Prophets and priests and politicians for millennia have begged fighting forces to put down arms and make peace. Some historians and sociologists have scanned history and suggested that the relatively profane interests of business have often been able to accomplish what religion and government couldn’t.
For example, “gentle commerce” is an Enlightenment-era term adopted more recently by Steven Pinker in describing how the incentives of free trade and mutual economic benefit have been more powerful than any other force in compelling enemies to drop their God-given right to kill one another.
Today, the Business for Peace Foundation, based in Oslo, Norway, advocates for forms of business that build greater trust, stability and peace and goodwill among society’s institutions.
The foundation, established not long before the 2008 global economic meltdown, is today (May 15) honoring six entrepreneurs with its 2014 Oslo Business for Peace Awards. The awards program, which has been endorsed by former UN chief Kofi Annan, is the foundation’s effort, in its own words, “to accelerate a reappraisal of what it should mean to be regarded as a successful businessperson.”
Sir Richard Branson, founder and head of the Virgin Group, is the most visible of the six honorees. Branson is being recognized for building his enterprise on firm principles in areas such as human rights, global peacemaking and alternative energy development.
Sir Richard Branson is among those being honored by Norway’s Business for Peace Foundation as examples of entrepreneurs who are building trust between business and the larger society. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Others are less well-known but eminently worthy:
Kesha Kumari Damini, an entrepreneur in Nepal, came from the dalit (untouchable) caste of South Asia. She endured bigotry, intimidation and threats to develop a network of 60,000 micro-entrepreneurs who have come from similarly marginalized backgrounds. She has also organized cooperatives to offer coaching in business and financial affairs. By helping many dalits to develop means of savings, she has increased their financial independence and their ability to overcome cultural barriers to success.
Selima Ahmad, vice chairperson of the Nitol-Niloy Group in Bangladesh, has focused on helping women in her nation to surmount many obstacles in expanding from the micro phase of entrepreneurship to the next level. And in a region of the world whose institutions are often choked by corruption and cronyism, she has mobilized teams of advocates who can assist women entrepreneurs in clearing unjust bureaucratic hurdles from their paths.
Ouided Bouchamaoui, head of the Hedi Bouchamaoui Group, a century-old Tunisian family business, leveraged the respect of the family name to gather the nation’s businesses for a common purpose in the wake of the turmoil of the Arab Spring. The resulting social contract seeks to improve work conditions at all levels, increase employment opportunities and improve competition.
Adnan Kassar, chairman of Lebanon’s Fransabank, has spent decades gathering Lebanon’s businesses together to provide stability and security that its embattled governments and war-torn civil institutions could not. In his development and leadership of chambers of commerce at the national and international level, Kassar is closely connected to the aforementioned concept of “gentle commerce”: the Foundation hails him for being “motivated by the ethos of the ancient Phoenicians, who replaced domination by force and arms, with partnerships through exchanges of goods throughout the Mediterranean.”
And Marilyn Carlson Nelson, past chairman and CEO of Carlson, one of the largest travel and hospitality companies in the world, has the peculiar distinction of having once been nudged out of the family business by her old-school father, who believed women couldn’t manage at a high level. After going on to prove herself as a respected leader of the United Way of Minneapolis and being discussed as a candidate for governor, she earned her father’s trust, took over the Carlson business, doubled its revenues over the next “Golden Decade,” greatly expanded management opportunities for women, and led Carlson to become the first major North American travel company to take a stand against the sexual exploitation of children in the tourism industry. She has been named one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report, one of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” by Forbes and one of the “100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics by Ethisphere Magazine.
The Business for Peace Foundation’s goal in honoring persons such as these, its founder and executive chairman Per L. Saxegaard says, is “to show global business and governments what is possible, through enlightened leadership.”
Saxegaard says trust between business and the larger society needs to be repaired proactively by the business side. “Many major businesses act as if they are islands unto themselves, isolated from the world,” he says. “But it’s silly to think you can be a tranquil island in a sea of chaos. You have to help make the world beyond your business work, in order for the world to help you.”
He adds that his organization is aware that most businesses aren’t in the business of churning out saints. “We’re not looking for business angels,” he says. “There probably are none. But we are looking for enlightened business leaders, who are willing to try harder, who challenge their surroundings and themselves, and who find better solutions, while also enjoying traditional business success.”
The foundation’s effort to honor worthy businesspersons is based, Saxegaard says, on the belief that, if such stories are “spread across the world, with force, then business will transform, and in a good way. A way that will promote stability and peace–which is good for business.”
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