The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist

By Chloe Christman, Student, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist

An illuminating read, Christine Bader’s new book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil is particularly valuable to anyone who has wondered what it would be like to promote sustainability or respect for human rights from within a multinational corporation. By recounting her own experiences and weaving in stories from other Corporate Idealists, Bader examines the challenges and opportunities to working from within companies to promote social good.

Bader defines Corporate Idealists as people who believe their companies “can do well by doing good,” but who are also aware of the risks their companies pose to people and the environment. Their mission is to shift how their companies operate, so that corporate social responsibility is not a synonym for charity, but instead redundant for how their companies conduct core business activities.

Bader began her evolution as a Corporate Idealist – and what would become nine years with BP – as a freshly-minted MBA tasked with managing social impacts of a new operation in Indonesia. She describes her feelings during her first trip to the project site: As her helicopter descended into the rainforest, she envisioned the destruction the project could cause. She knew, for instance, that for BP’s plans to come to fruition, the company would relocate 127 families. She felt ill, questioning whether she had made the best career choice, until a senior colleague reminded her that her job was to make sure BP “did this right”. Bader spent the next several years in Indonesia and China striving to do precisely that.

Bader is proud to have been a part of a company that invested time and resources into preventing and mitigating harms that companies historically gloss over. Her faith in BP, however, was challenged by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; she reflects that the BP she knew wouldn’t allow this to happen. It is at this point in her story that Bader introduces a key theme of her book: change is incremental. Her work in Indonesia and China helped prevent and mitigate negative human rights impacts there, but didn’t result in corporate processes needed to prevent the oil spill. Corporate Idealists fight against entrenched processes, attitudes prioritizing efficiency over human rights, dispersed decision-making, and pressure to meet deadlines – all impediments to universalizing responsibility throughout the company.

The Evolution of A Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil offers a hopeful look into the future of corporate responsibility. It reminds us that corporations, widely understood to be part of the problem, are made up of people, many of whom work tirelessly to – incrementally – change how their companies operate from within.

Chloe Christman is a Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School and a research associate with the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative. She heard Christine Bader speak about her book at the Kennedy School last Thursday.

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