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“If we don’t work with other people, we can’t succeed,” Kirsten Thorne, corporate policy adviser for Chevron, told a Kellogg School audience Nov. 4.

Kirsten Thorne

Chevron executive talks ethics and energy during Kellogg visit

Social Enterprise series gives students a look at complexities facing today’s leaders

By Sara Langen

11/17/2009 - Working in emerging markets poses many challenges, but Chevron’s Kirsten Thorne told a Kellogg School audience that she prefers to discuss the opportunities.

“In places like Nigeria, which has a lot of oil but a lot of poverty, we are in a unique position … to improve the standard of living,” Thorne said during a Nov. 4 visit to Evanston, addressing students as part of the Kellogg Social Enterprise Speaker Series. “We invest in universities, vocational training and schools [to create] a stable workforce that can provide for their families and send their children to school.”

As corporate policy adviser for Chevron, Thorne collaborates with external stakeholders to manage environmental and energy frameworks for the global company, which maintains operations in more than than 100 countries. Thorne said that Chevron is committed to balancing public and private interests — even when dealing with ethical issues, such as whether it should conduct business in countries with corrupt governments.

“You can say, ‘We don’t want to go into places that have conflict or poor government,’ but the resources are where the resources are — you can’t change that,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for us to improve conditions. Who would provide that if Chevron wasn’t there?”

Acknowledging the importance of reduced dependency on oil, Thorne said that Chevron is producing alternative forms of energy — such as natural gas and coal — and investing in emerging energy technologies, including non-food-based biofuels, hydrogen fuel systems, commercial uses for nano-materials and renewable energy resources. But, she stressed, none of these alternatives will solve energy issues overnight.

“It’s not that Chevron is wedded to the idea of oil, but we think the process of transitioning from oil is going to take time,” she said. “The scale of the marketplace is enormous. If I were able to say, ‘We are going to get out of oil by 2020; we’re going to be using renewable energy,’ I would, but I can’t say that. We’re feeding a world that requires a tremendous amount of energy.”

While Thorne said that Chevron is devoted to finding alternative energy sources for the future, it is also trying to be socially responsible when working in emerging markets.

“Historically, extractive industries come from a position where ‘we own the land, we own the resources, we do what we want — we stay on our side of the fence and you stay on yours,’” she said. “But over the years, this has changed to where if we don’t work with other people, we can’t succeed.”

The Kellogg Social Enterprise Speakers Series is noncredit course designed to offer students another opportunity to interact with leaders working in the public and nonprofit sectors, as well as with executives engaged in socially responsible businesses. Recent speakers have included Jason Saul of Mission Measurement, Kyle Zimmer of First Book and Elizabeth Gore of the UN Foundation.

The series is part of the Social Enterprise at Kellogg (SEEK) curriculum.