Will the turning of the calendar mean the turning of a page on the crises of 2020? This question is surely top of mind as 2020 nears its end. Yet, it’s a question complicated by the fact that, while 2020 will be remembered as the year of COVID-19, the pandemic revealed an array of other, longer-standing issues: economic inequality, systemic racism, stresses on democracy, and the rising threat of climate change.
Sometimes with changes in words, and sometimes with changes in action, in 2020 the business world signaled that it had a part to play in meeting these challenges. To determine what will truly outlast this year—and whether it might really lead to a better world—we asked leaders in social impact, business, and academia:
In 2021, what trends within business do you foresee as a result of the crises revealed in 2020?
Here’s how 16 leaders responded.
1. Leading companies will drive change rather than be subjected to it
COVID-19 has changed all of society, including the private sector. Three themes emerge as we look ahead to 2021. First, businesses are focusing more and more on social purpose and social impact. Second, they’re also thinking more about resilience and business continuity in the face of future crises. Finally, we have seen an intensified private sector commitment to racial equity—from the c-suite to the board room, from investments to philanthropy, from compensation to purchasing, and more. What’s clear is that 2020 was a demanding but defining year for organizations of every kind, and leading organizations are creating the change that they and we need.
—Dan Porterfield, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute
2. Forward-thinking leaders will address individual challenges as parts of an interconnected system
The year 2020 revealed many things, none more so than the link among social, environmental, health, and economic justice. The connectivity has long been known, but the chaos of 2020 laid the inter-relationships bare for all to see. Today, for example, it is more widely understood that the siting of polluting industries and disposal sites in low-income communities and regions exacerbates chronic illness and disease while perpetuating poverty. It’s clearer than ever that the ravages of a changing climate are borne disproportionately by those least able to protect themselves or get out of harm’s way. And, we know now that the inequities of the criminal justice system further exacerbate these ills. We’d long recognized the individual problems, but how they relate to one another was elusive. To the extent that companies, governments, advocacy groups, and citizens can begin to address them as part of a holistic, interconnected challenge, we will see a silver lining from this wretched year.
—Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group Inc.
3. Progress on racial justice will be determined by intentional and rigorous assessment
2020 brought a necessary awakening to injustices faced by Black and Brown individuals in civic, personal, and business spheres. Rising expectations among stakeholders, backed by research linking workplace diversity with performance measures, led many organizations to adopt new or more ambitious policies and initiatives. As the commitments of 2020 approach their first anniversaries, how will we know if actions have kept pace with words, and whether policies and initiatives are working as intended?
Accountability is a prerequisite to progress. As an investor, the “say-to-do” ratio is key to our assessment of management teams. Similarly, stakeholders in 2021 will demand organizations transparently report performance against their diversity and inclusion promises of 2020. The best will modify their initiatives based on learnings, evaluations of effectiveness, and evolutions in the landscape. Ultimately, the pace of progress will depend on consumers, the media, and influencer institutions bringing critical analysis to headline announcements and rewarding organizations that are transparent and effective.
—William Heard, CEO | CIO HEARD CAPITAL LLC
4. Wise leadership development professionals will get a starring role
In 2020, companies made big commitments to address glaring social and racial inequities. Tracking systems have emerged that will monitor promises and progress. But data and analytics can’t deliver the deep change that is needed now. That change will be achieved by leaders who are brave and humble enough to stay the course and learn as they go, the ones who dare to ask tough questions and are willing to hear the answers. Such leaders will help their teams thrive—even as they themselves face uncomfortable truths. Many leaders want to do this work, but they will need guidance to learn new ways of leading. Therefore, in 2021 the spotlight will be on the exceptional leadership development professionals who know how to help leaders understand not only what they need to do in this moment, but how to show up and do the hard work of change.
—Nancy McGaw, Deputy Director, Aspen Institute Business & Society Program
5. Climate action—and sustainability professionals—will get a renewed boost
In 2021, with a renewed political commitment in Washington on climate as demonstrated by the US rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and John Kerry being named as a “Climate Envoy”, companies will be called upon to do more—think TCFD, NetZero, RE100, SBTI. And more companies will be called upon to join effort to tackle climate change. As a result, there will be a new wave of companies hiring their first sustainability leaders.
