Learning through Empathy

MoneyI was lucky enough to spend last Friday morning at a café in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Recently I’ve made a habit of spending Fridays there. I don’t live in San Francisco but I tend to have meetings in SF, which means the Ferry Building often becomes a bit of a home base for me. There’s plenty to eat and drink, and it’s light, bright, bustling with energy and just a bit chaotic – all good things in a vibrant city space! As much as I love the frenzy and noise of the Ferry Building, it can also feel lonely here at times. Just like in any big city, being surrounded by strangers can lead to an awesome and liberating feeling of anonymity. On the other hand, sitting in a room watching everyone else laugh, eat and connect with their friends and family can leave a person feeling alone and cut off.

A few weeks ago, I had an experience that left me feeling particularly isolated and alone, one that I thought I’d share in the hope that it offers some interesting learning and questions.

I was rushing like always to get out of the house and catch my train to San Francisco. I had a lunch meeting scheduled at (surprise, surprise) the Ferry Building, and I didn’t want to be late. To get there, I planned to walk to the train station (10 minutes), ride the train (40 minutes), take another train (10 minutes), and then walk a bit more. I sprinted to the station and hopped on just in time.

As I went to grab my monthly train pass, my heart sank: I had forgotten my wallet. Oh my god, I thought, I got on the train without a ticket! I don't tend to make mistakes like this often, so I immediately got a bit angry with myself.

Then, a few moments later the bigger reality hit: I don’t have any money. At first I didn’t think this was a huge deal – I crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t get booted from the train for not having a ticket, and amazingly luck was on my side and I managed to make it all the way to SF.

But here’s where it got complicated. To get to the Ferry Building in time for my meeting, I had planned to board a city train. But without money, I couldn’t buy a ticket and I knew I wouldn’t make it on a second time for free. So I started walking, and walking, and walking. Finally, a mile and a half later I made it to the Ferry Building – out of breath and 30 minutes late! I apologized profusely as I met my lunch date and we headed toward the entrance.

But of course, then I remembered: we were supposed to have lunch, and I had no money. My companion was very understanding and even offered to pay for my meal, but after all that walking and the stress and embarrassment of the morning, I wasn’t hungry so I passed on his offer. So we chatted while he ate, and about an hour later, we parted ways.

As we said goodbye, though, I had an instant moment of clarity and realized what was happening. It was late afternoon, and I was hot, exhausted and all of a sudden excruciatingly hungry. And I had no money. I was supposed to meet my husband a few hours later, and on the surface, waiting a bit before we met up didn’t seem unbearable.

But then I got to thinking – which was unfortunately becoming increasingly hard to do on an empty stomach:

Where do I go? Where can I wait?

Where’s the nearest bathroom?

Where’s the nearest water fountain?

All of a sudden, I felt alone and hopeless. I was hungry, thirsty, tired and completely by myself. As I wandered around and looked for a place to rest, I couldn't help but think to myself: this must be what it feels like to be homeless.

Now ok, in hindsight I will admit that was a sweeping generalization. In the grand scheme of things, I barely brushed the surface of understanding the challenges of being homeless. And rest assured that I did end up reuniting with my husband, over a delicious meal no less. Still, my afternoon without cash left a real imprint on me.

The truth is I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy these days. At IDEO, empathy is an integral component of what we call human-centered design. By putting ourselves in the shoes of others, we learn about people’s concerns, hopes, fears and perhaps most importantly, needs. And their needs are what we design for.

Take the current OpenIDEO challenge in partnership with Amnesty International as an example. Human rights, and unlawful detention specifically, is something that not everyone can relate to – so we’re using empathy to delve deeper into the experience a detainee or his/her family might go through. Empathy, in many ways, is the golden ticket that helps us design solutions successfully and with compassion and authenticity.

Last week David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the limits of empathy. His central argument is that while empathy can be a tool for understanding, it can also lead to misguided efforts. Empathy, for example, can make us feel more compassion for cuter, more approachable causes – like puppies, sick babies, or polar bears.  And empathy, he argues, doesn’t actually translate to action. Just because you empathize with a homeless person on the street doesn’t mean you’ll actually act to improve his circumstance.

I agree with Mr. Brooks that empathy doesn’t guarantee action. Since reading his article, I’ll admit that my brush with empathy hasn’t exactly changed my behavior or inspired me to act differently.

