GBSN at 20: Celebrating Two Decades of Global Impact

GBSN at 20 is an opportunity to reflect on the role of business schools in solving the most pressing issues facing the world today. At the intersection of human capital and technology lies the sweet spot of digitalization, financial inclusion, agriculture and climate. In focusing our attention to the opportunity, we ought to tap into the creative minds of young people around the world.

About 100 years ago, in the heart of the “roaring twenties”, about four thousand people witnessed the inauguration of a new campus for the Harvard Business School. On that auspicious day of June 4th 1927, Dean Wallace B. Donham had all the reasons to celebrate this important milestone in the life of the institution he was leading. The new building was made possible by a generous contribution by George F. Baker, the late former president of the First National Bank of New York currently known as Citi.  

The New York stock exchange had risen 20 percent per annum since 1922. Yet, the Dean was cautiously optimistic about the future as he observed the lack of “social consciousness” in the face of technological changes that enabled prosperity for some. He urged the community, especially business leaders and students, to have « a higher degree of responsibility » in developing the “social significance of business.” 

His wisdom rings true in the world we inherited. Many have sharpened their intellect and competencies at business schools represented in this room today. In a context where national and international challenges hamper human progress, I am reminded of the former CEO of Control Data Corporation – at one time one the most powerful and respected computer companies in the world – who argued that “the major problems of our society are massive, and massive resources are required for their solutions. The best approach is to view them with the strategy that they can be profitable business opportunities with an appropriate sharing of cost between business and government. In my view, William Norris, made the case for the kind of collaboration required to deliver at scale solutions for issues that erode the demographic potential of communities. 

If we take financial inclusion as a massive problem, we know according to Findex – The Global Financial Inclusion Database – that 1.4 billion adults do not have access to financial services, and 1 billion adult account owners have not made a digital payment. Yet we know, from Moody’s, that an evolution towards digital payments supports 2.1 million jobs a year on average and added $245 billion to real GDP between 2015 and 2019. Part of the solution lies in the ability of building societies that are intentional about providing access to financial services and tools with the right level of financial education. 

I was inspired by the story of the Indian industrialist J.N. Tata, who argued that in a “free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder in the business, but in fact, the very purpose of its existence.” Throughout his career, he demonstrated the impact that businesses can, and should have, in leveraging their position of influence to build in the design of the business, elements of social purpose. He invested in the well-being of his workers with policies for eight-hour days, providing well ventilated workplaces, a nursery for young mothers, and clean drinking water. His company operated a free hospital for his workers and the community at large. He was well ahead of his time in the late eighteen hundreds. Further east, Shibusawa, in Japan, made the case for business leaders to use their resources to participate in the planning of national society. When he partially retired in 1909, he stepped down from sixty-one enterprises where the seeds of human-centered growth had germinated. As President of Dai’ichi, the first bank in Japan’s history, he told a shareholder meeting that the bank needed to be managed both for profit and with concern for the benefit and loss of a country as a whole. 

Fast forward to our current times when fintechs have found a way to make financial services accessible to more in the community. Some of their leaders, young and curious, embody Norris’ vision of solving massive problems. Farmers across the continent and further afield are entering the digital economy with the right level of financial education and adapted solutions to their needs. We see, across the global south, collaboration between fintechs, financial institutions, and governments to solve problems for farmers, mom and pop businesses, individuals and youth to build their digital financial history, the language of access to finance.

Norris, Tata, Shibusawa and many others have shaped what Professor Jones, at Harvard Business School, captured in his book, Deeply Responsible Business. Thus, when I think of GBSN, launched 20 years ago, the world witnessed a wave of capital accumulation reminiscent of the time when the Dean of Harvard Business School warned about the merits of the social significance of the business in enabling deep transformation. In this respect, the influence of the network in shaping the socio-economic transformation of the world is real. Members across the world continue to train the minds of current and future leaders about their role in leading thriving enterprises. Yet, this remains a minority as the human capital imperative in Africa remains critical to lead small businesses. 

The World Bank estimates that small businesses represent 90 percent of all businesses in Africa. Many of these businesses employ fewer than 10 workers. How do we solve the skills required to lead the majority of businesses on the continent? Is the model of learning how to manage Fortune 500 companies relevant for the opportunities on the continent? How might we bring to classrooms around the world the experiences of business leaders with no formal education? 

In my view, these questions are fundamental as we think about the next 20 years of our strong network. The context in which Norris, Tata, Shibusawa evolved reflected the needs of their societies. The skills’ reservoir of the world is in Africa. In an attempt to answer the questions that I put forward, I would argue that: 

  • GBSN’s network has the unique opportunity to lead in solving the skills that are required to achieve the level of prosperity required for the world by equipping small businesses with the skills and networks required to fuel a higher level of socio-economic transformation.
  • The model of learning needs to reflect the size of the businesses that require support to lead the African transformation that the world needs.
  • The case study methodology adapted to small businesses has emerged but needs to be accelerated to ensure that generations of Africans can read about Regis Bamba, Fatoumata Ba, Naadiya Moosajee, and many others on the continent stepping into the micro opportunities that turned some of the households names into what they are today. 

It is a complex challenge at the intersection of local relevance and global attractiveness given the demographic shift that may value entrepreneurship without formal education. But does formal, as in the informal businesses debate deprive their owners of the opportunities to run, at times, successful businesses?

Back then, the Dean at Harvard Business School navigated an environment where there was no consensus on the social purpose of business schools. Yet, there was significant evidence as outlined in the book deeply responsible business that future business leaders should be trained to appreciate how social factors affect the ecosystem. In the end, the value remains in the ability to strike the balance between the purpose of the business and the human element of the business and the community. 

Over the next 20 years, GBSN members have the blueprint of what has been and what could be. Norris, Tata, and Shibusawa led the way in enabling prosperity for shareholders and stakeholders.