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The Role of Business in Society

In May 2018, Saïd Business School hosted the third annual Responsible Business Forum, devoted to the economic and social challenges that business faces, the need to restore trust in the corporate and financial sectors, and the impact that the fourth industrial revolution will have on business, society and economies.

Nabilah SoobedaarWe asked Nabilah Soobedaar, Oxford Saïd MBA 2016/17, about her experiences on the MBA’s Responsible Business Module, her role in last year’s Forum and how it inspired her career next steps.

What was your view of the Responsible Business module on the MBA? Did it change your perception of the role of business in society?

The Responsible Business module and other classes on the MBA transformed my understanding of the role of business in society. I was exposed to leading practices and innovations of corporates who are literally changing the world for the better through a more conscious effort to operate in a responsible fashion. Classes with Prof. Colin Mayer and Prof. Marc Ventresca allowed me to deepen my understanding that “doing well” and “doing good” need not be dichotomous concepts in business.

Did you play a key role in the Forum?

Last year, I presented the closing remarks from the MBA students based on the discussions held at the Forum. I also had the opportunity to engage with the Mars team prior to the Forum to understand their approach to business mutuality.

In a recent survey, we asked 3,500 young people from around the globe their thoughts on the role of business in society. 89% defined success as having a positive impact on others and society. Do you think organisations have kept pace with this drive for a new business model?

I think there is a growing consciousness of the need for businesses to realise a purpose beyond profits. There is an implicit contract of trust between business and society – a responsible business is one that respects this relationship of trust. Actions from Blackrock’s Larry Fink calling on companies to show how they “make a positive contribution to society” and Unilever through its Sustainable Living Plan are all indications that there is a clear shifting of the dial on what business success looks like.

Having said that, I believe there is still a way to go to elevate traditional business mindsets. Many companies still view contributions to society as peripheral activities restricted to CSR rather than being a core consideration for the purpose and main activities of the business.

Do you consider that being more responsible will be more costly to an organisation? Are there benefits that outweigh any downturn in profits?

Perhaps we need to look at this by considering the alternative – i.e. what are the costs of a business not being responsible? I would argue that the costs of being responsible pale in comparison to the costs of operating in an irresponsible fashion without regard for society. Given the inextricable link between business and society, the latter approach would be to the detriment of the organisation in the long term.

Research shows that purpose-driven companies outperform their counterparts over the long term.  I believe to truly move the conversation forward, we need to rethink the periods and measures we use to assess business success. Traditional business thinking tends to focus on the short-term and on purely financial gain, which is problematic.

The challenge we face is that what really counts, is not counted. Financial performance is just one form of capital. Non-financial capitals like natural, human, and social capitals also need to be considered in assessing business performance. Being a responsible business focuses on generating value across both financial and non-financial capitals, with a long-term horizon.

What are you currently working on and why?

I am currently a senior manager at Deloitte Africa where I manage the piloting of the Public Policy and Responsible Business programmes for Africa. The programmes focus on positively contributing to debates of public interest and authentically embedding the firm’s purpose of “making an impact that matters” into the organisation in an intentional rather than incidental way.

I chose to work in this space post-MBA because I truly believe that corporates play an integral role in effecting social change. I wanted to be in a role where I can leverage my corporate experience and my learnings from the Oxford MBA to really make a positive difference.

What was your background before you joined the MBA programme at Oxford Saïd?

I am a chartered accountant with audit experience and prior to joining the MBA, I specialised in Corporate Governance and South African Company Law at Deloitte Africa.

Were you involved in CSR initiatives or driving purpose within an organisation?

Prior to my current role, not directly as a formal role.

Why did you choose to study at Oxford?

There were 3 key factors that attracted me to Oxford Saїd – diversity, responsible business focus, and Africa focus.

Oxford Saїd is a melting pot of cultural and cognitive diversity with students coming from all over the world and from different disciplines.  I wanted to study in an environment that challenged my thinking, gave me access to leading experts, and allowed me to interact with forward-thinking global talent. The business school and the wider University of Oxford provided the ideal ecosystem for this.

I was also particularly drawn to the focus on Responsible Business as a cross-cutting theme on the Oxford MBA course. This really stood out for me as it challenged the traditional perceptions of what is taught in a business school. I wanted to be part of a school that nurtured a socially conscious business mindset and viewed social impact not merely as a philanthropic concept, but rather as an integral component of business success.

Furthermore, as a South African, the school’s focus on Africa and developing markets was particularly important to me. I wanted to be in an environment that had a deep appreciation for the unique business opportunities and challenges that Africa presented. Initiatives like the Oxford Business Forum Africa, dedicated courses that focused on business in Africa, and the clear representation of African countries in the student body made Oxford Saïd stand out from other international business schools for me.

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