S3: Ep.85: Business Models for a better world. A Disruptive Conversation with Sarah Kaplan.


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In this episode of Disruptive Conversations, I speak with Sarah Kaplan (PhD). Sarah is an innovation scholar at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. She has recently written the book The 360˚ Corporation. Today, Sarah works to explore how ideas from innovation can be applied in a way that helps to create a world of social and economic justice. Although much of her work focuses on gender equality, it is clear Sarah takes an intersectional approach to her work.
Here are some of my many takeaways from this conversations.
Transformation is not something you can do on the side.
For many years Sarah thought of her innovation/academic work was her day job while her concerns for gender equity and other social issues was something she did on the side. One day she woke up and realized she had been told the story that the Women’s Liberation Movement had fixed everything. Women would not face barriers brought about by patriarchy. Yet, when she looked around the world, her students and women around her were still facing the same issues that the Women’s Liberation Movement was supposed to have addressed. She realized that 30 years later, the conversation had not changed. It was in this “ah moment” she decided that her two worlds needed to collide. Her transformational work was no longer something she could do part-time. Words echoed by Zaid Hassan a past guest on the podcast you can listen to him in episode 34, The Tragedy of Strategic Planning.
Change the conversation.
The thesis for this podcast has always been, if we are to transform organizations, we need to change the conversation. It is always wonderful to hear your guest make similar comments. For Sarah, the conversation about gender equity has focused on approaches like unconscious bias training. These approaches focus on the individual and not the systems that maintain the status quo. For example, many of the dominant approaches focus notions like women do not negotiate or do not negotiate well. These ideas ignore that women who negotiate are often thought to be selfish, unreasonable or generally unpleasant. People do not receive negotiations from men in the same way they receive them from women. To change the status quo, we need to transform the conversations. As a result, Sarah’s work focuses not on changing the individual, but on changing the context.
We ignore the social wake companies create.
It is always interesting to me to learn my guest’s point of entry into the work they do. As a business and innovation scholar who has also been interested in the rise and fall of empires, it is not surprising that she came to the conclusion that we are not going to change the world if we do not transform business. For Sarah, if we are to create a fair and equitable world, we need to transform businesses from within. In this episode, we had an insightful discussion on the idea that we shouldn’t need a term like social entrepreneur. All businesses are social or create social outcomes. What we tend to do is ignore the social wake that companies create. Sarah’s book, The 360˚ Corporation, explores the tradeoffs companies make. In the book, she makes a compelling case for how companies need to approach these tradeoffs. The point that stood out for me is that companies often need to change their business model if they are going to reduce the wake they create in the world. This is not an easy proposition, yet Sarah’s does make a compelling argument by juxtaposing two very different companies, Walmart and Nike. One of the surprising things about her book is the way in which she is able to help the reader understand the tensions these companies face and how their business models can often constrain their choices.
Focusing on the individual has a recoil effect.
I recently had a conversation with a very senior executive who wanted to implement mandatory anti-blackness training. In this episode, Sarah highlights what the research says about these types of mandatory programs and how they tend to have a recoil or backlash effect. For example, when people are mandated to attend these programs, they tend to harden or double down on their views. Additionally, these kinds of programs can also make people hyper-aware of marginalized groups. Often their response can be to tokenize or other the very groups we are trying to help. These approaches although well-intentioned can have ill effects when not well thought out.
Two tangible ideas from the episode:
Stop focusing on the individual if your goal is to create change. Get rid of the mindset that we have to fix individuals.
Identify the social structures and systems that create the outcomes you wish to change.
Transformation is about changing ourselves and the environment.
So much of the self-help literature focuses on changing yourself. Ralph Stacey, one of my favorite scholars in writing about transformation, says “entities are forming patterns of interactions and at the same time, that they are being formed by these patterns of interactions”. When we focus on the individual, we focus on the first part of his quote and ignore that “entities are being formed by these patterns of interactions”. Much of the dominant discourse focuses too much on the individual and ignores the structures. Perhaps if you take anything from this episode, it is that although there are times when paying attention to the individual can make a difference, it is perhaps my fruitful to pay attention to the structures and systems in which that individual resides. Regardless of how much the individual changes, the change will not happen until the context in which they reside also changes. For more similar ideas listen to Episode 70 with Kate Sutherland, Dismantling the myth of the lone wolf.
For more information about Sarah Kaplan’s (PhD) work you can visit the sites below:
GATE website: www.gendereconomy.org
GATE explainers: https://www.gendereconomy.org/explainers/
Sarah Kaplan’s website: https://sarahkaplan.info

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