Building an Inclusive Economy: A Conversation with Rockefeller Foundation’s Zia Khan

Photo: The Rockefeller Foundation

May 6, 2015
  • Racheal Meiers

    Former Director, BSR

As part of BSR’s Business Leadership for an Inclusive Economy initiative, we are running an interview series with thought leaders from business, government, civil society, academia, and philanthropy. Their voices and perspectives will help deepen our conversation on how we can collectively build a more inclusive economy, as well as how business can most effectively contribute to that vision. To kick off the series, we sat down with Zia Khan, vice president of initiatives and strategy at The Rockefeller Foundation, to hear his thoughts as a representative for a leading philanthropy prioritizing collaboration with business for social impact.

Racheal Meiers: What is an inclusive economy and what does it mean for different people?

Zia Khan: In simple terms, I think an inclusive economy is about creating more opportunities for more people to participate in and benefit from the economy.  A lot of work is being done around how to improve the lives of low-income groups by engaging them as consumers of products and services. What I think is often overlooked is the opportunity to engage people as producers, tapping into underutilized talents and skills, by overcoming the barriers that keep them from contributing to the economy and improving their livelihoods.  Much of how we think about inclusive economies at The Rockefeller Foundation is how people can be their own agents for improvements to their well-being.

Meiers: What makes a more inclusive economy so important right now?

Khan: There are two things that come to mind. One is the reality of growing inequality and its structural drivers. For example, there is a youth bulge on the horizon, and we will need to create many new jobs to meet the demand for labor and keep the economic engine running. The second is around technology and how it might create or replace jobs over the short and long term. The fact that these issues are also top of mind for many policymakers around the world is creating a window for some real change. There is a sense of urgency that we don’t get locked into patterns that could have long-term and irreversible consequences for society, the economy, and business.

Meiers: What is the role of business in building an inclusive economy? How is this changing?

Khan: There has been an interesting shift over the last couple of years from trying to figure out how business can help solve a social objective to how business can use social problems as a source of innovation to realize business objectives. This uses the private sector’s real power—the operational capacity that has been fine-tuned to meet defined goals. I also approach this from a systems lens, which is about rethinking markets to ensure that they are allocating capital efficiently and meeting the needs of society. Government plays a key role in creating the rules of the market and can also work alongside business to address the market failures that hurt all sectors in the long run.

One example of business failures that we’ve been working on is human resource department practices that don’t always maximize business value. For example, many hiring processes use easily identifiable criteria such as college degree and years of experience.  Other skills aren’t as easy to assess in current human resource approaches, even when these harder-to-certify skills are really what is needed by the employer. At The Rockefeller Foundation, we are exploring some innovative technologies and mechanisms to assess skills that employers need to realize higher levels of performance. These skills often don’t correlate strongly with education and experience, and they are often skills that disadvantaged youth have and could bring to a business.

Meiers: That’s a great example of the role The Rockefeller Foundation can play in supporting business innovation for good. How do you see the foundation’s role in contributing to an inclusive economy, and what are some of your priorities?

Khan: At The Rockefeller Foundation, we’re working to respond to two interrelated problems in the world. The first is to build resilience, enabling people, communities, and institutions to be prepared for, withstand, and emerge stronger from shocks and chronic stresses. The second is to advance inclusive economies that expand opportunities for more broadly-shared prosperity, especially for those facing the greatest barriers to advancing their well-being. As mentioned earlier, these require a systems approach that brings together actors from government, the private sector, and communities. The Rockefeller Foundation is well suited to bring these actors together, as well as to test and scale innovations that other institutions may see as too risky.

Meiers: What initiatives are you most excited about?

Khan: Our Digital Jobs in Africa work has been a focus of ours for a number of years. It aims to expand opportunities for digital work for disadvantaged communities in the region. This has demonstrated real social outcomes as well as a number of business benefits. We also just launched a new initiative called Smart Power for Rural Development that aims to bring electricity to 1,000 villages in India. We see the provision of electricity as an important end goal in its own right, but more importantly as an enabler for an inclusive economy. Electricity helps tap into people’s productivity capacity, so our focus is also about how electricity can, for example, help a carpenter open a business, a farmer develop better irrigation, or female artisans use modern sewing machines. We are also exploring opportunities to address youth unemployment in the United States. The focus is really on how to help the private sector tap the skills of many disadvantaged youth [in a way] that meets their own business needs while having positive outcomes for youth and the economy more broadly.

Meiers: As a great partner to BSR over the years, could you share your thoughts on how our organization can best contribute to an inclusive economy?

Khan: BSR has very unique convening power with companies. This gives you two distinctive opportunities for insight and impact. First, BSR can help sense patterns and frame inclusion issues in a way that makes sense to companies and aligns with the interests of business and broader society. Secondly, you can play an important role in facilitating partnerships among and between companies and other actors that have shared goals.

Hear more from Khan and The Rockefeller Foundation tonight, alongside Etsy, Oxfam, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, and other BSR members at our event in New York. If you cannot attend in person, follow on Twitter at #BSRinclusion, and read our new report on the inclusive economy.

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