Can corporate culture and social change go together? (2023)

As Gen Z enters the workforce, Steelcase’s Julia Huebner on why “corporations versus social change” is outdated

In just a few years, Generation Z — usually defined as those born after 1996 — could make up a quarter of the global workforce. Most Gen Z respondents said in a US survey that it’s important for them to work for a company that allows them to make a difference and aligns with their social values. But what does this look like?

At the furniture manufacturer and Ashoka partner Steelcase, 23-year-old Julia Huebner works at the intersection of marketing, design, and innovation as part of a two-year rotational program. We sat down with Julia to hear her take on how she sees the connections — and disconnects — between corporate culture and social change, and how younger generations play a role in creating a future where everyone’s empowered.

You can also read our previous conversation with Steelcase on “What is a furniture company’s role in social change?” here.

Can corporate culture and social change go together? (1)
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Starting out, what did you think about the role of businesses in social change?

Honestly, I had a bias coming into the corporate world that the goals of large corporations are antithetical to the goals of social change. Why? Well, change is scary. It has the potential to disrupt organizations, prompt folks to question institutional norms, and impact the bottom line. Today, I don’t see that corporate versus social change divide as black-and-white as I did in the past.

Change is scary. It has the potential to disrupt organizations, prompt folks to question institutional norms, and impact the bottom line.

But now I don’t see that corporate versus social change divide as black-and-white as I have in the past.

What changed your mind?

First, I really do believe that corporations are reevaluating their roles and responsibilities to better align with realities of the twenty-first century. We can see that through the publication of the 2019 “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” released by Business Roundtable (fun fact: our CEO, Jim Keane, is a signatory). We also see that through companies’ responses to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Customers are expecting companies to speak up and show tangible progress towards a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace.

Second, most people now recognize that our most challenging social problems — systemic racism, climate change, wealth disparities, unequal access to quality education, etc. — do not have easy solutions. They will not be fixed overnight. They also will not be fixed by one agent: not solely by unions, not solely by protestors, not solely by government, not solely by philanthropy, not solely by corporations, not solely by a charismatic leader, and so on.

The private sector is a key component for sustainable change. But it’s only one piece of the puzzle. One company can host a career panel and have an impact on 15 students. Likewise, one non-profit can start an after-school program and have an impact on 50 students. But we can’t amplify those interventions without large-scale collaboration with multiple stakeholders.

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This is not my original idea: it’s what I learned as part of the Ashoka’s Leading Powerful Collaborations for Systems Change course.

How can companies work across sectors, aiming at more systemic impact?

First, companies need to understand what multi-stakeholder collaboration is. I had never heard that term before starting this course. (I’ll admit: It initially sounded like a bunch of buzzwords strung together!) Now I understand the cognitive and emotional rigor that goes into building multi-stakeholder collaborations. If more companies understand that rigor, they will be more willing to support sustainable social change.

What does “support” look like in this context? Building a scaled collaboration takes years; and gathering people together to build a new system takes capital. Sponsorship is an easy place for corporations to start. Companies can sponsor collaborations directly or compensate their employees who participate in collaborations.

What’s your advice for young people looking to make a difference in their companies?

In my opinion, there are three types of leaders: champions, curmudgeons, and everyone in between.

The champions don’t only mentor — but also sponsor — young people. They recognize the unique benefits that young people bring to the table. They will bring up your name in higher-level meetings, and ask for your opinion. They are not intimidated by the fact that you very well may know more about social impact than they do.

The curmudgeons are scared of change — and by extension, young people who are physical manifestations of change — because it threatens their institutional position. These people may try to stand in your way.

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Then, there are leaders who are agnostic. Basically, they will help you if they like you.

My advice? Find the champions. Follow up with them after your first conversation. Volunteer to work with them on a project. Let them help you by amplifying your voice.

What’s an example of a leader who is a “champion”?

I recently met with a leader at Steelcase who has been at the company for 20 years. I wanted to schedule a follow-up conversation, but I honestly felt intimidated. At the end of our first conversation, I said something like, “I’m sorry to ask for any more of your time because I’m sure you’re so busy.” He said, “Are you kidding me? You are the future of the company. It’s important for me to meet with you.” Champions want to help you. They want to consider themselves part of your success. Don’t let their fancy title intimidate you if you have pertinent and thoughtful questions you want answered.

What does a world where Everyone is a Changemaker mean for you?

When I first heard “changemaker,” I was skeptical. It made me think of self-styled LinkedIn titles like “creative ninja” and “ultra-disruptor.” I was even more suspicious of “Everyone is a changemaker.” I was more comfortable with separating what I’ll call “true changemakers” from, well, the rest of us.

By that logic, the true changemakers are easy to spot: Geoffery Canada — founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone — is a changemaker. So is Avi Shiffmann, the 17-year-old in Washington State who built a website to consolidate information about COVID. Oprah is a changemaker. Changemakers are the people who win awards. They get invited to the White House. In contrast, I’m a normal person, not a changemaker: I haven’t served in public office, built an app to curb teen pregnancy, or started a social impact investing fund.

However, the line of reasoning I just described — one that highlights the heroes and ignores the normal people — is subtly insidious. It puts so much pressure on our community’s heroes while excusing the 99% of normal people, like myself, from the responsibilities that accompany changemaking.

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So, while labeling myself as a changemaker feels undeserved, I believe I have agency to make change — albeit in small ways — in the world around me.

I like that the idea that “Everyone is a Changemaker” disrupts the egotistical rut we can all get in — one that prioritizes my job, my family, and my community — and puts pressure on individuals to look past our institutional and personal blinders.

Today, what do you think of when you hear “changemaker”?

If Everyone is a Changemaker, social impact and our day-jobs complement each other, rather than being trade-offs. If Everyone is a Changemaker, we stop kicking the can down the road and face today’s problems today. If Everyone is a Changemaker, empathy is an expectation, rather than a welcomed surprise.

I’d like to live in a world like that.

Learn more Steelcase social impact initiatives and The Ashoka Europe Fellowship Program, along with the Ashoka “Leading Powerful Collaborations for Systems Change” course.

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