Should Company Leaders Lean In To Social and Political Issues?

The last eighteen months have brought social and political issues to the forefront, forcing many companies to publicly take a stand. A panel of Dartmouth entrepreneurs took up the question of whether company leaders should speak out, and the importance of defining the core values of an organization.


In May, Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke had a blunt message for employees: Shopify is not your family, and work is not the place to discuss social and political issues. 

“We cannot solve every societal problem here," Lütke wrote. "We are part of an ecosystem, of economies, of culture, and of actual countries. We also can't take care of all your needs. We will try our best to take care of the ones that ensure you can support our mission.”

The letter is just one example of the ways that company leaders have had to navigate the social and political discourse that reached a crescendo during the past 18 months. While Lütke’s letter may have been problematic, Jeff Kolovson ’09, co-founder and COO of Faire, said that Lütke was within his right to make that proclamation. 

“I do believe founders and leaders should run companies how they see fit,” Kolovson said during a Dartmouth Entrepreneurs Forum panel on whether or not leadership should lean into social and political issues. “Where you get into trouble here is when you have a mission or values that have dissonance to how you act.”

Defining an organization’s core values

Oftentimes companies aren’t up front with their core values, or haven’t even defined those values for themselves. That can lead to employees having an expectation that the organization will take a stand on issues, when the organization has no intention to do so, panelists said. 

Issues can also arise when companies proclaim a certain set of values, but fail to operate by them, said Alex Bernadotte ’92, founder and CEO of Beyond 12, a digital coaching platform that aims to address structural inequities. If companies choose not to engage with social issues, that’s fine, but they should be upfront about it.

“Put it out there so folks seeking employment understand,” Bernadotte said. Oftentimes when Bernadotte interviews recent college graduations, they ask about Beyond 12’s core values. 

“They’re really doing their research and looking for a place that they can be proud of,” she said. 

Since the organization has well-defined values, Beyond 12 is able to take a proactive approach to social and political issues. That’s more effective than the reactive approach that many companies have to big events like the murder of George Floyd, Bernadotte said. 

“When these moments happen we don’t necessarily feel that we have to respond, because our track record speaks for itself,” she explained.

Opting into — or out of — conversations

While some companies — like Shopify — can choose to opt out of social and political discussions, others must integrate these conversations into the fabric of the organization. At Ginkgo Bioworks, a bioengineering company, leadership feels an obligation to consider the ways in which the platform is used. 

“If your mission is to make biology easier to engineer, you can’t afford not to care how your platform is used,” said Matt McKnight ’85, COO at Ginkgo Bioworks. “Biology is all of us. It’s an incredibly powerful tool. We have to be humble in this pursuit.”

At Faire, which connects small retailers with independent brands, clients that used the platform have pushed the company to speak out on many issues. The whole idea of the platform is to level the playing field for small businesses, Kolovson said, and company leadership has realized that goes hand-in-hand with confronting structural inequities. 

"I don’t think it would feel authentic to [our clients] and to their company, if we didn’t speak out,” Kolovson said. 

Although business leaders might claim that it’s professional to separate the business from the personal, that in and of itself is a choice, McKnight emphasized. 

“It’s a choice to uphold the status quo,” with all its biases and inequities, he said. 

A broad approach to equity

Having a diverse team has been shown time and again to improve business metrics. 

“It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do, it also enhances your bottom line in so many ways,” Bernadotte said. 

Despite that, no company has perfectly figured out how to bolster diversity, equity and inclusion in their workplaces. Even as a Black woman with diverse networks and an extremely diverse team, Bernadotte feels she has more work to do. True equity involves more than just hiring diverse talent: it permeates through all layers of the company, down to contracts and vendors. 

“It has to be comprehensive, and it has to be beyond recruiting and hiring,” Bernadotte said. 

The leadership at Faire has realized that the biggest way they can advance equity is by continuing to empower underrepresented business owners that use the platform. 

“What we’re uniquely positioned to do is help these entrepreneurs grow their businesses,” Kolovson said. 

Even the decision to prioritize profit is something that can be questioned and examined. 

“The architecture by which we build companies and measure success doesn’t have to be only defined by that one business outcome,” McKnight said. 

When Ginkgo recently went public, all employees were given ten-times voting shares. That underscored the founders efforts to keep the voices of the employees centered, McKnight said. 

Ultimately, business leaders are engaging with the political and social climate, whether by advocating for change or benefitting from the status quo. With that in mind, the panelists expect to see more companies speaking publicly about their core values, no matter which side of an issue they’re on. At the end of the day, protecting the political and social fabric is a good business decision. 

“If the pillars of democracy crumble or erode, it’s difficult to run a company,” Kolovson said.