Economic Growth

God, the internet and disrupting business

Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter
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This week, 40 young leaders from the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers community will travel to the Vatican to hold an audience with Pope Francis. They are there to respond to a question posed by the pontiff: how do we create a new global mindset that can overcome social and economic exclusion?

Ever since I was invited to join this gathering in Rome, I’ve been wondering why 40 young people were invited and not 40 top CEOs? How can a group of “millennials”, with our diversity of nationalities and religious beliefs, shape a debate held at the centre of the Catholic world?

I found part of the answer online. From early in his tenure, Pope Francis understood the power of social media and the internet. In fact, writing about communications and global understanding, he calls the internet a gift from God. The English-language Pontifex twitter account has almost 5 million followers, the Pope App has been downloaded more than 200,000 times, and his entire agenda is available for the world to see and stream.

Given the possibilities afforded by the web to the pontiff’s pastoral care, conferring with digital natives is a smart move. Among the 40 participants at the Vatican, many are already amplifying the voice of the under-heard through mobile devices, or using technology to enhance democratic participation and document human rights information.

Divine disruption

An indication of why Pope Francis is interested in this meeting can be found in the Evangeli Gaudium, a document issued in 2013 outlining his views on church reform. In it, he suggests that business people become more charitable. He even goes further, to question the notion of the economist Milton Friedman that “the only social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”. A section dedicated to the economy and distribution of income says: “Business is, in fact, a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life.”

The challenge of overcoming socio-economic exclusion is too large for governments, charities, non-profits and agencies to tackle alone. The private sector has played a crucial role in catalysing important advances in health, engineering, communications and technology. Knowing this, the pope suggests it is time to review the purpose of business and rethink models of growth.

This concept is not new to the young, many of whom have made career decisions based on meaning rather than income. By engaging the leaders of the millenial generation, Pope Francis is creating natural allies in the development of a new business mindset. Thousands of the companies that appeal to young people have social missions; many of them have joined an international movement of B Corporations – companies that redefine business success by making a public and often statutory commitment to their social mission. This way, directors and shareholders are not forced to abandon their altruistic objectives when times get tough. The long-term vision is to forever change the raison d’être of business in society. At Davos in 2014, the pope nudged the business community in this direction: “I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it,” he said.

Now, switching to a global mentality where businesses have a mission beyond pleasing shareholders requires a significant leap. This is where Pope Francis has identified the potential of focusing on younger leaders – having a shorter trajectory, emerging leaders have less to lose and therefore a more open mind about re-engineering the way the private sector is structured. In his 2013 manifesto, the pontiff reminded his followers: “Young people call us to renewed and expansive hope, for they represent new directions for humanity and open us up to the future, lest we cling to a nostalgia for structures and customs which are no longer life-giving in today’s world.”

It is thought that given the right opportunities, young people are more likely to develop deep empathy and stimulate innovation. The Catholic Church and, in particular, Jesuits have mined this capacity for empathy with impressive results. TECHO, a youth-led non-profit dedicated to alleviating poverty in Latin American urban slums, was founded as a Jesuit initiative. The impact speaks for itself: more than 600,000 young volunteers from all faiths have been mobilized in 19 countries to build over 120,000 transitional homes for those in the most need. The homes are built entirely by young volunteers and families, who later engage in community-development initiatives to give continuity to the projects.

Likewise, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has offered legal aid to 600,000 refugees in dozens of countries so they can unlock what they believe is the secret to inclusion in their home countries: legal documentation. In giving young lawyers the chance to understand the harsh reality of trying to make a living as a non-citizen, JRS is changing attitudes and the course of their careers for ever.

Unlikely allies

Under Pope Francis´s leadership, the Catholic Church has gained more non-Catholic fans than ever. The pope understands the challenge; speaking about young people in the Evangeli Gaudium, he admits: “As adults, we find it hard to listen patiently to them, to appreciate their concerns and demands, and to speak to them in a language they can understand.”

His statements about evolution and creation, his open support for the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church, his challenge to world leaders on the topic of wealth distribution – all these demonstrate his willingness to question traditional interpretations of doctrine and focus on action. In our search for a meaningful life and career, we millennials may be the pope’s unlikely allies in this quest for developing a new global mindset.

More on inclusive growth
Why data is key to inclusive growth
Three ways the internet can spread the wealth
How can East Asia become more inclusive?
Are we getting it wrong on equality?

Author: Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter is a Global Shaper and regional manager for Latin America at HURIDOCS.

Image: Pope Francis (C) speaks during his “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and the World) address from a balcony in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 31, 2013. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano

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