—Ellen Weinreb, CEO, Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting
6. The traditional university-corporate recruitment model will be disrupted
Corporations have made public commitments on diversity targets. Many universities that feed the traditional talent pipelines will not be able to meet their corporate partners’ diversity hiring needs. In order to meet diversity targets, corporations will be forced to augment the traditional recruitment model and find new ways to attract diverse talent. Community Colleges educate approximately 40% of undergraduates and more than 35% of these students are underrepresented minorities. The negative economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will be a catalyst for even more students to pursue educational opportunities at community colleges. With advanced data analytic capabilities and assessments, corporations are now able to broaden their recruitment scope and begin to identify diverse talent within community colleges. This change will be the beginning of corporations rethinking their approach to not only recruiting diverse talent but also their traditional recruitment models. The result in 3-5 years will be a talent model with enhanced diversity, increased social equity, and a traditional recruitment model that has been disrupted.
—Scott Stimpfel, adjunct instructor at NYU Stern and a board member of the Kingsborough Community College Foundation
7. Digital delivery of education will continue long after students return to the classroom—to the benefit of working people
I believe that a variant of “Amara’s Law” will apply as we emerge from the pandemic: changes in the short-term will be overestimated, and the impacts in the longer-term will be underestimated. In moving most or all classroom engagement online, we have learned what works well. Previous resistance to technology has lessened for both faculty and students. Perhaps the greatest impact will be in the increasingly different modes we use to engage full-time students versus part-time and executive students who are working professionals. Since time is in particularly short supply for the latter, we will increasingly leverage technology to foster and sustain engagement and to create even greater flexibility for them. So too will we embrace technology in new ways to catalyze alumni engagement and lifelong learning for our alumni global communities.
—Raghu Sundaram, dean and Edward I. Altman Professor of Credit and Debt Markets
NYU Stern School of Business
8. Companies will approach diversity, equity, and inclusion with rigorous plans and measurable goals
In 2021, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) will sustain the momentum it gained in 2020 and will be a top, C-suite level issue. We will witness the acceleration of a movement—on a scale we haven’t seen before—where companies go beyond statements and shift toward a greater level of action and accountability in their pursuit to make their organizations more equitable. Corporate leaders will begin to match DEI commitments with a comprehensive approach that holds themselves accountable for progress like they do in every other aspect of their business, and we will begin to redefine what “good” looks like for racial equity in the workplace. I anticipate we’ll see more organizations begin to lay the foundation to become anti-racist workplaces and start to implement racially just business practices. By taking this approach, employers will get closer to providing all Americans an equal opportunity to reach their full potential.
—John Rice, founder and CEO of MLT
9. A foundation for a pandemic and climate crisis resilient economy will hinge on justice for communities of color
If a fourth of American families lost 75 percent or more of their wealth during the recent Great Recession, anyone who thinks 2021 will deliver better outcomes is deluding themselves. One thing’s for sure: Communities of color, in particular, and consistent with past economic downturns, have been most impacted—with the biggest difference in the COVID-recession being that we’re also overrepresented among the dead. The magnitude of the current crisis is likely to set back what little economic progress low- and middle-income families have seen, especially families of color, by decades, if not generations. A massive effort will be needed to build back a healthy small business sector that can generate jobs for a world transformed, where businesses must be pandemic and climate-change resistant. The first item on that policy agenda should be doing better by Black and brown businesses than 2020’s PPP policy did.
—Nathalie Molina Niño, CEO of O³ and author of Leapfrog, The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs
10. Companies will prove their commitment to addressing racial injustice by directly resourcing minority communities
The pandemic exposed America’s widening racial wealth gap and mainstream finance’s failure to reach minority communities. People across America are calling for justice. In 2021, corporations, government, and philanthropy must turn to the largely undervalued field of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to deliver good change. CDFIs make affordable loans to small businesses, affordable housing developers, and community facilities. We reach people in rural, urban, and Native communities who are underserved by traditional lenders. In the hard work of justice, CDFIs can drive a more even recovery from COVID-19’s economic impact and redress entrenched systemic racism and injustice. In 2020, Google and Twitter and led the way with bold investments from their philanthropic and corporate arms, investing more than $280 million in CDFIs through OFN. This breakthrough should catalyze a change in the way corporations share in the fight for justice in America. Join us! #FinanceJustice.
—Lisa Mensah, president and chief executive officer at Opportunity Finance Network
11. The finance industry will further recognize—and repair—its role in perpetuating structural racism
Financial Services leaders will take hold of their opportunity to increase the public’s trust in the industry. They will do this in two ways: by shifting the culture of their own firms and by leveraging their organizational power to repair inequities that are getting in the way of well-functioning societies. Leaders in business, government, and non-profit all have a great opportunity to step up efforts on slowing environmental degradation, enabling every person the opportunity to thrive, and balancing short-term demands with long-term needs. The finance industry (inclusive of finance firms, regulatory agencies, and corporate clients) in conjunction with other industries such as healthcare and education, has played a role in systemic racism and socio-economic chasms that the events in 2020 once again shed light on. In 2021, there will be a concerted effort to work across firms and industries to reverse the course. It may take generations, but the urgency of now will help more get started on the hard work.
