Responsibility and commitment

Between responsibility and obligation: companies as corporate citizens. Excerpts from a speech by DACHSER CEO Bernhard Simon to the non-profit student initiative Enactus in Wuppertal, Germany. This is a network in which students develop entrepreneurial ideas with the aim of improving people’s lives. Today, some 1,650 Enactus teams are active at universities across 36 countries, with some 66,500 students involved.

A company can be successful only if it provides its employees with a sense of orientation and formulates strategies that make sense and create identity.
A company can be successful only if it provides its employees with a sense of orientation and formulates strategies that make sense and create identity.

Do entrepreneurs have a special responsibility to society? In view of the major challenges posed by climate change, population growth, globalization, and digitalization, this is a question that is increasingly being asked. But is this really the right question to be asking? I think it would be better to talk about our social obligation as entrepreneurs.

With ownership comes not privilege, but obligation. In fact, entrepreneurs, with the range of possibilities at their disposal, have a real obligation to engage in social discourse. Especially in societies that are drifting further apart, entrepreneurs have an obligation to play a balancing role in order to ensure stable societies in the long term. In that sense, companies can be seen as corporate citizens.

The world has become a confusing place. In many places there are great uncertainties, about right and wrong, and about where we should be moving as a society. A company is a place where many people come together and often spend a large part of their day. This also means that a company can be successful only if it provides its employees with a sense of orientation and formulates strategies that make sense and create identity. This can be achieved if the entrepreneurs behind the company always set out to ensure with their entrepreneurial activities that the world of tomorrow will still be a world in which we can do business because we’re living in it peacefully in harmony and the environment is intact.

If you want to consciously manage a company in this way, you first have to be clear about what the actual values are by which a company should be managed. Values that give us identity and that consequently also give the company identity.

It is this values-based company identity that corporate strategies are derived from. In all the strategic considerations we make, it’s important to ask whether they correspond to or contradict the identity we have defined together. Our set of values is thus the basis for the company’s code of conduct and for a binding compliance system. Especially in the world in which we operate today, both of these are indispensable instruments for navigating a company safely through turbulent times and for never losing sight of the goal.

Investing in young people

This goes hand in hand with a special entrepreneurial obligation to take young people as they are and to foster their curiosity about what professional life has to offer them—something they may not have experienced from home, school, or society. Companies are called upon here to invest in the development of young people, and we are happy to do so.

The same goes for the integration of migrants, who have now become an integral part of industrial societies that are conditioned to strive for economic growth and at the same time affected by demographic change. In view of today’s migration flows, entrepreneurs who want to operate in a stable society must play their part in integrating all of these people into the working world and thus into the center of society. This is much more difficult than politicians ever imagined. But in many cases there is clear evidence that making the necessary efforts is possible and indeed valuable.

Another of a company’s obligations concerns its environmental policy. Treating the environment with respect should never be a marketing measure. Rather, it must be about continuous improvement, not about any individual lighthouse projects boasting leading-edge technology, which cannot then be transferred to the company as a whole, but are merely implemented in order to create a positive public image.

The same applies to corporate social responsibility: CSR is not a marketing tool and it is not a way of achieving redemption from corporate sin. Entrepreneurs involved in development aid projects must be careful not to come across as the “rich uncle” or the “know-it-all” from the so-called developed, “better” world.

Instead, they should respect the dignity of people all over the world and their right to self-determination. The local people know the personal lives they live in their cultural context much better than someone who comes from the outside. In other words, they are simply better at it. Even in the remotest and poorest villages of the world, I have always met great people. It is important to treat them as equals. Only then are we ready to give something.

What can we do, specifically? We can show interest, listen, understand, and be partners. We should be interested in who the local people are who want to make a change and who make that little difference in whatever village structure the people are living in. It’s about getting to know them and understanding how they work in the structures of the local societies—without messing these structures up.

DACHSER CEO Bernhard Simon
DACHSER CEO Bernhard Simon

Lifelong learning

What we have achieved is encouraging. After 14 years, we can now take stock of the close cooperation between DACHSER, terre des hommes, and a network of NGOs in India: more than 18,000 children who were no longer in regular schooling have been in receipt of learning opportunities to enable them to return to regular schooling. Leaving school early, which used to be commonplace, has been reduced by 90 percent. Some 5,400 young people have continued their education in vocational training centers in order to independently earn an extra income to help their family. Almost 32,000 children have been informed about their rights to live a life free of violence, child labor, and sexual exploitation. In particular, we’ve given 7,800 girls a focus on their own self-determination. And what is particularly pleasing is that 7,000 children are now committed to children’s rights themselves and are convincing others that it is worth taking a stand to defend their rights. Some 4,000 children have taken part in environmental workshops and almost 50,000 trees have been planted.

This gives me a clear mandate: as entrepreneurs, we have an obligation to take an interest in people in this irrevocably globalized world. Everything is connected to everything else. This helps us as entrepreneurs develop our businesses and at the same time it helps us be at home in all the world’s markets. In this way, an obligation gives rise to a perspective—for a world worth living in tomorrow, a world in which we work happily and well, in which we live together, and in which we can give tomorrow’s generations a future.

Contact Natalia Olawella