The Power of Humanity: Reflections from BSR19

November 22, 2019
  • Katie Morris

    Former Manager, Communications and Marketing, BSR

“Reimagine.” This is the word our Chief Operating Officer Laura Gitman chose at the beginning of the BSR Conference 2019, thinking it would represent our time together. Throughout BSR19, our conversations investigated the current state of capitalism and reimagined the way we conduct business. We learned from personal experiences of individuals who have reimagined what it means to be a true leader. And we started breaking down long-standing expectations about the patriarchy, the social contract, and universal values.

But, as the week went on, Gitman landed on a different word: “humanity.”

In his address, Kevin Roose, technology columnist for The New York Times, challenged us to “be as human as possible and build the kinds of organizations that allow others to be human, too.” When you think about it, humanity is really at the core of everything we do, from protecting human rights to preserving our planet for future generations. Here are some of the noteworthy trends that kept coming up throughout the week, all focused on our human-centered work.

“Be as human as possible and build the kinds of organizations that allow others to be human, too.” 


The Role of Business in 21st-Century Society

The idea of modernizing the social contract for the century we’re living in was prominent at BSR19. From social safety nets and healthcare to education and worker protections, the social contract that has shaped our economy over the past 75 years needs to be adjusted so that it meets the demands of the state of the world today. Diversity and inclusion are paramount, and equal opportunity and access to technology are essential—as San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo mentioned, many families in the Bay Area, where the Conference was held, do not have easy broadband internet access, making it difficult for students to even complete their homework assignments. Income inequality, homelessness, and inclusion were big topics throughout the week, and it is critical that they remain top-of-mind in the years to come.

The Climate Crisis

BSR19 took place in California following an October characterized by power blackouts and devastating wildfires affecting millions across the entire state. The climate crisis—and its impact on human life—was a running theme throughout plenary addresses and breakout sessions: from a live, on-stage recording of an episode of the Climate One podcast on climate coverage in mainstream media to a session on corporate feminism and the need to ensure companies are talking about feminism and climate change simultaneously—and taking action. When talking about future generations, Mars, Incorporated Board Chairman Stephen Badger said it best: "We need governments to do their part to put equitable policies in place to make sure that companies, not our children, are paying for their emissions."



Unleashing Human Magic

“The role of leadership is to create an environment where human magic can be unleashed.” Best Buy Executive Chairman Hubert Joly offered this phrase during his plenary address on company purpose and elicited a round of applause. Human magic—that’s an inspiring concept, isn’t it? With the magnitude of the issues we’re taking on in the sustainability community, it’s easy to forget how powerful we are—as individuals and as organizations—in building a better world. Beth Brooke-Marciniak, board director and former global vice chair of public policy at EY, is an exemplary case. She moved us all with her story of coming out as gay at 52 years old and called for everyone to show up to work as their authentic selves—and to create an inclusive environment where all people can do the same. And Moms Demand Action Founder Shannon Watts echoed that call for confidence when she proclaimed, “When you’re building a movement, jump in.”



Sounding good? Here are five ways that you can re-live the highlights of BSR19—or catch the things you missed:

  1. Watch plenary session videos: Almost every plenary session is now live on our YouTube channel.
  2. Read about our latest initiatives: Check out BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer’s first Annual Letter, the BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business 2019 report, and a progress report on how CoLab has been mobilizing the collective power of business to solve some of the world’s biggest sustainability challenges.
  3. See the social media highlights: Follow @BSRnews and BSR staff on Twitter and see what you missed on the #BSR19 hashtag. You will also find photo highlights on our Instagram account, @bsrorg.
  4. Find yourself in photos: We’ve uploaded photos from the week onto our Flickr account—head on over to see whether we captured you, or your favorite moment, in our BSR19 album.
  5. Share your thoughts: If you were with us in San Jose, please take a moment to complete the Conference survey (available in the mobile app under “Surveys”). If you weren’t there, you can always tweet at us or email us your perspective.



It is always so energizing for us to bring the best in sustainability together to discuss cross-cutting issues, explore global challenges, and share stories from the frontlines of our work. As we head into the 2020s, let’s remember to place humanity at the center of everything we do. We hope you found the week as gratifying as we did, and we hope to see you at the BSR Conference 2020, November 10-12 in Brooklyn.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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