—Jennifer Simpson, founding executive director, Aspen Finance Leaders Fellowship
12. In 2021, new alliances and diverse voices will propel brands into the next level of conscious capitalism
2020 has crystalized the responsibility of brands for their products, services, and marketing messages to their implications on society at large.
Instead of just promising to build for better, a common, global threat has forced brands to actively reflect on their positions, engage in difficult conversations, and identify the consequences of their actions. It’s something that’s sparked unexpected alliances and interconnectedness with the potential to level the playing field across race, gender, and class.
As we enter 2021 brands will continue to embark on the process of change. They’ll consciously dismantle what they’ve established to rebuild for inclusivity, diversity, and sustainability, and embark on a process of redefining success, legacy, and responsibility. They’ll design with a more diverse group of stakeholders until, ultimately, all of their actions align with their good intentions.
—Rahul Raj, Founder & CMO, 5&Vine
13. Business will continue to undermine democracy
Multiple crises in 2020 exacerbated the sense that our global economy and our democracies are fragile and unjust. Corporations have contributed to the breakdown of trust in the system by undermining and corrupting governments, spending enormous resources to expand corporate legal rights excessively, and to distort elections, policymaking, law enforcement, and citizens’ ability to hold power to account. Declarations such as the 2020 Davos Manifesto that “the purpose of a company is to engage all its stakeholders in shared and sustained value creation” have not been accompanied by meaningful change in these harmful practices. To determine whether business is truly addressing the crises exposed in 2020, look for clear evidence that corporate leaders no longer seek to undermine key democratic processes and institutions and that the system produces fairer and more trustworthy outcomes. I expect little actual movement in this direction but I hope this prediction is wrong.
—Anat R. Admati, professor of finance and economics, Stanford Graduate School of Business
14. The private sector will stand up for trust and fight the infodemic
Our information ecosystem has never been more fragile than it is right now. Amid unprecedented levels of polarization, especially in the US, large swaths of the public choose to believe only what aligns with their worldview, no matter how blatantly false a story might be. On the extreme end, we are seeing a rise in the spread of conspiracy theories, from coronavirus denial to QAnon, proliferate on social media. This infodemic feeds distrust in our institutions, affects all aspects of modern life—politics, healthcare, commerce, and tears at the fabric of society. In 2021, the private sector will stand up for trust. Not only because it affects their bottom line; misinformation campaigns can damage corporate reputations and harm business-consumer relationships. But because they will feel compelled to take a leadership position on a matter of critical societal importance. Ideally, we will see the public and private sectors come together in the fight against information disorder. This could include joint investments in local news, or collaborative efforts to bolster media literacy. At the very least, companies will hopefully double down on transparency, with their employees and customers, to establish factual sources on their own brands and ensure trust.
—Vivian Schiller, executive director, Aspen Digital
15. The CEO activism of the Trump years will continue in the Biden era
New year, new administration, new playbook for CEOs who were outspoken on social issues during the Trump era? Nope. Business isn’t going to just pop down in the easy chair now that President Trump is leaving. Yes, in some ways, business activism has been a reaction to provocations by the president, e.g., immigration. But the CEO activism trend started well before Trump. What’s really driving the trend is that CEO’s are listening to their employees. When you peel it back, those CEO’s are empowered by their workforce. Social issues aren’t going away—the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines will surely raise further issues about trust and equity–and employees care about them.
—Judy Samuelson, executive director, Aspen Institute Business & Society Program
16. Collaboration with government on COVID-19 vaccine distribution will herald more purposeful corporate leadership on a host of issues
In 2021 I am hoping to see three things at the intersection of business and society. 1) Businesses join forces with governments around the world to execute on one of the biggest logistical challenges of our lifetime to distribute and drive uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, starting with those most in need. 2) Many more companies realize they can do more to accelerate sustainability in their businesses and to tackle the urgent climate change agenda. And lastly, 3) I hope 2021 proves to be a year of boldness and bridge-building as we work to solve our most challenging issues, certainly in the United States, but also around the world.
—Rich Lesser, CEO, Boston Consulting Group