The Next Best Generation -- Shifting Paradigms for Business and Leadership in Latin America


"What moves you?" -- I sometimes start public talks about social entrepreneurship with this question, showing a sample of social and environmental challenges in my opening slides. Speaking before young entrepreneurs, university students and activists, the response tends to be an overwhelming show of hands with every click.

However, a week ago I experienced an incarnation of the generational gap among Latin American leaders. When I began this presentation in front of high-ranking businessmen in Ecuador, as I passed a slide on rising inequality I faced blank stares and a question from a senior executive in the audience: "What can businesses do about these? Isn't that just the way the world is?"

The difference in reactions, the generational disconnect is part of a broader trend. Deloitte's 2015 Millennial Report highlights a gap in leadership values across generations. For instance, while 37 percent of millennials put employee's well-being as a top priority in their company, only 17 percent of current senior leaders are seen as prioritizing the same issue. Likewise, 27 percent younger professionals would prioritize making a positive contribution to society and the environment if they were in charge, compared to only 18 percent of current senior leadership.

Generation unemployed seeks a purpose:

Last year the ILO reported that Latin America's 108 million young people are facing an unemployment crisis. Given the small odds of obtaining a job offer and economic necessity, one would expect them to happily accept any job available with little questioning. Yet, we observe a very different phenomenon: job scarcity has inspired an entire generation to imagine their own solutions in start-ups, often solving social and environmental challenges that the market has so far failed to address.

The global movement for using business as a force for good is alive and well among young leaders in Latin America. This is evident just glancing at the list of 50 Global Shapers attending the World Economic Forum on Latin America this year: over 90 percent are social or civic entrepreneurs, a new breed of business leaders aiming for a better world. From sustainable design to open data for civic innovation, this is a generation of leaders for whom a career without a purpose is unthinkable.

Global Shapers in Latin America are not alone. Deloitte's 2015 survey of over 7,800 educated professionals born after 1982 shows a generational shift. Millennials believe the purpose of business goes well beyond maximizing profit: 51 percent of respondents focused on job creation and improving livelihoods, 44 percent stated businesses are meant to improve society and the environment, while 46 percent spoke of profit generation. Beyond a mere preference, millennials are ready to make career decisions based on their belief. In Deloitte's survey 66 percent of youth in emerging markets reported that their company's purpose is why they chose to work there. Likewise, a 2012 Net Impact study in the United States found that 72 percent of students reported that their life goal is to have a job with impact on causes important to them, with 58 percent willing to take a 15 percent pay cut to work in an organization that shares their purpose.

Redefining the role of business

Conscious that public and civil society efforts to solve our region's most pressing problems are not enough, we are turning towards the private sector. In the last five years a new breed of business has taken hold across Latin America: Empresas B. Inspired by the B Corporation movement these companies commit to a social or environmental purpose and measure their progress towards making impact, without leaving profits aside.

Supported regionally by Sistema B, the growth of this type of companies has been exponential. In 2012 when Sistema B begun operations in Chile only a few companies had been certified. Today, Sistema B reports 178 companies certified, hundreds more undergoing evaluation and local supporting offices in eight Latin American countries. Of these businesses, a large percentage is lead by millennial CEOs and founders, who tend to find it easier to transcend paradigms of profit-seeking and social impact.

From groundbreakers to mainstream: purpose-driven businesses as the future

To be sure, it wouldn't be fair to attribute the success of the movement just the younger generation. Imagining a different purpose for business would not be possible without a few leading B Corporation pioneers in Latin America and their efforts for bringing the issue into the mainstream. In this year's Best for the World List, Echale a tu Casa, a Mexican social housing business lead by a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year ranked among the top three companies creating the most impact for a better world. Brazil's top cosmetics company Natura obtained a 'Benefit Corporation' sustainability certification and became one of the biggest publicly traded B Corporations in the world. The B Team -- an initiative of business leaders inspired by the B Corporation movement -- announced at Davos earlier this year its Plan B for businesses, an initiative to ensure sustainability and impact among the world's top businesses.

Beyond B Corporations, the broader impact sector is growing in Latin America. A Bain and Company inquiry on Latin America reports that capital committed by impact investment funds in the region increased twelvefold from $160 million in 2008 to roughly $2 billion by the end of 2013. As highlighted in a World Economic Forum Report, the expectation is that this pool of funds will continue to grow as trillions of dollars are expected to be inherited over the next decades by a generation that believes business should play a crucial role in creating a better society. Moreover, there is growing consensus that purpose-driven businesses are also good for the bottom line over the long term.

Engaging in transformational dialogue

In the end, my exchange last week with senior business executives sparked a fascinating conversation about generational values, a shifting paradigm on the purpose of business and the audacity of young leaders tackling societal problems. I am also happy to report that this week a team of Ecuadorian business visionaries will sign an MOU to formally kick-start a Sistema B movement in the country.

As a region, Latin America would benefit from hosting more conversations like this -- explorations about the future and bringing social enterprises from a niche concept to the core of what defines business success.

**A version of this post appeared on Agenda, the World Economic Forum's blog platform earlier this year.