I do however believe that empathy guarantees awareness.Without sounding overly dramatic, in the span of just a few hours that day, I was transformed. As I walked around, staying close to the restrooms and considering where I might find free snacks, I realized that I no longer felt like Ashley. Instead, I felt invisible, embarrassed, and to be honest even a little emotional.

Now, thanks to that experience a few weeks ago, I have at the ready some very tangible touch points for how it feels to be someone else. To be in a different place, in a different body and live under very different but very real constraints. Has my heightened empathy motivated me to reach into my pocket and give money to someone on the street? No, not yet. But have I approached my interactions, my work, and my personal life differently thanks to this renewed awareness? Absolutely. And I think that’s a great place to start.

The Business of Business

Well folks – I’m all done with business school!

Ashley Graduates

After a whirlwind week of celebrations – and just a little pomp and circumstance – the dust is finally settling and life is returning to normal (although, one quick plug, I'm still looking for a job!)

But before we close this chapter completely, I wanted to share a quick story.

My mom was in town for graduation, and practically as soon as her plane touched down, she told me she needed to go to a book store. She wouldn’t tell me why.

After a day or two of being reminded regularly of her need to get to a book store, I finally gave in and took her to the closest one I could find. Once there, she bolted away on her quest – leaving me to hang out in the New Releases section and wait for her.


A few minutes later she came bounding back toward me with a bright red book in her hand. In big black letters, striking on the red background, it read: The MBA Oath.

“This,” she said, “is what I wanted to get you.”

The MBA Class of 2010 was just beginning its first year of school when the Financial Crisis really started to accelerate in September 2008.

I remember sitting in finance class when, in the throes of the biggest crash since the Great Depression, my professor decided to skip the theory and formulas and instead devote big blocks of time to breaking down what exactly had happened. It was an engrossing and overwhelming conversation, to say the least.

As the magnitude of the Crisis became clearer, my classmates and I found ourselves faced with an uncomfortable truth: many of the people responsible for this financial collapse were also MBAs.   

Suddenly, everywhere I turned there seemed to be a debate over whether the MBA curriculum had anything to do with this. What role did business education play, people wondered, in churning out managers whose only motive was short-term (and short-sighted) gain?

And, by extension, many asked: Is the MBA a degree to be trusted?

As a fresh-faced first year student, this was a tough pill to swallow. I came to business school to put new tools in my tool kit, to strengthen my analytical and leadership skills – not so I could follow in the footsteps of those irresponsible managers. We all know the saying, “one bad apple spoils the bunch” – and I felt like a handful of bad apples had spoiled it for all of us.

Throughout that first year of school, the question of ethics in business decision making was a constant theme. As students we were challenged by our professors, and by each other, to consider what steps we could and would take to ensure we did not follow the example set by those “bad apples.”

Around the same time, Harvard Business School student Max Anderson and his classmates launched what they called the MBA Oath, a “voluntary pledge for graduating MBAs and current MBAs to create value responsibly and ethically.”

Considered “a Hippocratic oath for business,” the MBA Oath outlines principles and actions each signer must uphold, from accurate reporting to ensuring the health and dignity of employees. You can read the full language of the Oath here.

mba_oath2While it was originally started as a Harvard campus initiative, the MBA Oath has now reached students worldwide and claims over 3,000 signatures from schools and students. Which brings us back to my mom and the book store.

Max and co-author Peter Escher have just released an accompanying book – a guide that not only tells the story of the Oath, but that also takes a look at classic MBA case studies through the lens of business ethics.

It looks like a fascinating read, and you can bet it’s at the top of my summer reading list.

When I reflect back on the education I received over the last two years, I can see now to what extent my thinking and learning has been framed by the Financial Crisis – and ultimately by the short-sighted and dangerous decisions made by people who chose to put profit above all else.

As this year's class of MBA graduates enters the workforce, we must prepare ourselves to face choices, scenarios and decisions that may seem to pull us in opposite directions. Charged with balancing short-term gain and long-term thinking, we’ll continually be asked to make tough decisions and weigh the conflicting interests of multiple stakeholders.

Tools like the MBA Oath can help guide us in our choices – but in the end I believe they are only tools. Ultimately the decision to use both our heads and our hearts is ours alone.

As you go out in to the professional world – whether you’re a newly-minted MBA or a “gray-haired” professional – I ask you to remember to always pack your moral compass with you.

Milton Friedman might have said “the business of business is business” – but I argue it’s about much more than that.

