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Nike: working for the greater good?

By now you’ve seen the news of Nike’s decision to feature former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in its new marketing campaign. You’ve also likely seen the gamut of responses to this announcement, spanning validation from pro-athletes to disdain from the president to the viral #boycottNike hashtag on social media.

At the heart of the debate lies a central question: Why did Nike do it?

Some believe that the answer is simple: sales. The New York Times, for example, suggested in a recent article that Nike’s rationale for its new campaign can be boiled down to two things: money and attention. Similarly, an op-ed in last week’s Washington Post claimed that the notion that Nike’s executives actually care about social issues is “delusional”; the author suggests that this is purely a business play.

While critics claim that Nike’s campaign is nothing more than surface-level virtue signaling (essentially, when a company publicly espouses certain values — such as courage, in this case — to project itself as virtuous), I beg to differ. Having spent the past 10 years helping corporations achieve business goals while also improving society, I have seen the private sector do more than generate profit for itself. And I believe Nike is part of a growing trend of businesses that want to leverage their influence for social progress in the U.S. and the world.

I am a director at one of the nation’s largest and most successful workforce development programs, Year Up, which trains low-income young adults for coveted positions at Fortune 500 companies across the United States. Chief executives — more than 250 of them — engage with our program for both business reasons (they need talent) and because they want to make a genuine impact in their communities, where they are often leaders and sources of economic growth and opportunity.

In other words, our corporate partners embrace the opportunity to achieve shared value, to realize benefits for both business and society. Employing our young people — many of whom work minimum wage jobs with no career path before enrolling in our program — is good for business. For example, our graduates often stay with their employers longer than the average worker, reducing turnover costs.

At the same time, an investment in our students — who have strong potential, motivation and grit but lack opportunity — is ultimately an investment in our communities, our nation’s future workforce and America’s global competitiveness. In our experience, the prospect of having this kind of transformative role in society is inspiring and energizing to business leaders.

Other examples of shared value abound, so much so that Fortune Magazine created an annual Change the World list that identifies 50 companies that have “made an important social or environmental impact through their profit-making strategy and operations.” Many companies are waking up to the realization that benefiting a broad range of stakeholders — including employees, customers, communities and shareholders — is good for business. Indeed, with many of the world’s top businesses on Fortune’s 2018 list (including one of Nike’s fiercest competitors, Adidas) it’s clear that the shared value strategy is becoming more of a rule than an exception.

All around, we are seeing companies align themselves with social issues (for example, just last week Levi’s committed to taking action on gun violence). Rather than view these public statements as self-interested schemes to drive bottom line growth, as many commentators have suggested, what if we took them seriously as signs of enlightened capitalism? In believing that corporations — and the human beings that lead them — can be driven by both profit and the desire to improve the lives of citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere, we can better harness the power of private sector for social good.

To be sure, Nike ran the numbers before launching the campaign. And, more than likely, the odds of increased consumer loyalty (read: sales) among their current or target demographic were high. Indeed, the most recent reports are already showing strong financial gains from the media exposure alone.

But, if Nike is part of the growing trend in business that we’ve seen, the Kaepernick campaign might be about more than superficial virtue signaling. Perhaps Nike’s leadership sees an opportunity to realize shared value. #JustDoIt.

Laura Thompson Love (LThompson@gradsoflife.org) is a Baltimore native and director of Year Up, which has offices in more than a dozen U.S. cities, including Baltimore.

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