Yale academic who convened ‘woke’ CEO summit says business leaders must speak out on social issues

The Yale academic behind a series of summits for business leaders had defended his sessions against claims of being ‘woke’, saying: ‘Maybe it’s a good idea to awaken to social justice.’

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for executive programs at Yale School of Management, is famed for his contacts with the world’s most influential CEOs, and for his elite discussion forums.

On April 11 he convened a Zoom meeting of senior corporate figures to discuss their feelings towards the Georgia voting law, in the face of social media pressure for businesses to respond. Coca Cola and Delta are among the companies to condemn the new rules, and Major League Baseball has moved its all-star game out of Atlanta.

The meeting, and others hosted by Sonnenfeld, have been criticized as pushing business leaders down a dangerous path, and urging an unnecessary political stance.

But Sonnenfeld, who has advised presidents including Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, insisted there was nothing wrong with his debates.

‘There are all these people trying to use this taunting term of “woke CEOs,” suggesting that there’s something wrong with awakening,’ he told Insider

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, of the Yale School of Management, insists it is right for CEOs to speak out

‘Maybe it’s a good idea to awaken to social justice. It’s a term that goes back to the ’60s. 

‘I thought, let’s not say that something is wrong with looking at social issues.’

Sonnenfeld, 67, said that the CEOs he spoke to were keen to avoid divisive policies, as they ‘don’t want angry communities.’

He said unrest was bad for business, adding: ‘They don’t want people who feel like their safety is at risk. They don’t want workers who feel unsafe. In fact, they don’t want employees pointing fingers at each other either. They don’t want divided shareholders.’

Not all business leaders agree with Sonnenfeld’s defense of ‘woke’ corporate policies.

Brian Armstrong, founder of cryptocurrency platform Coinbase, sparked fierce debate in the fall when he told his staff he wanted work to be free from political and social debate. As a result, about 60 employees, or 5 per cent of his staff, took a payout. 

Sonnenfeld, however, said business leaders were now looked to for guidance, as ‘pillars of society’, who had a duty to respond to the societal questions of the day.

Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, organized a letter from 72 black CEOs protesting Georgia's new law

Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, organized a letter from 72 black CEOs protesting Georgia’s new law

‘I think it is part of a CEO’s job to take a look at the larger ripple effects on society,’ he said. 

‘It’s not the only part of a CEO’s job – they’re not politicians. 

‘Their boards of directors are not municipal city councils. 

‘The most respected pillars of society are not journalists or the media. It’s not academia. It’s not public and elected officials. It’s also not the clergy, sadly, as much as it is business leaders.’ 

Sonnenfeld also argued that business leaders could no longer stay silent about social issues. 

‘Silence indicates acquiescence. And with decisions, you can’t punt this one. You can’t kick it down the road,’ he said. 

‘That’s what’s so troubling about some CEOs who haven’t yet spoken out. By not saying anything, you’ve spoken.’

Arthur Blank, Home Depot co-founder and owner of Atlanta Falcons, was praised for his role

Arthur Blank, Home Depot co-founder and owner of Atlanta Falcons, was praised for his role

Mellody Hobson, chairwoman of Starbucks, was also celebrated for her 'optimistic' vision

Mellody Hobson, chairwoman of Starbucks, was also celebrated for her ‘optimistic’ vision

Sonnenfeld singled out several of the 90 leaders who attended his April 11 call for particular praise.

He said Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot and owner of NFL team Atlanta Falcons, gave a ‘thoughtful discussion’ about how event management teams, sports, athletes, and those involved in entertainment ‘are looking at the public voice and looking at voting with your dollar when there’s misconduct.’

He praised Mellody Hobson, chairwoman of Starbucks, for speaking with what he described as optimism about ‘how the world can be, how business life can be’.

He also singled out Ken Frazier, chairman and CEO of pharmaceutical company Merck, as ‘the most eloquent person living, breathing today that I know from any sector’. 

Frazier was instrumental in assembling a group of 72 black CEOs who signed a letter condemning Georgia’s voting laws, which Biden has attacked for being reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.

‘Right now, business leaders have an extraordinary amount of trust and they’re stepping up to the plate to take on that responsibility,’ said Sonnenfeld. 

‘For effectively functioning capitalism, you have to have people who believe in the system. You need to have a functioning democracy for our system. They are inextricably intertwined. 

‘I think that business leaders recognize that.’

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