge how many other students were thinking similarly. That coalesced around the three actions that are listed in the letter and in the preface of why we feel like this is the time to take tangible actions to support democratic institutions.
How did this idea spread to more than 10 business schools?
It started with one of my friends, Lucas Levine (Stanford GSB MBA ’22), who is a dual student at the GSB and the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). He heard from students at Stanford GSB on the private side (of business) and from students at HKS, which obviously self-selects students who have different perspectives on the public sector.
Then it became just a group of people that we knew from different schools, either that we had met at conferences or in various virtual environments last year, who we thought would be interested in this question. So we reached out and asked who was interested in a more active role for the private sector and who would be down to put together an action from the MBA perspective. It coalesced to around 12 different students who were involved at various times. Some were involved in the ideation process, some were involved in the writing and then some were involved in gathering signatures. We had a couple representatives at every school.
Why did you pick the Business Roundtable as the recipient of the letter?
The Business Roundtable has shown an interest in the last couple years of taking a new approach to the way that the private sector and business leaders can have an impact. That is in terms of the workers that they hire, their supply chains, the way they think about the policies they implement. So not just shareholders and employees, but also people in their communities that they impact as well.
Most notably, I suppose, was their statement on climate change, as well as taking more proactive stances publicly against social issues. We felt that this was at least one of the largest targets and certainly one of the most public places to really get this word out there and maybe even find a lot of receptive ears from business leaders. They are the people who are hiring business students from these universities, and are hopefully finding people who support the actions that they’re currently taking. There is a momentum in business schools for this sort of activity and these sorts of actions.
Why do you think it’s important for businesses to speak out about issues that, in the past, might have been considered outside their lane?
I think there are a number of different reasons to do so. One, kind of underpinning it all, is that the reason that capitalism, at least in the United States, is such a persuasive voice in society writ large is because it’s protected by the public sector. There is a lot of trust in democratic institutions. Without a strong public sector, there can be, really, no private sector in the United States. It is one of the things, I think, that makes our country very unique. If people don’t have trust in these institutions, how does that impact the way we think about business, both in the United States and abroad? For a long time, we were able to take it for granted in a lot of ways.
I also think the expectations for business leaders has become greater in a number of different categories. We see that in terms of the actions around diversity and inclusion, providing working wages, supporting minimum wage workers and more. There’s just a more compelling narrative and a groundswell of support for businesses to provide services and independence to workers in all fields.
You said you have more than 300 signatures so far. Is that higher or lower than what you were hoping for?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I think there was some discussion that we were maybe not specific enough in the ask that we had and because of that we weren’t going to get very many signatures.
There were a number of people who felt that 300 was an excellent number to get in the short period of time that we put up for signatures which was about a week. And there were people who felt this is a great first step in what we hope becomes a larger coalition of business students speaking out about values they want to see represented.
There are some, like myself, who feel that 300 is not as many as we had hoped for. I’m in Stanford, and we have 900 students. This group now has 10 business schools. This is, I guess, one of the first efforts of its kind, but I would hope that there’d be more students who would be interested in putting their name to paper to represent what I personally think could be even a stronger statement and even more specific about the sort of actions that business leaders can and should consider.
This is also a new initiative. Students aren’t, maybe, used to the idea of putting their name on a piece of paper that could go public without knowing the sort of impact that it could have. This is a very new topic, for business leaders and for students who can’t quite imagine the sort of leadership role that they will have down the line. I think this is a new conversation, which is another goal of this letter and hopefully future actions as well: To get students talking about the role of the private sector and what we can do as business leaders in the scope of influence in our communities.
What was it about the January 6 anniversary that made you feel an action like this was required?
At first, you saw business leaders who very quickly put out a statement saying that they supported the 2020 election, that they did not believe that there was any sort of deception, and who they would donate to or not donate to based on who cast doubt on the election.
Slowly we’ve seen that change. We’ve seen a number of businesses who have put out press releases from their communications department as well as business leaders walk back some of those statements, or even interpret what seemed like black and white language to insert a little more gray area. As it’s become apparent that this isn’t something that the American people agree about what actually happened, what it meant, and what it could mean for democracy, there has been a lot of back tracking. That indecision and opportunism is why I think this is an important action.
This has been such a galvanizing event. Coming up on the one-year anniversary, we found it startling the number of commitments people had made but hadn’t followed through, and how much what they were willing to say publicly had changed. We felt it required a reassertion that this is still the time and this is still the place for a new sort of leadership.
What do you hope happens in response to your letter? What does success look like?
I don’t think we’re overly optimistic that that will see any change per se. What I do hope is that the students who signed this letter and who are part of this effort, continue to think about what tools they have as future business leaders and people being hired by these companies, what companies they are willing to accept jobs from, what sort of values they have, and what actions they can take within their place of business to push leaders to to really examine their influence. I really hope that students who have signed this letter can find other business leaders who feel similarly and have more conversations about what is possible when we act by ourselves and what’s possible when we act together.
What are the publicity plans? Obviously, it will have more impact the more people know about it.
We’ve created social assets for everyone to share on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, etc., that include smaller excerpts from the letter itself, as well as some statistics on the number of students who have signed it. We’re hoping to make it very easy for students who have signed to tell people what it means to them.
We’re also reaching out to a couple of media outlets. Media may not be our primary way of getting this out. There were no aspirations of being on the front page of The New York Times or anything. We just want to put the letter out there to have this be a statement that that lives by itself.
NEXT PAGE: Read the MBAs’ full letter to the Business Roundtable.
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The full letter to the Business Roundtable is printed below. Click here to see the more than 300 MBA signatures.
Thursday, January 27, 2022
To: Business Leaders of the United States
Re: Call to Action – Protect American Democracy
On the heels of the one year anniversary of the January 6th Insurrection against American democracy, we – the undersigned business students – have watched with concern as business leaders largely remain silent and sidestep accountability for defending the integrity of American democratic institutions. We believe more courageous, active leadership is required.
We stand in solidarity with those business leaders who had the courage to take action against ongoing efforts – allegations that undermine election integrity, restrictions on voting access, and donations to public officials who support these actions – that corrode our democratic process.
Business has a critical role in protecting our democracy. We envision and expect a future where our future employers and business partners take action to:
Enable your employees to be civically engaged in this year’s elections, such as by providing time off to vote, encouraging employees to volunteer as poll workers, and hosting voter registration drives.
Withhold financial support from elected officials in Congress and state capitols who deliberately undermine our democracy by bolstering unsubstantiated claims of fraud — this includes the 8 Senators and 139 members of Congress who objected to the Electoral vote count in 2021.
Leverage your platform and influence to support efforts that expand access to the ballot, at both the federal and state level, and to push back against voting restrictions as they are introduced in legislatures across the country.
Following the anniversary of the January 6th Insurrection, we implore business leaders to take these simple actions. The future of the American (and global) economy at this moment lies with you.
MBA Students for the Preservation & Protection of Democracy
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