In a year with so many reasons to be concerned about the state of the world and the future, last week’s BSR Conference leaves us with reasons to be optimistic.

The dozens of speakers from all corners of the world were clear-eyed about the need to face up to the climate crisis, ongoing structural discrimination, economic dislocation, challenges to democracy and human rights, and, hanging over all of it, a pandemic that is again gaining strength.

It is abundantly clear that the community of leaders we were proud to assemble has a clear vision and powerful purpose that is ready, in the words of the conference theme, to “meet the moment and build the future.”

BSR is here to help business leaders see a changing world more clearly, to provide advice that creates long-term value for business and society, and to build collaborations that take solutions to scale. The community that came together last week —virtually of course—showed how important these attributes are.

The urgency of addressing systemic racism, the climate crisis, economic dislocation, and disruption of familiar business models ran through the conference. If the 2015 conference was all about climate action (in advance of COP21), the 2018 conference about gender equity (in the midst of #MeToo), then the 2020 conference made clear how deeply embedded racial inequities demand our attention. In a closing session, Nancy Mahon of the Estee Lauder Companies put this well: “we don’t need to put on a DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] lens, we need Lasik surgery” to see things differently all the time. It is impossible to achieve needed change without seeing challenges clearly, and that awareness shined through the exchanges throughout the week. We as citizens would be far better off if public policy discourse reflected this vision more often.

It is impossible to achieve needed change without seeing challenges clearly, and that awareness shined through the exchanges throughout the week. 

Vision without action doesn’t mean much. There is good evidence from this week that we are moving from ambition to action. Bernard Looney of bp made clear that his company’s net-zero commitment will require investment and execution and that he knows that investors, colleagues, and the wider world will be watching very closely. Gillian Tett related how she and her Financial Times colleagues wondered in the spring whether COVID-19 would wipe away the growing interest in economic, social, and governance (ESG) investing, only to see the opposite happen. And we heard numerous examples of companies taking action to promote DEI. Rose Stuckey Kirk of Verizon placed her company’s commitment to advancing colleagues from historically disadvantaged communities in the context of the last half century of American history, beautifully reinforcing the importance of tangible action. It is clear therefore that companies are not only sustaining their commitments—they are expanding them.

And individual company action, as important as it is, will not take leadership to scale. François-Henri Pinault of Kering spoke about how the Fashion Pact is aiming to reorient an entire industry behind decisive action on climate, biodiversity, and preserving our oceans. BSR colleagues spoke with partners from our collaborative initiative HERproject on how collaborative action is aiming to preserve the livelihoods of women working in the apparel sector across Asia and Africa. And we joined with the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) to launch a new initiative to generate new collaborations to reduce poverty around the world.

The events of 2020 are accelerating change and delivering new challenges. As profound as these changes are, let us not forget that we hold in our hands the ability to bend the arc of history towards a better future.

We still face a set of “wicked problems.” An economic and public health catastrophe that has thrown more than 100 million people back into extreme poverty. Extreme weather and loss of Arctic ice continue on the march. Democracy and human rights under threat. 

I opened the conference by noting that it is up to us to determine what the events of 2020 will mean. These events are accelerating change and delivering new challenges. As profound as these changes are, let us not forget that we hold in our hands the ability to bend the arc of history towards a better future. Our businesses depend on it. Our societies depend on it. Our ability to thrive depends on it.

What I heard last week leaves me more confident that we will rise to the occasion.