Yes, the goal of business is to make money. But at what cost?

You're Sure You Want to Eat That?

hamburger A couple of weeks ago, the folks I follow on Twitter (a terrific bunch of CSR and social enterprise experts) were all abuzz about a New York Times article that told the story of a young woman from Minnesota. What was all the fuss?

Well, it turns out that this woman, 22 year-old Stephanie Smith, ate a bad hamburger – made from E.coli-laden beef – and it paralyzed her.

We’ve all heard about E.coli and the illness it causes, but Stephanie’s story was shocking in its seriousness. While her case is extreme, she’s actually just one out of tens of thousands of people who have been sickened by 16 different E.coli outbreaks in just the last three years alone.

In addition to the article, the NY Times made a 9-minute video that chronicles her story – although I wasn’t able to embed it here, you can visit their site and watch it yourself (I highly recommend it).

This story hit home for me on a few different levels.

On a professional level, I am very interested in sustainability and specifically the ways in which businesses can demonstrate their commitment to corporate citizenship through positive environmental action. Given the fact that livestock production is the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in America, I have spent quite a bit of time considering just how broken this system of production really is, as well as what can be done to reduce the industry’s environmental impact going forward.

On a personal level, however, food production is important to me because I want to be conscious of what I put in my body. Marketers know that consumers (especially those labeled “green”) are most concerned with products that go “in me, on me or around me” – and food definitely falls into this category. Thus I try to be as educated as I can about where my food comes from, and use my wallet to show support of businesses that operate in ways that align with my values.

Interestingly, on an academic level, this story was also very relevant. One of my MBA courses this semester focuses on corporate governance, accountability and ethics – an area of interest that’s now increasingly important in the wake of last year’s financial crisis.

In fact, Stephanie’s story serves as a real-life example of irresponsible corporate governance gone unchecked.

Stephanie Smith

In class I’ve learned that good governance is related to two important concepts: leadership and accountability. These are two factors that seem to be largely undervalued not only in Stephanie’s case but in our meat industry as a whole.

Cargill, the company that sold the infected meat to Stephanie and other consumers, is America’s largest private company. The fact that it is private is crucially important: Unlike its public counterparts, Cargill is not required to disclose information about its governance structure nor its financial health to the general public. Why does this matter? Plenty of companies are private, right? Sure – but when the company in question is responsible for providing food to millions of Americans, the issue becomes more concerning.

What about Cargill’s meat suppliers? In Stephanie’s case, four different companies supplied meat products to Cargill, including one in Uruguay! As the NY Times article found, not only are standards for hygiene and safety often very lax at these places, but management at these companies often have unwritten agreements not to test their product for food-borne illness for fear of losing business!

And where is the USDA in all of this? It turns out that in many cases the USDA knew that Cargill was violating safety standards but did nothing about it.

Ok, this is the point at which I must admit that a lot of my information is based on this one article about this one woman. How can I assume that this one example of irresponsible and reckless behavior is indicative of the entire beef industry, its suppliers and even the USDA? Well, I can’t.

What I can say is that, after learning more about where our food comes from, and the ways in which animals are treated in this production system – well, it really doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch.

Plus, couldn’t we argue that just one example of egregious misconduct on the part of these entities is enough of an example of corporate governance, accountability and leadership gone awry? If this can happen to one woman, isn’t that enough?

In my opinion, Cargill and its industry colleagues sit atop an unsafe, irresponsible supply chain that puts profits and mass production ahead of consumer safety and ethical production.

Many questions remain for me: Who really is steering the ship at Cargill, and to whom are they accountable? What is the incentive for Cargill and its suppliers to act in ways that protect consumers and mitigate the risk of lawsuits and other legal actions? And, if the USDA cannot enforce a set of standards for safety in meat, what other harmful substances are making their way into the foods we eat? How can consumers possibly protect themselves?

For Stephanie Smith, though, the answers are clear: “In the simplest terms, she ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known”[i].


[i] “E.Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection,” published online 10/3/09 by www.nytimes.com. Retrieved online 10/3/09.

