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Using Business as a Platform For Social Change

Being a part of a center that focuses on the social and environmental impact of business, I have reflected on how our work is connected to Black History month.

I grew up in Yardley, PA where many privileged people live. We have clean air, beautiful parks, and clean water. As I have learned more about the wider world, I have seen that many in Black and Brown neighborhoods experience health disparities such as higher asthma rates, lack of access to green space and play space, and the likeliness that one will live near a polluting industrial facility. These disparities are the product of a previous way of doing business that too often grew by holding onto profits while foisting the costs onto the community--especially communities of color. We need a new way of doing business.The Center believes that business can make a difference, not just a profit. I wanted to explore how Black people have influenced business and used it to work for change.

This Black History Month I am proud to profile three individuals-Cicely Tyson, Pharrell Williams, and Lisa Jackson-as powerful examples of Black people using business as a platform for social change. They and many other Black and Brown people are creating a new, more inclusive, more equitable and more sustainable way of doing business.

Cicely Tyson

Broadway Activist

Cicely Tyson was a Broadway icon. As a minority student when I look at all of Tyson’s accomplishments it is clear she stood boldly for change. Her big break was a show on CBS East Side/West Side where she kept her hair in its natural style. This simple but brave act allowed other women in the entertainment industry to follow the trend of natural hair styles. I grew up watching the different musicals she was in and looking up to what she stood for. I was inspired by her because she was one of the few women in her industry that pushed for her voice to be heard. As a woman of color, I feel empowered knowing that Cicely Tyson impacted not just her own life but the entire entertainment industry. In Tyson, I can see that a new way of doing business will empower women and see difference as a strength.

Pharrell Williams

Entertainment Icon

Pharrell Williams is another icon in the entertainment industry who has worked for change within his community and beyond. There are millions of tons of plastic waste in our oceans and waterways. This is water we need. This is water we must protect. Seeing this global plastic pollution crisis, Williams became the creative director of the company Bionic Yarn. Bionic Yarn creates textiles from coastal and marine plastic. Sixty-percent of clothes rely on polyester--a petroleum based product. But instead drilling for more oil, Bionic Yarn believes we can use the oil already locked up in existing discarded plastic. Between 2015 - 2017, Bionic Yarn transformed the equivalent of 7 million plastic water bottles into clothes. They are a supplier of recycled-content yarn to companies like H&M and Timberland. Pharrell’s goal is to impact the entire fashion industry. In 2019, Bionic Yarn started a new partnership with W.L. Gore to expand into furniture and other products. In Williams, I am inspired that business can see waste as a resource and artists as entrepreneurs.

Lisa Jackson

Environmental Protection Master

Lisa Jackson was the first African American, one of the few women, to serve as the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator. After leaving the EPA, she joined Apple and now serves as the Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives reporting to CEO Tim Cook. Under Jackson’s leadership, Apple has switched to 100% clean energy, using recycled tin in iPhone logic boards (avoiding 10,000 tons of tin ore from being mined per year), and is even using recycled rare earth elements in the new iPhone 11 and 12 (in the “taptic engine”, that vibrating part that mimics a physical button). These rare earth elements are some of the lightest, strongest materials of the world, but are often associated with unsafe labor practices and 80% are imported making the supply chain vulnerable. In the future, Jackson hopes to lift up working standards in Apple’s supply chain and push their suppliers to adopt clean energy. In Jackson, I see the new way of doing business will combine creativity with responsibility, and sustainability with equality.

Business can be a platform for social change. From Black Wall Street and Madame C.J. Walker to Tyson, Williams and Jackson, Black people in this country have bravely, creatively, and effectively used business to change the world. And they will continue to do so--and hopefully so will I.

Now when I think of the health disparities that exist, the privileged life I knew back in Yardley, and these Black leaders, I am motivated to use all what I have learned and apply it in my classes, internships, and organizations I am part of.

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