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How businesses can catalyze social change

Dr. Steven Murphy (@DrStevenMurphy) is dean of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.

Populism is on the rise in the Western world, creating a climate of intolerance, racism and xenophobia. But there is a reason that leaders like Donald Trump in the United States and Marine Le Pen in France have gained in popularity.

Many people in the West feel left behind due to technological changes, globalization and rising inequality. Feeling betrayed by their governments, the disenfranchised opted to follow politicians who positioned themselves as anti-establishment. The issue is such leaders are polarizing societies based on division and fear. The irony, of course, is that such a strategy runs counter to the values that those countries were founded upon: inclusion, diversity and giving everyone an equal chance regardless of who they are, or where they are from.

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Many business leaders have stood up for those values, including Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Apple CEO Tim Cook, who both took a public stand against Trump's immigration ban.

The purpose of business has been shifting in recent decades from creating wealth to being purpose-driven. As Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, once said: "Companies can do more than just make money, they can serve others. The business of business is improving the state of the world." The triple bottom-line focus on people, planet and profit is nothing new to progressive business.

Business can indeed play a pivotal role in helping those who are left behind and in bringing about social change. But for that to happen, business has to roll up its sleeves and act as a catalyst. Here's how:

Creating meaningful partnerships

Contributing to the community has traditionally been relegated to corporations donating a sum of money to non-profit organizations and putting their logos on glossy brochures. But to really crack the nut, business has to create meaningful collaborations with the community and invest time and effort to come up with real solutions. One great example at a local level in Canada is Vancouver City Savings Credit Union which offers a credit card that distributes money back to the local community. More and more consumers want to do good when they spend, and giving back to low-income neighbourhoods is a step in the right direction. Customers and shareholders alike are asking how bottom-line results relate to corporate values. Google's green initiative is an example of using company resources efficiently and promoting renewable sources. The company has been able to simultaneously drop their data centre power usage in half while making a very public statement about renewable solutions.

Teaching the public entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship can empower those who are marginalized in the community by giving them the means to be self-employed. Starting and managing a business require problem-solving ability, innovative thinking and management skills. When an individual acquires such skills, they are able to reach their potential and contribute to the community. To that end, businesses, government and academia can work together to equip individuals with entrepreneurial skills. The DMZ business incubator at Ryerson University, for example, is opening its doors to the public and offering free entrepreneurial courses to the community. Working with RBC, Ryerson's Ted Rogers School of Management delivers programs to women and immigrants whose credentials have not been recognized. By empowering people with tech-savvy and entrepreneurial skills, these valuable segments of our society can contribute to an existing business, or build their own.

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Mobilizing students to create social good

There has been a surge in political activism on U.S. campuses as a result of the current political climate, reports the Wall Street Journal. Students are, can and should be part of social change. Through creative collaborations with universities, business can enlist students to be part of its community outreach efforts. For example, the Ted Rogers School of Management is partnering with CIBC-Mellon to mobilize students around creative fintech solutions. Through that partnership, students are exposed to issues facing the financial sector without being shackled by any restricted corporate thinking. It's a win-win for both.

It's time for business to play a greater role in bringing about social change because the cost of leaving people behind, as we have witnessed in recent months, is very high. The public role models for business today need to be the silent majority who give back to their communities in generous ways every day, not the vocal few who cling to Friedmanesque values.

Executives and human-resources experts share their views in the ongoing Leadership Lab series. Find more stories here and follow us @Globe_Careers.

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