In Their Own Words
Harvard professor Jane Nelson grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe and became a banking executive before forging a new career path in corporate social responsibility. She spoke with Veronica Nyhan Jones of IFC at the 2018 Sustainability Exchange about the value of connecting people with different points of view.
Jane Nelson: I remember once being on one of the trading floors in Citibank and just thinking this isn’t just different continents, it feels like different planets. And I just thought “What am I doing?”
And my wonderful Australian boss gave me a sabbatical to go and work on “your environmental conservation issues” and I went home to Zimbabwe and ended up working with what’s now the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. I got to travel more in Southern Africa, but also East Africa and West Africa, interviewing women selling fruit on the side of the street, business leaders of massive big companies, central bankers, community activists, and I found my meaning and my passion. So I extended my sabbatical and I spent a year going around Latin America writing a book on small enterprise and sustainable development, and again, meeting just the most amazing entrepreneurs across different sectors. And that was it.
Courtesy of Jane Nelson
Courtesy of Jane Nelson
Veronica Nyhan Jones: You also spend a lot of time with boards and other kind of decision-making bodies. In addition to being a woman on a corporate board you are often a sustainability person on a corporate board. Are there ever conversations where it seems that a certain amount of progress has been made but it is still a very contested space?
Jane: Those situations certainly happen. But I’m realizing though more and more, we need to rethink the insider-outsider way we think of things. And that’s not easy to do. If one has a place at the table, one’s very fortunate to have that because so many people don’t. I’ve seen it now in several situations that as you get more diversity in the group it becomes easier. It begins to feel both safer and also more creative, easier to have difficult conversations. There’s also something else that I realize is so important, and that is shared experiences. The more we can take ourselves out of one’s usual environment and actually go and experience projects, initiatives, and talk to people on the ground, and do it together as a shared experience, it can have a massive impact.
One of the happiest and most positive memories I have of my entire career was the program called the Insight Initiative, where we brought together business leaders and community activists. We took a group of activists to the Tata steelworks in Jamshedpur in India to actually understand the business of steel-making, and we took a group of business leaders to a women’s self-empowerment and microfinance group to sit down on the ground with them and listen and learn what their reality was and their life was. If it is facilitated in a way that there are genuine conversations happening, and that people involved do some kind of follow-up commitment, I have seen it result in some really inspiring projects and initiatives around the world.
– Jane Nelson, Director, Corporate Responsibility Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School
Veronica: Is there a moment you can remember where a small group of committed people did something that is really lasting?
Jane: I remember we had a meeting in Dar Es Salaam – it was a World Economic Forum meeting which are normally very elite. I’ll never forget sitting at this table with a farmer called Jane and all the rest were business leaders and heads of U.N. agencies and all of them men. I think Jane the farmer was a little nervous at first and then once she got the space to say what was important, what were the challenges she was facing, what she expected from the U.N., her ability to influence the people at that table was quite incredible. As a result, not just of that conversation but of those types of conversations that happened, where farmers and leaders really did have a place at the table, an initiative has grown which makes an enormous difference.
Veronica: You have this beautiful way of bringing people together with a very appreciative and very humble way about you and way of working, and you draw all of us together in a way that makes us want to experience different voices and listen with open hearts. And you show that leadership through appreciation and kindness. It’s incredibly impactful.
Jane: Every day, I just feel so grateful to be working in a field bridging different types of enterprises, to get large companies and the people to realize the incredible influence and impact they have, which can be very bad and negative, but can also be incredibly positive and really make a difference.
About Story Corps
With support from StoryCorps, a U.S. nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. For more information, visit storycorps.org
IFC—a sister organization of the World Bank and member of the World Bank Group—is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets. We work with more than 2,000 businesses worldwide, using our capital, expertise, and influence to create markets and opportunities in the toughest areas of the world. For more information, visit www.ifc.org