The Business of Doing Good

The Business of Doing Good

In the past, earning a business degree meant taking a slew of accounting and statistics courses, and then studying models of how big-name companies became successful.

But things have changed at Creighton University, where the Heider College of Business has created innovative ways of teaching business practices — where principles are just as important as profits, and top-notch thinking means just as much as bottom-line numbers.

And just as medical schools now teach how the mind-body relationship is key to patient wellness, at Heider College of Business, students learn how the ethics-entrepreneurship connection creates the foundation of a successful company.

Here are just a few of Heider’s groundbreaking business programs.

Experiments in the Laboratory

It’s possible for a business to be profitable and ethical, says Bev Kracher, Ph.D., holder of the Robert B. Daugherty Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Society at Heider College of Business. And she wants to prove it.

Kracher, who is also the executive director of the Omaha Business Ethics Alliance, has another lofty goal — to restore people’s faith in capitalism. To meet both of her goals, she has led the creation of the Business Ethics City Lab, a research arm of the Business Ethics Alliance. Data-driven, evidence-based behavioral ethics research will be used to show the causal connection between good business practices and profit.  

Omaha has a supportive business environment for conducting this research because of the success of the Business Ethics Alliance, a consortium of more than 250 regional small, medium and large companies; members include nonprofit and for-profit corporations. Based at Heider College of Business, the Alliance currently has a staff of seven employees and six Heider College student interns.

The Alliance has attracted the attention of national leaders in the field of business ethics, such as Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt is the director of Ethical Systems, a group of 22 university professors around the country who study business ethics.

Haidt recently addressed the Business Ethics Alliance’s annual trustee meeting held at the Heider College of Business and said his group is collaborating with the Alliance to test ways that could improve business ethics nationwide and even worldwide. He praised the Business Ethics City Lab concept because it can generate much-needed data on creating ethical organizational systems. Currently, researchers don’t have the means to test their hypotheses across multiple firms, and the lab is the way to fill that void.

Kracher says Omaha businesses are eager to help out.

“We want people around the country to think of Omaha as the beacon of business excellence,” she says.

For example, one firm recently discussed with the Alliance its interest in improving its security. “They were especially interested in protecting their clients’ data, and were also concerned about the physical safety of their buildings,” Kracher says. “They wanted to motivate their employees to ensure security, not from a compliance perspective, but because they have embraced their company’s core values. So we have connected this firm with a team of researchers from Ethical Systems. This year, they will be doing experiments to discover values-based security strategies. Then we will take the outcomes and develop products that other firms can use.”

In announcing its goals and objectives, the Business Ethics City Lab’s initial report states, “We live in a community ‘where people’s word is their bond, they fulfill their commitments and their character is greater protection than a team of lawyers checking every comma in a contract.’ We should use our strength to help our country realize the finest form of capitalism.”

Kracher notes that capitalism has taken a hit due to scandals in the banking and mortgage industries, and consumers’ feelings of distrust are often reinforced through the media in movies such as Wall Street, where devious corporate executives run roughshod over people’s lives — all in the name of profit.

“Some people have high hopes that capitalism can alleviate poverty and provide jobs, but others have the perception that capitalism is intrinsically bad and naturally leads to employee abuses and corporate greed,” Kracher explains. “As Aristotle said, ‘A hammer can be used for good or evil.’ That’s also true for capitalism. We want to make sure it’s used for good, and we can do that by using behavioral science to prove that ethics is the foundation of the kind of capitalism that we desire for ourselves and our future generations.”

Reclaiming Native Crops

What started out as an experiment with 150-year-old seeds could turn into a method for Native groups to become self-sufficient by marketing food products to the general public, believes Taylor Keen, lecturer in strategy and entrepreneurship at Heider College.

Inspired by Native and green activists, and a move by an agricultural firm to obtain intellectual property rights on corn seeds, Keen, a former tribal council member of the Cherokee Nation, planted seeds from the 1860s he obtained from stock held at history museums. He harvested corn, beans, squash and sunflowers in three Omaha locations: in Creighton’s Stuppy Greenhouse, managed by Andy Waltke; at Omaha Permaculture; and in Keen’s backyard.

Keen’s project has created food for his soul. “I’d sit out every night on my porch and watch everything grow,” he says. “Gardening is beautiful for contemplation. And the first time I pulled back the husks to look at the corn, I said, ‘Oh, my God! Look at them!’”

Growing corn has also helped Keen connect with his Native roots, because corn was considered one of God’s first gifts to First Nations people. He explores this idea in the book he’s writing: Rediscovering America: Sacred Geography, the Ancient Earthenworks and the Real Story of America. And he’s creating a course at Heider College titled “The Economics of Sacred Seeds.”

He foresees Native peoples using these pure, unadulterated seeds to create marketable food products. “If Native people ate more real food, we wouldn’t have so much Type 2 diabetes,” he says. “We could turn the corn we’d raise into cornbread, or create a seed bank that would empower others to grow fresh, natural foods that, eventually, we could sell to markets.”