My Journey for Sustainable Food

Last winter, my husband Dan and I noticed we were beginning to struggle in our quest for fresh, local food. As a Californian learning to endure my first Boston winter, I wanted more variety in our produce. At the same time Dan, a culinary school student, was learning more and more about the role of things like corn syrup and stabilizers in processed food. Between the two of us, we often ended up wondering what we could do to ensure that what we put into our bodies was healthy, fresh and ultimately unprocessed. So we took up cooking more and expanded our repertoire to include items like homemade bread, chicken stock, ice cream and others. Still, in hindsight we relied more often than we would have liked on cheap meat, poultry and dairy – often because it was what we could afford.

All of this came full circle recently in the sustainability class I took a few weeks ago. The day we talked about global food production – including factory farms, or Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs) in the U.S. – I felt like the world opened up and swallowed me with it.

In Factory Farms, animals are packed in high-density pens, often with little or no room to move.

(Ashley’s Note: CAFOs are hugely depressing operations, in my opinion. For your sake and mine, I am not going to recount just how unhealthy and harmful these farms are for animals, for humans, for our economy and for our environment. I’ll just say that for a brief intro, google “Factory Farm” and see what comes up…)

Anyway, I had always wanted to believe that factory farming wasn’t my problem. Sure, Dan and I would buy our meat at big grocery stores and not really ever give any thought to where it came from. But, hey, this kind of farming was going on somewhere far away – so we couldn’t really see it. Plus, we were starving students and the meat was cheap. Right? Wrong.

In fact these are all really lame excuses.

As soon as I heard the food lecture I knew we had been fooling ourselves. This was our problem. Our meat purchases at big grocery chains had unknowingly given a vote of confidence to Perdue and Tyson and all the other CAFO operators that their way of doing business was ok with us. But it wasn’t.

The day after our class ended, I woke up ready for action. Convinced there had to be a way for me to find locally and sustainably-raised meat, poultry and dairy in Boston, I got to work doing research. I planned my route, put on my walking shoes, grabbed my grocery cart and reusable grocery bags, and set out on my adventure. 

Courtesy: Google Maps. Distance: 4.6 miles (Note: start and end point located at point E).
Courtesy: Google Maps. Distance: 4.6 miles (Note: start and end point located at point E).

I would first hit Savenor’s in Cambridge, a local favorite with well-known ties to sustainable farms. Surely they would have plenty of “free-range/grass-fed/happy animal” meat to buy. Knowing I might need a back-up plan, I figured that worst case I could go to Whole Foods, just a short walk away from Savenor’s. They may be pricey, I thought, but at least they’ll have a selection.

Four hours and almost five miles later, I ended up at the Shaw’s Market near my house feeling defeated and depressed. I did go to Savenor’s, but was dismayed to see that much of their meat was unlabeled and therefore gave no indication of where it had come from. When I asked a salesman the origins of a particular pork loin, he simply said, “Iowa”. While this may not have immediately signaled “CAFO,” his comment still concerned me because of the issue of how far this pork had to travel in order to reach the market. Surely, I thought, there are farms closer to Boston that raise pigs?

Next I went to Whole Foods, prepared to hand over what little money I had in the name of sustainable farming. Unfortunately here, though, the prices were just so amazingly steep that I actually couldn’t rationalize paying for food, no matter how free-range the animals were.

At this point, I was exhausted, dehydrated and completely without a Plan C. And the worst part was that I still needed groceries! So I surrendered and slowly made my way to the Shaw’s near my house. While Shaw’s is certainly not a terrible market, to me it signified my failed attempt to find and support local, sustainable food production in my own backyard.

That evening, I came home with my full cart of groceries and got to work thinking about solutions. My pilgrimage around Cambridge had taught me that finding responsibly-raised meat would be harder than I thought.

But I was convinced that I could find a way to eat healthy and locally, while also supporting the right kind of farms.

In the end, after considerable discussion, Dan and I decided to sign up for a share in a local CSA farm. Community Supported Agriculture represents “a shared commitment to building a more local and equitable agricultural system, one that allows growers to focus on land stewardship and still maintain productive and profitable small farms”[i]. Stillman's Farm, located in Hardwick, MA, is a CSA that raises its animals according to its own “Conscientiously Grown Philosophy”:

Our farm offers conscientiously raised, grass-fed and pastured, hormone-free meats and poultry. We believe in raising our animals in a manner that is humane and respectful, a respect that extends not only to our animals but to our land as well. Our sustainable, more holistic approach to animal husbandry yields better tasting, safer, and more nutritious meats and poultry.

