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Cyrus Freidheim Jr., CEO and chairman of Chiquita Brands International, delivers one of the keynote addresses at the ISC conference May 14. Freidheim spoke candidly about his company's successes, and failures, at being a socially responsible employer in countries such as Honduras and Columbia.

“Quest for innovation” marks annual social change conference

By Matt Golosinski and Kari Richardson

5/14/2003 -

The 5th Annual Innovating Social Change (ISC) Conference brought together Kellogg School students, faculty, alumni and leading business thinkers to explore issues related to corporate social responsibility.

With its theme of “Redefining the Boundaries of Business,” the May 14 conference continued the strong tradition established by previous student efforts and extended a dialogue that bridged nonprofit and for-profit sectors to define some of the best practices at work in the business world today. Panel discussions and keynote speakers engaged participants on such topics as multinationals and corporate responsibility, creating effective global nonprofits, and new models of philanthropy.

Keynote speakers included Wendy Kopp, president of Teach for America, who created the blueprint for the national corps of teachers from her dorm room at Princeton University. Teach for America places talented college graduates at some of the nation’s neediest urban and rural schools, in an effort to reform the country’s educational system from the inside out.

In her morning address, Kopp offered some lessons on the relevance of good management to nonprofit organizations, saying she initially regarded administration as unimportant when she originated the program in 1989. After only a couple years, Kopp said she recognized that good management meant the difference between life or death for her social enterprise, so she established a plan to raise staff morale while cutting the organization’s budget and seeking new funding sources.

“I realized that whether or not we fulfill our mission has everything to do with becoming a very well-managed organization,” Kopp said. “We realized we had to become obsessed with recruiting and developing the highest caliber staff we could.”

Cyrus Freidheim Jr., CEO and chairman of Chiquita Brands International, delivered the afternoon keynote. Freidheim discussed the often controversial history of Chiquita and spoke frankly about the challenges faced by the company as it sought to overcome a century-old image problem stemming from its policies on labor rights, discrimination and environmental issues.

“The company was closed and defensive about bad working conditions for its employees,” admitted Freidheim. “Then Chiquita realized it had to change.”

Today, the firm is much more transparent about its dealings, publicizing both its successes and failures in its “responsibility reports” available on the company Web site, said Freidheim, who noted that these reports have garnered widespread praise for their candor.

Though he admitted Chiquita must continue to make progress toward its initiatives — while simultaneously restructuring itself as a result of Chapter 11 filing in 2002 — Freidheim insisted that the company had been “transformed from an object of scorn to a symbol of pride.”

The CEO attributed some of this success to Chiquita’s relationships with advocacy groups such as the Rainforest Coalition, which has helped the firm devise and meet standards such as those stipulated by SA8000 benchmarks.

Various panelists echoed the importance of honesty and transparency in corporate reporting and general dealings. The views of Pete Friedmann, director of stakeholder relations for Baxter International Inc., were representative of the conference consensus on this point.

“Transparency is key to establishing rapport with the public, even when the company fails to meet its goals,” Friedmann said. He cited the leadership values modeled by his firm’s CEO, Kellogg School graduate Harry Kraemer Jr. ’79.

“Harry sets the leadership examples and these shared values are then lived by all of us every day at the company,” said Friedmann. “We believe that if you take care of doing the right thing, the rest [including profitability] will follow.”

The ISC conference is jointly sponsored by the Kellogg School Center for Nonprofit Management and the Ford Motor Company Center on Global Citizenship, located at Kellogg and co-directed by Professors David Messick and Lawrence Rothenberg.

Said Professor Donald Haider, director of the Kellogg Center for Nonprofit Management: “Our students are interested in ‘what works’ regardless of sector. This quest for innovative leaders and best practices brought an extraordinary breadth of practitioner talent to this year’s ISC event.”

According to the ISC Planning Committee, the goal of the conference is to motivate social change through socially responsible business principles and leading public/nonprofit management practices.

The Kellogg Social Impact Club played a leadership role in organizing ISC2003.