The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a Yale professor’s viral list pressured companies to pull out of Russia

A longtime advocate of corporate social responsibility gets a boost as Americans rally behind sanctions

Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld at the last in-person CEO summit in December 2019 in New York. (Yale School of Management)
7 min

The sheer volume of companies clamoring to join the list of corporations withdrawing business from Russia after President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine came as a shock to Yale management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld.

Founder of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute, Sonnenfeld has spent four decades pushing CEOs to act to benefit society, not just shareholders, on social issues ranging from gun control to voting rights. But nothing has drawn as much attention or support from business leaders, media or the public as his inventory of companies that have cut ties with Russia.

“So many CEOs wanted to be seen as doing the right thing,” Sonnenfeld, 67, said in a telephone interview. “It was a rare unity of patriotic mission, personal values, genuine concern for world peace, and corporate self-interest.”

The list, updated hourly by his research team, has grown to more than 330 as of Friday.

“What these lists do is give courageous CEOs the confidence to keep going, and the wannabe courageous ones the reinforcements to deal with their boards so they come off as responsible business leaders when they can see a stampede of their peers leaving Russia,” Sonnenfeld said.

His latest list started with a dozen corporations spanning oil giants BP, Shell and ExxonMobil, consulting firms McKinsey, Bain and BCG, as well as Big Tech companies IBM, Dell, Meta, Apple and Alphabet, right after the Ukraine invasion on Feb 24.

Many companies pulled out in response to employee outrage over the exposure of the firms to Russia, leaving billions of assets and revenue on the table, he said.

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Sonnenfeld said the “laggards” followed this week, when the public relations arms of more than two dozen consumer products, fashion, fast food and packaged goods companies contacted him in a single day to be included.

The rapid growth of the list in contrast to Sonnenfeld’s earlier efforts could be explained as an economic decision amid increasing instability in Russia, or as a sign of American public support for a tough stand against Putin. A large bipartisan majority of Americans support sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll.

But as the numbers seeking to join the list grows, Sonnenfeld’s team is scrambling to categorize how exactly companies are curtailing business activity in Russia. His team planned to cull the list into three buckets: companies that shuttered their operations in Russia, those that temporarily suspended them and those that made cosmetic promises about future investments without changing their operations.

“The public is getting confused about who to celebrate and who to shame,” Sonnenfeld said. Still, some critics say even the corporate activism with the best intentions can imperil democracy.

Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and author of “Woke, Inc.,” sees companies cynically weighing in on “whatever is most politically convenient to accomplish their power aggregating goal,” be it voting rights, Black Lives Matter, climate change or Ukraine.

“It tells everyday citizens that their voices do not count the same as those who exercise market power when settling a moral question,” Ramaswamy said. “Whether it’s the truckers in Canada or protesters in Western Europe or people who attend rallies in the U.S., they are saying that we deserve to be heard every bit as much as some CEO sitting in a corner office.”

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From the time he was a doctoral student interviewing corporate executives imprisoned for price fixing, Sonnenfeld has focused his research on corporate social responsibility. That was the late 1970s, long before a powerful group of CEOs known as the Business Roundtable in 2019 distanced themselves from the idea that companies must maximize profits for shareholders above all else.

As a young Harvard Business School professor, Sonnenfeld wrote his first book, “Corporate Views of the Public Interest,” about the broader role of business leaders in society. In the 1980s, Sonnenfeld said the withdrawal of 200 Western companies from South Africa in protest of apartheid galvanized him. He recently argued in a Fortune column that such divestment should provide a “powerful road map for why and how CEOs should affirm American values amid global challenges.”

He started the first school for CEOs in his 30s, amid skepticism from senior Harvard Business School faculty that executives would want to spend their time listening to each other. He moved the enterprise to Emory University in Atlanta in 1989, the start of regular powerhouse gatherings of business leaders to address social issues and business challenges.

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a civil rights leader alongside Martin Luther King and former ambassador to the United Nations, told CEOs at an early Sonnenfeld summit that the business community held more influence over doing the right thing than clergymen or activists. “He was my inspiration,” Sonnenfeld said.

Since then, Sonnenfeld has convened chief executives, virtually for the past two years, to take a stand. Business Insider has dubbed him the “CEO Whisperer.” After the 2018 Parkland school shooting, executives discussed their plans to sever ties with the NRA and promote gun safety.

In a meeting days after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police in 2020, Kenneth Frazier, then chief executive of pharmaceutical giant Merck, spoke personally about how Floyd could easily have been him had somebody not invested in him. Sonnenfeld said that conversation prompted CEOs to hold town hall meetings with employees to discuss how to promote racial justice.

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On Jan. 5, 2021, the day before supporters of President Donald Trump attacked the Capitol, Sonnenfeld gathered nearly six dozen CEOs in a virtual meeting amid increasing fears that Trump would interfere with the transfer of power.

The Post had just published the transcript of a call to Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, in which Trump repeatedly urged Raffensperger to alter the outcome of the 2020 election in the state. The CEOs discussed suspending donations to members of Congress who had said they would not certify the votes for President Biden.

At another Sonnenfeld meeting, held over Zoom last April, two Black executives, Frazier and Ken Chenault, former chief executive of American Express, launched their drive to get fellow CEOs to sign onto a letter opposing restrictive voting rights bills being considered in dozens of states. Hundreds did in full-page ads published in the New York Times and The Washington Post. Some Republicans derided them as “woke CEOs.”

Sonnenfeld said he received death threats. Skeptics said the business leaders overstepped when they became involved in political debates.

“The purpose of a corporation is to produce a superior good or service at a fair price,” said Charles Elson, founding director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. “When you get beyond that into tertiary areas, it affects the primary mission of the business itself because it’s naturally divisive anytime a CEO takes a stand. Inevitably you lose customers, you lose employees, or you anger investors.”

Some activists decried the corporate efforts as too little, too late. The Georgia bill had already been signed into law. Lawmakers in Florida and Texas also approved legislation imposing new rules on voting and new penalties for those who do not follow them.

“They literally did it a day late and a dollar short,” said Malia Lazu, an entrepreneur and former bank executive who teaches at MIT Sloan School of Management. “If they were really willing to stick their necks out and take a little more risk, they would have come out strong four weeks earlier when activists were asking them to join the fight.”

The voting rights campaign was Sonnenfeld’s highest-profile effort until now. His next forum will be held in Washington on March 21. At the top of the agenda is Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who will address the corporate response to Russia.

“Fortifying world peace, just like fortifying democracy, is absolutely a part of corporate duty,” Sonnenfeld said.