Community Assistance Teams

Heider College students get the chance to turn the theories they’ve been studying into practical business experience when they volunteer to be part of a Business Community Assistance Team. Maryanne Rouse had served as program advisor for the Community Assistance Teams until her retirement in December; Kelsea Gilespie now oversees the program.

“Working in real-life situations exposes students to communities they’ve never had the opportunity to experience,” Rouse says. “By doing that, students learn about themselves, and how to work with skill and grace with people from different backgrounds.”

The program began in 2004 as a way to offer leadership training to undergraduate business students, and runs from October through March. Typically, teams have four members, and each team chooses its own leader. Upon the completion of each team’s project, members create a 15-minute demonstration in which they explain their methodology and make recommendations on improving their chosen organization.

Recent Community Assistance Team projects included creating awareness for a homeless shelter, producing a video for a cancer support group, designing fundraising efforts around a marathon for a local charity, and developing a method for making telephone appointments for the Legal Aid Society. Some of the organizations students have worked with are Wings of Hope, Catholic Charities of Omaha and the American Cancer Society.

Though students relish the experience of working outside the classroom, Rouse says the students’ greatest joy comes from seeing the end-product of their work. “They’re often amazed to actually see the outcome and the good they’ve done in helping others.”

Financial Hope Collaborative

Maureen (not her real name), a single mother of three, always seemed to be living six inches above the poverty line. At the end of every month, she barely had enough money left to take her kids out to a movie. Where did her earnings go?

Desperate to gain financial control over her life, she enrolled in the Financial Success Program, a Heider College program that teaches low-income single mothers about how to improve their financial situation. Through the program, women attend a nine-week class on topics about managing credit, tracking expenses and the value of saving money. Afterward, they meet one-on-one for a year with a financial coach.

“When they finish classes, they tell me the wolves are no longer at their door because they know where their money goes,” says Julie Kalkowski, executive director of the program. “(Maureen) said she got into the program because she wanted to create a better life for her kids. Now, she says her life is better, and that having a savings account reduces her financial stress.”

Interestingly, the program not only helps improve people financially, but their health and mental outlook improves as well, Kalkowski adds. Because participants learn how to empower themselves and feel more in control, they exercise more and eat healthier, while “25 percent of our clients received promotions at work, and about 50 percent went back to school for more education,” she says.

Kalkowski estimates the program has helped about 450 women since its inception in 2009. And now, the program has broadened to include single dads. “Men need financial education, too,” she says.

Institutes of Higher Learning

Think of them as “colleges within the college.” The Business, Faith, and the Common Good Institute provides an intensive, 11-week seminar that explores how various world faiths use business to create good will. It also hosts a fall symposium.  Students in the Creighton Institute for Economic Inquiry analyze current trade and industry events in relation to ethics and entrepreneurship.

Andrew Gustafson, Ph.D., associate professor of business ethics and society, created the Business, Faith, and the Common Good Institute in 2015 after attending a conference in the Philippines titled “Business, Faith and the Poor.”

“Creighton has always had a long-standing interest in how faith affects business practices,” Gustafson says. “As a Jesuit institution, we believe it’s our duty to help the poor — not just through charity, but entrepreneurially.”

Teaching students the importance of creating ethically based businesses is also one of the goals of the Creighton Institute for Economic Inquiry, led by Ernie Goss, Ph.D., the Jack A. MacAllister Endowed Chair in Regional Economics and professor of economics.

Through this program, students undertake research projects and read seminal works on economics, with the goal of amassing a personal library of knowledge about how free-market systems work. Currently, some of the research projects include the effects of raising Nebraska’s minimum wage; introducing autistic individuals into the labor market; and Chinese currency manipulation.

“It’s important for students to be exposed to various economic models, and to see how those models generate the best measure of income in terms of well-being, and other measures of happiness,” Goss says.

Social Entrepreneurship

Heider College also has courses for students who aren’t business majors, but still want to learn how to organize, create and manage a venture to make social change. The Social Entrepreneurship minor offers a course of study that includes five courses in creating and financing a new business, and one elective on the societal impact of doing business.

“The program connects our expertise in business and entrepreneurship with our Jesuit heritage,” says Matt Seevers, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Marketing and Management. “The courses acknowledge that profitable organizations have the option to contribute to society through contributions to another organization, or to the local community. Profits don’t necessarily have to go back into increased spending on things like research and development, or CEO pay.”

Seevers stresses the word “option,” because it’s more significant to business people when they consciously choose to contribute to the public good.

“We’re training students to look at issues in the world and come to their own conclusions,” he says. “It’s more meaningful to choose to do the right thing and be a positive force for change.”

The goal of the program is for students to have a strong nuts-and-bolts understanding of how to create a business from the ground up, Seevers says. “Plus, we want them to have a heightened sensitivity to the important contributions that business can make in the world. There are many fine organizations that have an impact on employees, their community, and we hope to encourage students to talk about social justice and care for the whole person.”