A company vice president said for businesses to be socially responsible “is not rocket science” at GW’s 18th Annual Robert P. Maxon Lecture.
By B.L. Wilson
Coca-Cola’s vice president of business integration in the company’s Office of Sustainability said that opportunities abound for the private sector to make meaningful differences in society.
“We call that social enterprise,” said Derk Hendriksen, the Coca-Cola vice president, during an address on Tuesday to the George Washington University School of Business at the 18th Annual Robert P. Maxon Lecture, hosted by the GW Institute for Corporate Responsibility.
Shared values, social business are among the many phrases used to describe businesses promoting social well being, he said. “But the idea of bringing the social piece and business piece together and not seeing them as mutually exclusive ideas is something I care a lot about,” he said.
George Washington President Steven Knapp introduced Mr. Hendriksen and took the opportunity to offer “heartfelt congratulations” and express “mixed feelings” that GWSB Dean Linda Livingstone is leaving GW to become the president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Dr. Knapp acknowledged the endowed gift to the GWSB by Dorothy Maxon in honor of her husband, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the university in 1948, that makes the lecture series possible.
“It gives our students a front row seat in the theater of history, to help us prepare the next generation of citizen leaders who will tackle this nation’s and the world’s most pressing challenges,” Dr. Knapp said.
The Coca-Cola Company operates in more than 200 markets around the world, according to Mr. Hendriksen. People in general and consumers of its products in particular are critical to the success of the organization.
“Whether it comes to youth employment, women empowerment, women employment or creating economic opportunity, that is of critical importance to the viability and sustainability of our business at the local level,” he said.
“From a business perspective, a business can only be as healthy as the communities it is part of. So holistic well being is critical to our long term existence.”
“We committed to be water neutral to give back to communities and the world the amount of water we use for production of our products, and we have achieved that goal four years early,” he said.
Mr. Hendriksen said his “passion project” is the company’s EKOCenters that address “the billions of people without access to clean water, not connected and not having the information they need to get on with their lives and not having access to basic health care.”
He described the EKOCenters as “downtown in a box,” which the company set up in partnership with governments, civil society groups and other companies to provide off the grid access to water, power and connectivity in rural Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Mr. Hendriksen, who started out in marketing before moving into sustainability, said both the social and the enterprise aspects are important with most EKOCenters. Women are running them as a business that provides services such as health screenings, access to health information, mobile banking, phone charging and more. The revenue covers the operating expenses and the women’s livelihoods.
“So it is not rocket science,” he said. “But it is sustainable, and the whole premise is to do it from a social enterprise perspective.”
During a Q & A session, Mr. Hendriksen explained that Coca-Cola’s EKOCENTER was just coming out of its pilot phase and not yet fully integrated into the company. But he said it would not have gotten as much traction as it has without other private sector and government partners.
One audience member expressed misgivings about whether a community’s well being was enhanced by developing a taste and spending money on sodas rather than drinking water, saying, “Everything makes sense except the Coca-Cola.”
Mr. Hendriksen responded that the Coca-Cola Company offers a range of products from juices to soda to water and is involved in a lot of innovation when it comes to recipes, the formulation of products and packaging sizes to make sure there are choices.
“We don’t think it is up to us to make those decisions for you,” he said.
For those who think that Coca-Cola engages in social enterprise just because it’s good public relations, Mr. Hendriksen said, “We want to be part of the solution where problems exist that are relevant to our business.”