Customer Experience

Professor Kellie McElhaney: ‘Profit with a purpose can address the need for change’

As part of our Breakthrough Builders podcast series, our Head of Brand Strategy, Jesse Purewal, chats with Professor Kellie McElhaney, Director of the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership, about a her first trying experiences in business, the phone call at O’Hare that changed her career path, and the rented donkey in China that planted the idea that would guide her work for decades.

Listen to the complete podcast episode of Breakthrough Builders with Kellie McElhaney

Early reflections

Dr. Kellie McElhaney serves on boards, is the founding Director of both the Center for Responsible Business and the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and is an author, speaker, investor, and an advisor to C-level executives, but her preferred frame of reference is how she seeks to help others.

“I [define myself] in two different ways that might feel very opposite. One is to be a Chief Inspiration Officer, and I mean that truly. I mean, today was the first day of class, and as I'm heading into my first class, I'm really focused on ‘how am I going to inspire young people in my class right now?’ The second is, as a Chief Agitation Officer. ‘How do I agitate folks out of their comfort zone enough that they grow, but not too much such that they shut down?”

A review of Kellie’s life arc shows that she is truly animated by this focus on helping others. Kellie herself might go one big step further and say that the clarity and conviction she has found in this purpose is directly responsible for her amazing success.

Behind the breakthroughs

Kellie’s first foray into the corporate world did not forecast a career of ground-breaking business leadership. In the midst of her first job in banking, she wasn’t striving for a way up, she was searching for a way out. She talks about how she knew it was time to leave:

“You know, the voice is always there, and you find ways to justify it. ‘I need to keep this job because I'm paying off student loans’, which I was, or ‘I need to keep this job because I haven't yet proven myself’, which I hadn't. Or ‘I need to keep this job because, well, being a banker, that just sounds really cool’. I'll be really direct, I was checking so much of myself at the door every day to physically go into work, that I believe there was a day that I felt like I came out of the office and couldn't pick all of those things back up. I had checked them, and I had sort of lost touch with those components of myself...I knew I was uninspired.”

The concept of bringing one’s whole self to the office (or the video conference) has worked itself into the current corporate zeitgeist, but this wasn’t the case in banking in the late ‘80s. Throughout her remarkable career outside of banking, Kellie has cultivated an approach to leadership–”daring, big-hearted, and vulnerable”–and championed an audacious thesis–that the right purpose can increase profit–by drawing directly from what was missing in that environment.

The courage to change

Kellie describes her thesis on Corporate Social Responsibility:

“I still argue with people that it is not about throwing money at a cause. That is straight-up philanthropy, which is necessary, but it is wholly insufficient for systems change. I view CSR as a business strategy...there’s an ROI for reducing waste, reducing plastic packaging, or improving the lives of the women who are selling my product in the factory. It just seems so obvious to me that there is a business return for that.”

Dr. McElhaney is arguing for a shift in the way that corporations view social action that goes beyond putting investment into the efforts of  Foundations. She is arguing that when designed correctly, as an opportunity to develop competitive advantage, CSR can actually be the reason for increased business success. Decades of research and advocacy allow her to show proof that the same profit incentive that has attracted investment, birthed innovation, and in some cases, led to destruction, can be turned directly towards social good.

Through EGAL, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership, she is continuing to help corporations to focus on fixing social inequities that inhibit growth in our communities and organizations.

Years ago, Kellie sat at the top of a rather expensive mountain path in China and asked, “Is there a way that we can harness that pure power of capitalism to create positive change?” She has decades of work to give her - and us - an answer.

Listen to Kellie chat with our Head of Brand Strategy, Jesse Purewal in a recent episode of our Breakthrough Builders podcast.

Breakthrough Builders is about people whose passions, perspectives, instincts, and ideas fuel some of the world’s most amazing products, brands, and experiences. It’s a tribute to those who have the audacity to imagine – and the persistence to build – breakthroughs.


Listen to the full conversation with Kellie