Susan Winterberg, who leads BSR’s inclusive economy practice, joins us from Harvard Business School, where she was a research associate focusing on socially responsible approaches to corporate restructuring. With a career that has spanned more than 20 countries on five continents, Winterberg brings a unique perspective to BSR’s work to increase our network’s understanding of and collaboration on inclusion and our work to integrate new inclusive-economy tools into our core sustainability services.

Melanie Janin: How do you define an inclusive economy?

Susan Winterberg: I define an inclusive economy as an economic system where everyone has the opportunity to participate fully—as customers, as employees, as investors, and as entrepreneurs—and realize their highest potential.

At BSR, we have identified three pillars to an inclusive economy that we believe business leaders can use to take action to promote greater economic inclusion. The first is to develop their products and services to better reach low-income and marginalized groups. The second is to create good jobs and promote greater inclusion of marginalized groups in their workforces and in their supply chains. The third is to develop ways to better use their resources, knowledge, and expertise to help build the social and physical infrastructure that will foster prosperous communities throughout their operations around the world.

Janin: What is the benefit to business in helping create an inclusive economy?

Winterberg: When we speak of building a more inclusive economy, I think there is an assumption that by improving inclusion businesses must be giving something up. Yet, it is just the opposite.

When we ask businesses to think about how to be more inclusive, we are asking them to look at what they already do, and then figure out how to make it better. We are asking them to look for ways to expand their product offerings so they can to tap into new markets and reach new customers. We are asking them to find ways to bring in new types of talent who will foster fresh ideas and drive innovation. We are asking them to create the kinds of working conditions inside their organizations and across their value chains that will allow employees to deliver better quality, efficiency, and customer service. All of these activities are at the very core of what drives profitability and becoming a world-class organization—and by making these activities more inclusive, businesses can also help build a more just, prosperous, and peaceful world in the process.

Janin: When did you first realize that these are the kinds of issues you wanted to work on?

Winterberg: I first became aware of the issues of economic inclusion while I was living in Africa and the Middle East, working as an urban planner. In my work, I traveled across the region and got to meet people from all levels of society. I came to understand that at the root cause of every intractable problem we were facing—failing infrastructure, government corruption, criminal activity, terrorism, and political unrest—was the same issue. Everyone felt they were being excluded from participating in economic life. People felt that their employment opportunities were more tied to which family, tribe, religion, social class, or gender they were born into, rather than what skills they had developed or how hard they worked. Simple things that could improve one’s prospects in life—like getting a quality education to build skills or legal title and financing to start a business or buy property—were simply not a possibility for the vast majority of people.

The Arab Spring in 2011 really brought the magnitude of these issues into focus. And at the same time, the United States was beginning its recovery from the Great Recession, and it was clear we were also entering a new kind of world in the West—one marked by more precariousness, underemployment, and diminished purchasing power and quality of life. I knew I wanted to do something about it, so I went to Harvard Business School where I conducted research into these issues for almost five years. I wanted to know how companies were able to overcome these barriers—how they were able to provide good jobs with benefits and security and still be cost-competitive, how they were able to bring more diverse types of people into the organization and promote them through their management structures. I also studied how companies can best help workers and communities who are affected by globalization, automation, and other types of changes that companies need to make to stay competitive.

Janin: When you look back at this blog post three years from now, what kind of progress do you think we will have made in creating an inclusive economy?

Winterberg: My hope is that in three years, every BSR member company uses an inclusion lens when thinking about its strategy and operational choices. We have made some important progress already. We have two new initiatives with the Rockefeller Foundation. One is a collaborative initiative with digital platform companies like Lyft and Airbnb on an Inclusive Sharing Economy and another is the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition, which is bringing an inclusion lens to procurement decisions. We are also doing some research on creating good jobs in the United States and are working with some member companies on how to improve wages for U.S. workers in low-wage jobs, as well as to understand the impacts and opportunities related to inclusion for different sectors. And we are beginning some research on the effects of automation in China, as well.

I also hope that in three years, we have made progress toward bringing greater awareness and transparency for customers and investors on the work that companies are doing to improve inclusion through better reporting frameworks and investment decision-making frameworks.