CEO Activism and Human Rights

Dr David Cooke and CEO Activism

There’s something incredibly inspiring about a leader who uses their position of power not just to improve profits, but to create a legacy that changes people’s lives for the better.

One of those leaders is Dr David Cooke, Chair and Managing Director of Konica Minolta Australia, chair of the UN Global Compact Network Australia, and chair of the UNSW Australian Human Rights Institute Advisory Board.

At our most recent NEEOPA forum, we were fortunate to have David as our keynote speaker and learn from his experience as a ‘CEO activist’ with a passion to end human rights abuses in corporate supply chains.

David began his journey in CEO activism after giving a heartfelt, impromptu acceptance speech as the new CEO of Konica Minolta, Australia, back in 2013.

His address, which still guides decision-making in the organisation today, called everyone to build a company that truly cares about its people, customers and the community. To show he was genuine, he followed this up with a company-wide email that freely admitted he didn’t know where to begin and needed help.

David’s speech and email created a new dialogue amongst the staff at Konica Minolta. It soon became clear that employees wanted more purpose to their jobs and communication from the top, to see how their efforts impacted the bottom line.

Shortly afterwards, David attended a company leaders conference in Cambodia which featured a powerful speech from Somaly Mam, a Cambodian heroine who fled sexual slavery and now devotes her life to rescuing others. The speech had a deep impact on David, who could not “un-see” or “un-know” the realities behind the abuse of human rights.

On his return to Australia, David announced to his staff that in addition to selected charities, Konica Minolta would also be supporting a new humanitarian cause: helping children and young women out of sexual slavery in Cambodia. This kick-started his lifelong journey championing for change against abuse in supply chains – a journey that continues to leave its mark.

Here are some of the valuable lessons David shared with us from his experiences as a CEO activist:

Get educated about the problem

There are currently more slaves in the world today than at any other point in human history. Around 40 million people in the world are currently in forced labour, facing daily threats, coercion and even physical restraints. This includes ‘debt bondage’ in which a person is effectively indebted to another for their entire lives, leading to cycles of intergenerational debt.

David urged everyone to get educated about the problem. You can access information through the website. A soon-to-be-released independent film called Buoyancy, featuring the story of a Cambodian boy enslaved on a fishing trawler, is also worth watching once it hits cinemas.

Investigate your supply chain

David implores every Australian company to investigate their supply chains for human rights abuses. A good place to start, he advises, is with known hot spots or where your highest spend is. Apps such as Good on You are also doing a great job in helping consumers make informed decisions, and learn about the potential abuses behind common purchases.

Procurement teams should have a conversation with their top tier suppliers and encourage them to join you on the journey (the upside being a long working relationship). If they choose not to come on the human rights journey, there will come a time when you will both need to part ways.

The link between ‘doing good’ and ‘doing well’

There is a perceived conflict between creating profit and doing good for the community, especially considering the Corporations Act which decrees that CEOs must operate in the best interests of an organisation.

David does not believe such a conflict need exist, as there is a link between doing good and your company doing well (an “ROI of Corporate Responsibility”). There is nothing more powerful than giving your employees a purpose to be passionate about. This has a positive impact on their discretionary effort. A case in point: Konica Minolta Australia is growing in a shrinking market. They do not pay more than other organisations, but they do give their people a higher purpose which is a differentiator, attracting good staff and customers alike.

The journey is both personal and professional

Inspired by the work of Andrew Forrest AO and the Walk Free Foundation, David works towards changing policy where he can: both as a business person, and as a passionate human rights supporter.

While he acknowledges that CEO activism is a very personal journey, he believes that not choosing to “stick your head above the parapet” is to deny yourself a rich opportunity to leave a legacy that everyone can benefit from.

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