I had considered the idea of a CSA for produce in the past, but I did not know that meat CSAs existed until a few weeks ago. Given the fact that neither Dan nor I plan to become vegetarians anytime soon, the CSA meat share seemed like a smart, responsible way to use our wallets to support something we believe in.

Look at These Happy Cows! Courtesy: Franklin Farmers Market

We pick up our first share in late October and we cannot wait to start cooking!

Interestingly, this little experiment (plus all of the research I have done into the U.S. farm industry) has really informed how I look at all of my purchase decisions – from food, to consumer goods, to energy and water consumption. And it has gotten me talking to everyone else about what I learned. The education and awareness I have recently gained has now been passed on to other people in my life – a true ripple-effect that has started impacting how my friends and loved ones relate to and understand their food.

This is perhaps the most profound learning of all: when it comes to an industry as powerful and far-reaching as factory farming, it is easy to assume that one person can’t make a difference. In my lowest moments, I worried that there was no way that I alone could take a meaningful stand against this kind of production.

But the last few weeks have shown to me that, in fact, one person standing up is all it takes to get people talking - and acting.

[i] USDA National Agriculture Library. Retrieved September 11, 2009 from http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csadef.shtml

Ethics and MBAs

Rule #1 of business school: Q: What is the #1 responsibility of management?

A: To maximize shareholder wealth.

I remember hearing this from one of my professors for the very first time; fresh-faced and ready to change the world through my new business education, I was immediately thrown back: surely this can't be the only goal of management, I thought. What about concerns for customers, for employees, or for the environment or society?

As it turns out, if you ask any MBA student at any MBA program, you're bound to get the same answer to this question. And while it may not be 100% true (even the most straight-laced finance concentrators would agree that this idea is oversimplified), the theme of maximizing returns to shareholders is recurring and prevalent. And it raises a second, important follow-up question:

What does it say about MBA students if this is the most important question they learn to answer during their two years of school?

Over the last few months, as news of corporate scandal, greed, and bankruptcies continues to make headlines, my business school class discussions have taken somewhat of an ethical turn. Through conversations about Enron and greed, McDonald's and nutrition, and Google and online privacy, it's clear that my professors want us to think about how we would handle real-life decisions where the line between right and wrong is blurred. But in my opinion, none of them have quite gotten there yet. Yes, we need to be discussing these issues, but to say that a few isolated classes are sufficient to ensure my classmates and I have strong, ethical compasses is surely a stretch.

I've been thinking and reading a lot about this recently, and it appears that others have been too. Harvard Business Review has been hosting an especially interesting online debate featuring a series of posts on "How to Fix Business Schools". One of my favorite posts in this series is from Angel Cabrera, the president of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, called "Let's Professionalize Management". In his article, Cabrera advocates the institution of a business version of the Hippocratic Oath, a basic do-no-harm for management. And here's the kicker:

A professional ideology of service to the greater good is not at odds with the principle of shareholder value creation. It actually grounds shareholder value morally and it integrates it in a richer multidisciplinary context. It reaffirms the importance of shareholder value as both a source of societal prosperity in itself as well as an indicator of other forms of value. But it acknowledges that businesses create multiple forms of value and it attributes to managers responsibilities that go beyond profit maximization.

I just love this paragraph. The idea of grounding shareholder value in a moral context just resonates with me. As a "conscious consumer", I support companies like Target because I have witnessed the kind of commitment they make to the community; while I may not own Target stock, I would like to believe that its shareholders feel proud to own a part of a company that's doing good things.  And that last sentence about "multiple forms of value" in measuring business success is so true.  

So it seems that others are recognizing the inherent flaws in this oversimplified question and answer set. But where do we go from here? One of the steps I'm most excited about is my own school's entry into the U.N. Initiative Principles for Responsible Management. Boston University School of Management now joins over 200 other schools committed to "responsible management education, research and thought leadership globally".

In the current academic environment, corporate responsibility and sustainability have entered but not yet become embedded in the mainstream of business-related education. The PRME are therefore a timely global call for business schools and universities worldwide to gradually adapt their curricula, research, teaching methodologies and institutional strategies to the new business challenges and opportunities.

Certification is a great start, but I'll be curious to see what the next steps look like. In the meantime, I wonder: how are other business schools approaching and integrating the topic of ethical leadership ? What success stories can you share from your own classroom experiences? What have you seen that hasn't worked? And how much do you hate that stupid shareholder wealth question?! I certainly do.

A few more interesting resources on Ethics and MBAs: