Shortly following trips to Davos during the World Economic Forum in late January, Erika Karp sat down with Juliet Scott-Croxford of Worth Media to compare notes on their experiences and most meaningful takeaways from the week. Below is a transcript of that conversation, which we captured via video.
JSC: Hi everyone. I’m Juliet Scott-Croxford, CEO of Worth Media. And I’m excited to be joined by Erika Karp, CEO of Cornerstone Capital, to talk about our shared experience at Davos in the end of January.
EK: I’m Erika Karp, the Founder and CEO of the Cornerstone Capital Group. As we think about investing for impact we’re here to talk about Davos, what happened at the World Economic Forum last week and some of the most interesting takeaways.
JSC: What was your biggest takeaway from the event on based on what you attended and some of the conversations that you heard?
EK: For me, the biggest takeaway is the extent to which we need more systems thinking if we’re going to meet these huge challenges. Because it seemed like there were a lot of events going on — whether it was about climate, whether it was about health or whether it was about technology and blockchain or women or LGBTQ events — each of these events touches on way more than it might seem.
JSC: And, and how do we take action on creating big systems thinking around those types of challenges?
EK: Well, it’s really hard. I think that that kind of thinking can’t just happen at the top. That is not just a high-level conversation. That conversation needs to go down to the grassroots level. And so I wonder … if everyone who needs to be in the room sometimes is in the room.
JSC: Hmm. So just playing on that point a bit, I think there was 24% female attendance at Davos this year. Last year it was 23%. What were your takeaways around the sort of notion around diversity and inclusion?
EK: By the way, that’s a big jump for Davos, because I know in many past years it’s been stuck at kind of 20% or even below. And that’s challenging. So the idea of women not just having more power but more influence is hugely important. And I think women’s voices, diverse voices are not being heard to the extent to which they need to be.
JSC: I attended a lot of the sessions that were done at the Equality Lounge [hosted] by the Female Quotient and a big part of their focus was on UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, around closing the gender gap. What conversations did you hear around gender and diversity outside of perhaps one of those areas?
EK: Unfortunately, very little. And here’s what I think we have to get to… people might talk about SDG 5 and women’s economic empowerment. But when you think of how you actually get there, you have to talk about all the other SDGs. So we think at Cornerstone in terms of the idea of access. Women will not be really empowered until we have access to water, to healthcare, to education, to broadband, to capital. And so that intersectionality, that systems thinking around diversity, I don’t think we’re there yet.
Capitalism and Sustainability
JSC: The main sort of focal point for the event or the big theme was around better capitalism and sustainability. How encouraged or not were you by that kind of conversation and thinking?
EK: There was a lot of talk about stakeholder capitalism, what we’ve seen the Business Roundtable talking about. And I think that’s great, but it’s so much more than talk that we need to get it done. When we go back to those Sustainable Development Goals, that systems thinking, that’s what you really need to see. So we need data, we need accountability, we need measurability, we need intentionality — all the things that we talk about with impact investing. And if you think about it, any board of directors, you know, yes, they need to serve their shareholders. They need to serve their employees. They need to serve their customers. You can’t optimize profitability without doing all three. But the issue is, it has to be about long-term profitability. We have to stop [the impact of] externalities from not being accepted by the users of capital. We have to think about financial capital, but also human capital, natural capital. We have a long way to go, I think.
JSC: Well, one of the key takeaways for me was that the business community is awake to the climate crisis. That was encouraging for me, whilst it’s possibly a little too late. I did feel like the conversation around that was baked into every conversation or session that I had. And perhaps more so outside of North America as well. I think there’s an interesting conversation coming out of a lot of the European businesses. I think that the key challenge is how do we take it beyond conversation and into real action. Seeing the letter that Larry Fink put out and, and some of the conversations around the Business Roundtable, what do you think the next steps are? How do we take that and. to your point, build that sort of systems thinking into —
EK: Action? Well, one of the big next steps is to facilitate tangible information, data, decision-useful information. I think that kind of push for real information, real data accountability is the starting point. And so that’s one of the things that I take away from it. Because when you have real information, real data that data providers and index providers and ETFs and fund managers and ultimately investors can have, not flawed information all through that system, then I think we have a better start.
JSC: And what about the sense of having a common language around how we’re describing this? So a common way to describe it, a common way to measure it, a common way to hold each other accountable to it. How important do you see that?
EK: Hugely important and that leads on from what I talked about with regard to data. We don’t have a common language when it comes to the whole idea of sustainable investing. Cornerstone uses a very clear definition. We think sustainable investing is the systematic integration of material, environmental, social and governance factors into the investment process. That is sustainable investing. It’s not ideological, it’s not political, it’s not divisive. It is about pragmatism and enhanced analytics. It is a discipline. And that discipline in finance, I mean ultimately it’s just going to be called investing and investment research, but we’re not there yet. Sometimes you’ll hear people say ESG investing. There is no such thing as ESG investing. There’s ESG analysis. We have to bring this into the realm of finance, not ideology.
JSC: And how important is partnerships and this notion of stakeholding when it comes to taking this to the next step?
EK: It’s, it’s just critical. This goes exactly to what we’re talking about, with systems thinking and going from not just the top down but from the bottom up to have this interdisciplinary discussion about getting things done. Partnerships are a must-have if we go back to talking about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, which, by the way, in and of themselves are not investible. So again, when we frame things at Cornerstone, we think about the idea of access, giving the world access to each of those SDGs, giving investors access to each of those SDGs. And that implies you’ve got to have partnerships. SDG 17, right?
JSC: Yeah, absolutely. And people like Greta [Thunberg], who I personally think is so essential to helping hold businesses and key influences accountable to make progress. What what were your thoughts on her speech?
EK: Oh my God. The idea of, you know, this young person talking about what is blindingly obvious to almost the whole world, except certain administrations. I think it’s tremendous. I think she represents, you know, basically the whole world that’s not at Davos.
JSC: Playing that forward to the point around inclusivity … she has such a loud voice, a voice that is so important to people that aren’t able to be at something like [Davos]. I just think her presence is so poignant.
The Davos Experience
JSC: So this was your first and my first Davos. I’m still processing it a bit ’cause there’s so many different layers and elements to it. It’s a place of many contradictions, and it has been and is under scrutiny. Having been there and come away, what are your sort of overall thoughts on the importance of it? The challenges with it?
EK: You know, the biggest challenge is clearly the perception of eliteism, the few, the very few making decisions for everyone else. And so that’s a huge challenge now with regard to how Davos comes together.
For a number of years I worked on the Global Agenda Council which leads up to Davos — what should be included, what are the pivotal questions that we’re going to address at Davos? The question I have is whether the hard work done on the agenda councils and the work that becomes you know, very specific, [does that] get right into the Davos conversations? I’m not sure of that. So that’s something I think we have to be very thoughtful about, because I think that innovation and ideas come from everywhere. Are those [ideas] making their way into any decisions or actions that might be taken over that one week? I’m not sure.
JSC: What were some of the most interesting sessions you attended?
EK: Obviously the ones that I worked on! The Green Debate was about action. What I felt that was so interesting was the extent of the earnestness of that group, which really wants to get something done. The other [event] that I was involved with, which I’m really excited about is called the World Benchmarking Alliance, the WBA. And the reason I love this initiative is because it is really about a systems-based approach: Let’s look at the keystone companies in the global economy, those that potentially can have more impact than other companies by virtue of where they’re situated in the system. And let’s keep raising the bar for the industries.
JSC: Fantastic. So you thought the WBA offers a solution to integrate this systems-based analysis?
EK: From what I can see. It’s relatively new initiative. But yes, it is showing us which companies can be most powerful in driving everything forward. And I should say there is no perfect company. You know, every company has challenges, whether it’s upstream or downstream, whether it’s a technology company, consumer company — every company has challenges. But if the WBA can really identify what exactly those keystone companies are doing, what do they touch and how can they be most powerful, I think that’s terrific.
JSC: What do you think the best way of integrating that into future Davos events, to your point and taking it to the grassroots? So it can’t just sit with this sort of small group of incredibly influential people. How much does the World Economic Forum take a lead in ensuring that happens?
EK: I think the WEF really could take the lead. I’ll give you an example as it relates to these keystone companies, or companies that are not keystone companies but sit in industries that have an outsized impact on what’s going on. One of the things that I observed — or didn’t observe — was the extent to which there’s real entrepreneurship, real disruption inside the companies that are part of the WEF. I think a lot of companies have forgotten how to take risk. They have forgotten how to innovate. And I think that’s unfortunate, especially, I would argue, since some of the agenda councils, which over the past decade have come up with interesting solutions, innovative, entrepreneurial solutions. I don’t know that we’re seeing [such solutions] to the extent that we should.
JSC: I think that’s an interesting point. I was surprised that there were quite a lot of young people at the event, more so than I expected, but also more representation from tech companies and data companies and software companies. And I’m surprised that they haven’t taken more of a lead on [creating] more of a systems-based universal way of an analyzing and assessing progress in some of these areas.
EK: Did you feel, ’cause I did a little bit, did you feel that there was more a sense of fear of new technologies, the negative impact of new technologies by one generation than there was by the other? It felt to me like there was a little bit of a focus on the scary stuff.
JSC: Yeah. I think you’re right. And I think, you know, Facebook’s been in the headlines a lot, so I think that there definitely is this sense of, yeah, how much do we embrace these platforms for good? I think that is a challenge both for those companies and for people, but there is this wealth of knowledge and expertise. Let’s apply it in these areas that we need to apply it.
JSC: Are there other conversations or interesting people that you met that have kind of stuck with you a few days later?
EK: There was one particularly interesting woman I spoke to from a health research organization. One of the things she said that just really struck me is that, you know, we can talk about systemic change as much as we want. But when it comes to healthcare and the intersection of healthcare and the technologies we need, she said the funding picture is so off, you know, without government funding of basic research. She says we can talk all we want, but it’s not enough.
JSC: Why do you think that is? Why, what is driving that lack of investment or capital in the area?
EK: I think it does have to do with the short-termism, broadly, whether it’s in the private sector or the public sector. Some in the foundation world are doing wonderful work, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we need. If the foundations are giving a kind of first loss capital [to attract the] private sector that’s great. But again, when it comes to basic research, it’s a drop in the bucket. And then our conversation went on to infrastructure spending and education spending and you know, the things that so need to come first. But it was that healthcare discussion that reminded me this is going to take everyone.
The Role of the Sustainable Development Goals
JSC: Yeah. And, and how integral do you think the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] were to the entire conversation? Cause that, that was the other thing I noticed. They were very prominent in certain places, but in other places actually weren’t the lead focus. What can we do to use them as a way to align all of these stakeholders and companies around a way forward?
EK: I was actually surprised that they were included in lots of places because I was expecting nothing. So I was pleased to see the SDGs around and in their own little building that was [colorful]. You know, the fact that the SDGs have branded themselves as eye candy is beautiful — whatever it takes. I wouldn’t call it prominence, but it was clearly there.
I think one of the problems we have, actually, is if companies kind of hang their hats on achieving SDG 5 or whatever. I think that’s really problematic because if you really try to go after one (and we talked about this before), you’re not going to get really much done. Yeah. So I think this was the WEF kind of tiptoeing into the SDGs.
JSC: Yeah, I agree. I’d really love this sense of having a shared set of goals and I do think that’s a really powerful way of bringing different stakeholders together around a common issue and some of the biggest issues that we’re faced with. I think you just, you kind of want to see more of it. And I sense there have been quite a lot of laggards when it comes to adopting these or taking them seriously or thinking actually this is a good way to do it.
EK: I mean with all due respect to the WEF, it’s astonishing that this is the first time that they’ve really tackled climate.
JSC: Yes. And it is sort of slightly contradictory in the fact that the backdrop is the, you know, the mountains and the temperature was quite warm. Yes, there’s snow on the ground, but it, I sort of felt like it was almost quite stark in that the conversation was around climate crisis finally, and we were in the backdrop that we were in.
EK: I put that aside to some degree because had it been snowing and freezing, then somebody would say, ‘Oh look, no climate change.’ I mean, you know this is about volatility, not about any particular day. So it didn’t bother me that much. It was convenient. Walking around was a little easier than it would have been. But you know, getting between all those black cars…
JSC: I was going to say, it takes 20 minutes to walk end to end on the promenade and I would far rather walk. I was surprised at how much traffic there was and they weren’t, I don’t think they were electric.
EK: Well, actually I have a picture of Prince Charles arriving in a fully electric vehicle. Yes. I think, I don’t know where that was published, but we’ve got that right.
JSC: There’s definitely more that they could do there, I think.
EK: I think there’s a little more they can do. Yeah.
JSC: So you saw Prince Charles, who else did he see that kind of made you [perk up].
EK: You know, no one, not really. Maybe I was looking down or doing my work. But I did see some of my favorite people. Nigel Topping, you know, I don’t know if everyone knows Nigel, but he’s amazing. A few other people that I’ve known for a long time that in my view are really the leaders, like Steve Waygood from Aviva. I don’t know if people know Steve, but yeah, he’s one of the leaders. So it was really nice to see those serious people.
Next Year at Davos?
JSC: What would you, a year from now, thinking about Davos next year, what change would you like to see?
EK: I would love for Davos to just take up the issue of entrepreneurship. You know, we know that in a global economy, impact comes from entrepreneurship, new companies revitalizing economic growth. You know, the fact that we have the world’s monetary authorities driving the stock market is not okay, right? Real economic growth comes from entrepreneurship. And I don’t know that there’s been a Davos that’s really taken that up.
JSC: And so how would you, how would you do that?
EK: I’d like to see the conversation truly be a catalyst for growth. Focus on the idea of entrepreneurship, in fact, impact entrepreneurship. That’s where growth comes. That’s where new companies come from. Why don’t we have, you know, a discussion about great companies that know how to disrupt themselves and innovate from inside. And then of course, the outside companies, the innovators, the disruptors that are outside. I think it has to be about entrepreneurship because ultimately that’s how we’re going to face the big challenges of the world.
JSC: So watch this space and we’ll work on impact entrepreneurship as a topic between now and next year. Thank you.
EK: Thank you.