The Power of People in Business with Professor Ed Soule (MSB)
By Shelby Gresch, SFS'22
The Red House Dinner Series kicked off the semester with Professor Ed Soule of the McDonough School of Business.
With a PhD in philosophy from Washington University in St. Louis, Professor Soule is not what one typically expects from a business school professor. Yes, he has served as a CFO and has years of accounting experience, but he’s also an introvert, works with the conservation agency RARE on climate mitigation and has a deep appreciation for Bombas socks. This sets the scene for the discussion that ensued at our first dinner series of the semester.
As students grabbed dinner and gathered around the table, Professor Soule could sense the skepticism in the room. While there was a good mix of MSB students and those from the SFS and College, he took one look at the questions that students had sent in ahead of time, and concluded that there was a significant lack of faith in business in general among the audience. But instead of defending capitalism, Professor Soule started the conversation by challenging students to extend that skepticism. He advocated for holding not just businesses, but governments, nonprofits, and everyone else to a higher standard of social responsibility and justice.
Professor Soule then went on to explain that while businesses certainly are made up of people, the businesses themselves are not human.
“You should never trust a business,” argued Soule. “Instead of asking is *blank* a good company, we should be looking at who’s in charge and whether or not they are committed to doing good things.” In this way, Professor Soule presented the idea that socially-responsible businesses come from socially responsible people who make an active choice to change the direction of their company.
This led one student to ask how to go about that; how can we be sure we’re not being complicit in less-than ideal business practices? The answer, as Soule sees it, is simple: Don’t work for a “degenerate company” (use your internal sense of company culture to know where you work), actively pursue good, and recognize that everyone (including yourself) is a leader. By doing these three things, we can all make a difference in shaping company culture, values, and ultimately impact.
And this is what inspires Professor Soule. Quoting a colleague, Soule reminded us all that, “You own your impacts forever.” Whether big or small, people are responsible for the impacts of their actions – from how your supply chain affects people you’ve never met to how one conversation may change a colleague’s sense of belonging at work.
Students seemed both inspired and a bit daunted by this prospect – the opportunity to be the agents of change in the very system they had been so skeptical of – but Professor Soule remained optimistic. He maintained that our generation was the one that would push social justice more squarely into the corporate world, and that this shift had already begun. If that’s the case, I wonder what this dinner would look like twenty years from now. Will there still be a sense of skepticism and wariness in the room? Or will students have faith in culturally-ingrained corporate-social responsibility?
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