After more than a year of preparation, the moment finally arrived. Exactly one month ago, we kicked off the Economic Mobility Fellowship by convening 15 incredible business leaders in the Chattahoochee Hills outside Atlanta for four days of learning, reflection, and connection. We were beginning a shared journey to better strengthen ladders of economic opportunity for people living in poverty across the U.S.
These ladders have become significantly more precarious in recent decades. Since 1980, economic inequality has increased almost continuously in the U.S., resulting in the most unequal distribution of wealth among industrialized countries, according to The World Bank’s Gini Index. And while employment is an essential ingredient in building wealth, more of today’s jobs look less like rungs on a ladder to financial stability and more like traps that lock workers and their families in a cycle of poverty. From 1948 to 1979, wages increased at roughly the same pace as worker productivity; since then, wages have only grown 17.3% even as productivity has soared by 64.6%, revealing that workers are getting less of a share of the value they create. This reality is one of the most entrenched and complex problems of our day, affecting the health of our democracy, environment and business landscape. And yet—after spending three days with these committed and action-oriented leaders from some of the most influential companies in America, one couldn’t help but feel a sense of optimism.
We know that business practice—particularly at large corporations—has an immense influence on the lives of their employees and the decisions of potential job seekers, suppliers, competitors, regulators, consumers, and more. We also know that change in business practice requires leaders inside the firm that demonstrate the courage and capacity to drive new business narratives, priorities, and practices. In other words: change requires corporate social intrapreneurs.
Through the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program’s flagship program, the First Movers Fellowship, we have accelerated the leadership development and impact of over 250 corporate social intrapreneurs. Since 2009, participants in the First Movers Fellowship have sharpened their capacity for leading change inside complex organizations while developing innovative initiatives that drive business value and address various environmental and social issues. In the past few years, we’ve grown determined to test the possibilities of leveraging the successful model of First Movers to build a new “issue-specific” Fellowship. More precisely, we wanted to test how might we accelerate the collective impact of individual initiatives through a cohort of cross-sectoral business leaders working on the same seemingly intractable issue. When the COVID19 Pandemic laid bare the critical effects of economic inequality and the urgency for real progress, it was clear where we needed to focus our efforts.
At the end of 2021, The Ballmer Group enthusiastically stepped in as a partner to support the development of the new program. With the resources we needed—and wind in our sails —we took on a yearlong effort to dissect this complicated topic, understand how we might add value to a robust field of inquiry and action, and design a program that supports corporate intrapreneurs committed to strengthen ladders of economic opportunity. The result is the new Economic Mobility Fellowship.
And so, when we finally gathered at the table in late February 2023 with these inspiring leaders, it felt like a culmination of considerable work. Yet it is only the beginning. This is the first seminar in a yearlong journey. We are in pilot mode—leveraging vast networks and years of experience to try something new. But the experiment is not ours alone. Fifteen visionary, passionate, and experienced Fellows from diverse industries have put their faith in the program and each other with a commitment to make real progress on this vexing issue. We are collectively determined to explore and exploit the possibilities for corporate influence on economic mobility.
Over the next nine months, we’ll pursue three key goals: First, equip these leaders with the data, tools, and coaching to optimize and accelerate their impact. Second, develop and leverage a cohesive community of aligned change leaders for support, learning, and accountability. Third, collect and share our learnings to inform other companies and the field more broadly. These learnings—on conditions for success, priorities for impact, and pitfalls to avoid—will be crucial for building a broader movement and having real influence.
We are excited to embark on this journey and by what we may discover. We hope this program can continue for years to come and sparks a groundswell of new corporate initiatives that increase economic opportunity and mobility in the US. And if the optimism, innovation and determination present at this first seminar are any indication, we are off to a great start.
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