PUT YOUR VALUES TO WORK
HOW COMMERCE AND CONSCIENCE INTERTWINE AT FACEBOOK, UBER, AIRBNB, SALESFORCE, AND MORE
Airbnb, Facebook, Salesforce, and more are aligning their businesses with broader social imperatives. Here’s how this new age of corporate responsibility can be a boon for their public images and their bottom lines.
WHEN FACEBOOK FOUNDER AND CEO MARK ZUCKERBERG RELEASED A NEARLY 5,800-WORD OPEN LETTER ON FEBRUARY 16—THE LONGEST SINGLE POST HE HAD EVER SHARED ON HIS FACEBOOK TIMELINE—HE INTRODUCED IT WITH THIS SIMPLE PHRASE: “I KNOW A LOT OF US ARE THINKING ABOUT HOW WE CAN MAKE THE MOST POSITIVE IMPACT IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW.”
At that moment, many other businesses, from Google to Starbucks, were publicly fighting policies proposed by President Donald Trump, most notably in the area of immigration. But Zuckerberg didn’t mention the president or politics. Instead, he posed a broader question: “Are we building the world we all want?” Facebook, he argued, had a responsibility to help people.
It was a mission statement, shared just as discussion of business leadership’s relationship to government leadership was reaching a fever pitch. Facebook itself had been stung by critiques of its role in “fake news” and “filter bubbles.” Implicit in Zuckerberg’s letter was the idea that, despite Facebook’s vacuuming up of ever-larger piles of cash, its real purpose—its reason for existence—wasn’t to make money. It was to make the world a better place.
Such moralizing from a billionaire CEO can come across as disingenuous or naive. Zuckerberg devoted most of his letter to outlining how Facebook could be instrumental in “building a global community,” which of course isn’t too far from what the company’s business imperatives would dictate. Was it all just self-serving rationalization? Is Zuckerberg—and any business leader claiming that values matter more than dollars—simply a hypocrite? This is the tension underlying a rising movement across the business landscape. From automakers such as Ford and Audi to fashion houses like Gucci and Ralph Lauren, from health care firms to consumerpackaged-goods makers, companies are increasingly seeking to align their commercial activities with larger social and cultural values—not just because it makes them look good, but because employees and customers have started to insist on it. Some efforts are clearly reactions to the political environment and the divisiveness surrounding Trump; the impact of boycotts (witness #grabyourwallet) and buycotts can’t be ignored by CEOS or investors.
Yet whatever impetus the current political climate offers, the business community was moving in this direction well before a new president claimed the White House. An organization called the B Team, which includes the CEOS of major businesses such as Unilever and high-profile leaders like Richard Branson and Arianna Huffington, was launched several years ago “to catalyze a better way of doing business” (as its website puts it). Uber’s recent troubles are rooted in issues that long preceded its awkward dance with the Trump administration. Budweiser’s much-discussed Super Bowl TV ad about immigration had been planned for months; Audi’s Super Bowl spot highlighting the gender pay gap was almost two years in the making. Even Zuckerberg’s missive, it turns out, had been in the works for a year.
A practical question looms over this phenomenon: Does business have a higher responsibility to address social values, as Zuckerberg asserts about Facebook, or should the pursuit of profitability—maximizing shareholder value above all else—be the chief purpose of a company? Quickly chasing that question is another one, supported by many acolytes of this new movement: Is it possible that embracing values can actually help profits and share prices in the long run?
These issues are roiling executive leadership at enterprises large and small, and in no place more prominently
“PEOPLE WANT BUSINESS LEADERS—AND ALL LEADERS— TO BE AUTHENTIC AND STAND FOR THINGS,” SAYS ZUCKERBERG.
than in Silicon Valley. Which makes techland—and firms like Facebook and Uber—an ideal canvas on which to explore how values and value creation are being balanced and integrated in different ways right now. An experiment is under way in parts of corporate America to redefine the role of business in society. To get a sense of how this is playing out, and what it might portend for our future, we’ve looked at four leading tech companies with varied approaches, as well as a smaller business that’s feeling its way through the challenges. These case studies reveal just how much potential, and how much uncertainty, lies ahead.
THE ZUCKERBERG PHILOSOPHY
Five years ago, before Facebook’s IPO, Mark Zuckerberg posted what he called a “founder’s letter” that spelled out the company’s philosophy for prospective investors. “We don’t wake up in the morning with the primary goal of making money,” Zuckerberg wrote. Instead, Facebook “was built to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected.” Among five specific values that the letter noted (including things like “Move Fast” and “Be Bold”) was this declaration: “We expect everyone at Facebook to focus every day on how to build real value for the world.”
I recently sat down with Zuckerberg to discuss this letter, and his latest one, in order to learn how his thinking might have changed over time. Facebook’s offices have grown to become a sprawling empire in Menlo Park, California, with bulldozers busily constructing new expansions. Building 20, where Zuckerberg works along with hundreds of the company’s 17,000-plus employees, features what may be the largest single-room office space in the world, a meandering wall-free topography stretching nearly a quarter mile that includes cafés, open-air meeting spaces, and an eclectic mix of colorful sculptures. Zuckerberg’s desk is in Area 3, near the midpoint of the building, one among many workstations. He greets me wearing his usual jeans and gray short-sleeve T-shirt, and we walk over to a glass-enclosed conference room just behind his desk. He may not have a traditional office, but this is where he holds product-review meetings and entertains visitors. We settle in on the couch and begin talking.
“I didn’t start Facebook as a business,” Zuckerberg says. “I built it because I wanted this thing to exist in my community. Over some number of years I came to the realization that the only way to build it out to what I wanted was if it had a good economic engine behind it.” In this way, he notes, “Facebook has always been a mission-driven company.”
The open letter Zuckerberg posted in February “wasn’t exactly a followup” to the founder’s letter, he says. “The founder’s letter was written for shareholders buying into the IPO to understand how the company operated.” The new letter “had a different goal, less about how we work and more about what we’re going to do.” What’s changed dramatically since 2012, according to Zuckerberg, is the rising skepticism about global connectivity. “When we were getting started in 2004, the idea of connecting the world was not really a controversial idea . . . . People thought that this was good,” he says. “But in the last few years, that has shifted, right? And it’s not just the U.S. It’s also across Europe and Asia. Folks who have been left behind by globalization are making their voices louder.” Zuckerberg explains, “I feel like someone needs to be making the case for why connecting people is good, and we are one of the organizations that I think should be doing that.”
As he talks about these things, Zuckerberg looks directly at me, rarely blinking. His focus is acute. I mention several of the ways that some corporations express their values—starbucks committing to hiring refugees, for instance, or others that engage in charitable giving. But Zuckerberg isn’t steering Facebook toward external social action or philanthropy. “I think the core operation of what you do should be aimed at making the change that you want,” he replies. “A lot of companies do nice things with small parts of their resources. I would hope that our core mission is the main thing we want to accomplish: making the world more open and connected. Almost all of our resources go toward that.
“When I want to do stuff like invest in education and science and immigration reform and criminal justice reform,” he goes on, “I do that
Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall believes customer loyalty is fueled by an emotional connection. (page 50)
Mark Zuckerberg hopes to express Facebook’s values through its central mission. “I think the core operation of what you do should be aimed at making the change that you want,” he says.
Jonathan Mildenhall, Airbnb’s CMO, knows his company needs to foster trust and openness in order to succeed.