By Janette Hong
Corporate social responsibility can cover anything from sustainability to philanthropy, but Tom Jepsen can distill it succinctly.
“It’s acting in business with a conscience,” said Jepsen, who will finish his MBA at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business in May.
It’s a trendy topic these days, as business schools add courses to existing programs and beef up content in existing courses.
Some universities have taken it further. Maryland formed the Center for Social Value Creation, George Washington created a certificate in responsible management, and Johns Hopkins teamed up with the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers to launch the Institute of Social Responsibility this winter.
Tim McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation and vice president for corporate social responsibility at American Express, designed the curriculum for Johns Hopkins and is the program’s lead faculty member.
He sees the need for more formalized training in corporate social responsibility, as well as more research into the issue.
“Companies all over the world realize that they need to act in a socially responsible manner in order to survive,” McClimon said. “Everyone in the world is grappling with it.”
That grappling grows out of scandals such as rogue traders at J.P. Morgan and BP’s massive oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico, said Jennifer Griffin, chair of Strategic Management and Public Policy at George Washington.
“Not everyone can survive that,” Griffin said. “They don’t have the capital that BP does.”
The George Washington program is for graduate students, who must complete required coursework and a project, attend seminars and perform service work to earn the certificate.
GW also infuses corporate social responsibility into other areas, such as a consulting abroad course Rafael Lucea, an assistant professor of international business, led in Peru two years ago.
The 25 graduate students worked with Belcorp, an international cosmetics company based in Lima — Lucea calls it the Avon of South America.
Belcorp had backed social responsibility projects for years, mainly through a foundation. But the firm wanted a program that had value for more than the grant recipient.
The students created a micro-insurance program for Belcorp’s 1 million independent saleswomen in 16 countries. For saleswomen who paid $1.50 every three weeks, Belcorp would provide family health insurance in a part of world where parents often seek black-market loans if a child falls ill.
Belcorp’s goal: Reduce the company’s staggering turnover rate. Lucea said the firm had to replace its entire sales force two or three times a year.
Lucea said the project demonstrates how social responsibility can tie everything together — Belcorp employees benefitted, and so did the company.
“Some companies spend more money publicizing corporate social responsibility than actually doing corporate social responsibility,” Lucea said. “It should be more than a photo of the CEO feeding a hungry person a bowl of soup.”
From Jepsen’s perspective, companies are obligated to be good members of the community as well as creators of jobs. He and four other Maryland students are working on a consulting project they hope will lead to measurements of a company’s true impact on society. They’ve tentatively named it the Genuine Value-Added Indicator.
The team is considering 26 metrics for everything from the cost of pollution to the toll of long commutes. The effects of income equality are another possibility. “It’s great for business to have a lot of customers, but what happens if a company is limited in the number of customers it can have?” Jepsen said. “Can you measure that?”
The program McClimon designed at Johns Hopkins is professional development for potential leaders and those already working in corporate social responsibility. “Their jobs have changed. Their companies have changed,” McClimon said.
He sees more formalized training in academia’s future. “It’s just getting started — you can’t major in it yet,” he said. He expects that to change in the future, though.
HOMETOWN: Greater Minneapolis
DEGREES: Will complete an MBA from the University of Maryland this spring; bachelor’s in economics and international affairs, University of Colorado, Boulder
CAREER GOAL: Will begin work with Deloitte as a federal strategy and operations consultant. Long term, he plans to focus on sustainability consulting and helping companies create a positive environmental impact.
QUOTE: “Corporate social responsibility is amorphous and large, and it can mean different things to different people. To me, it means acting in business with a conscience.”