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A Wishlist for the Post-COVID Economy: Introducing New JUST Board Member Xavier de Souza Briggs

Xavier de Souza Briggs. (Courtesy of the Ford Foundation)

We’re thrilled to share that Xavier de Souza Briggs has recently joined the JUST Capital board. Briggs is the former vice president of the Ford Foundation, a visiting professor at New York University, and expert on public policy and inclusive economic growth. In this time of tremendous uncertainty and upheaval – when prioritizing America’s workforce is absolutely crucial – Briggs brings much-needed perspective on what companies should be doing to partner with government and support their workers during a crisis and its aftermath.

“It’s a moment to show responsibility, to make this a proving moment for stakeholder capitalism – as extraordinary and difficult as it is,” Briggs told JUST in a phone interview.

While at the Ford Foundation, he was second in command to Darren Walker, and led the organization’s inclusive economies and markets work, focusing on issues like the future of work, workers’ rights, technology, and impact investing. His work there connected him with JUST Capital, a Ford grantee for the past four years.

Briggs met separately with JUST CEO Martin Whittaker and board member Peter Georgescu, and discussed the need for more corporate leaders to address the ways economic growth was failing too many Americans. As this topic became more prominent in the public discourse, especially with the CEOs of the Business Roundtable disavowing shareholder primacy last year, Briggs saw a unique opportunity with JUST to help define what a new version of stakeholder capitalism can look like. Whittaker asked him to join the board, and he was approved in March.

That question, about the role of business in American society, has never been more relevant than in the midst of the coronavirus crisis that is rocking our nation’s businesses, and profoundly impacting their workers, customers, and communities. In the last two weeks of March, history was made when 10 million American workers filed for unemployment. As companies try to survive, some are stepping up and doing what they can to help their stakeholders weather the storm, building resiliency in the process. It’s what the JUST team has been closely tracking.

We discussed with Briggs how, in the midst of pandemic and economic crisis, corporate America can strive to avoid worsening structural inequities. He told us that beyond temporary relief, there is also a need for long-term thinking when considering how to protect America’s most vulnerable workers and community. These “tectonic shifts,” Briggs explained, represent “deeper, more underlying changes that businesses can respond to using the crisis as something of an accelerant.”

Crucial to making this work, he said, is the abandonment of “dated and very wooden tropes,” about a battle between business and government, and the purpose of a corporation. As Briggs sees it, companies should not accept that they cannot work with government. We can’t be treating the challenge of inclusive growth through stakeholder capitalism as “a philanthropic conversation,” he said. Rather, businesses must recognize that the approach is what is essential to creating long-term value for everyone, including their shareholders, and must not oppose structural changes through policy at every turn.

Looking beyond the moment of crisis we’re currently in, we asked Briggs what his wishlist might be for more just and positive outcomes for corporate America, following COVID-19 and the economic downturn. In other words, when the dust settles, what should a more just corporate America – and stakeholder capitalism – look like?

Briggs shared that, on the other side of this crisis, he wants to see government policies shift to improve economic security overall, especially for America’s most vulnerable and lowest-paid workers. In his wishlist for a better post-COVID economy, he hopes our learnings from the crisis lead to:

  • More robust, modernized unemployment insurance that covers more workers.
  • Federally mandated paid sick days and paid family medical leave.
  • Universal family care, including affordable, high quality childcare.
  • A more versatile, nimble toolbox for government assistance to business, from deferred taxes to favorable loan terms.
  • A stronger set of operating principles for companies that are truly responsive to the needs of stakeholders, especially workers.

As Briggs told us, “this is a stress test for all companies,” a moment to turn the past few years of lofty rhetoric around stakeholder capitalism into action.

While there are still many difficult weeks, and likely months, ahead for American workers and for our economy overall, we will recover. And when we do, we hope to see a more inclusive, more just economy that serves all Americans. We’re grateful to have Briggs with us as we work to build this better economy, and will be exploring more of his insights in the weeks to come.

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