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Should Human Rights Be Part Of An MBA?

Robert Strand (left) and Faris Natour (right) are leading efforts for the Human Rights and Business Initiative at UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business. Photo courtesy of Berkeley-Haas

Robert Strand (left) and Faris Natour (right) are leading efforts for the Human Rights and Business Initiative at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Photo courtesy of Berkeley-Haas


According to Natour, the first step to mainstreaming comes from simply bringing human rights awareness to future business leaders. “To get this right, to ensure business’ respect for human rights, you need business leaders who are aware of human rights responsibilities in business–how things go wrong and also the opportunities positive impact businesses have around the world to help advance human rights,” explains Natour, noting his decade-long stint at Business for Social Responsibility. “The best way to start developing those business leaders is at the business school and making sure this issue is integrated effectively in the curriculum and the research we do here.”

Specifically, the work of the initiative will manifest itself in the areas of teaching, research and collaboration. For teaching, Natour explains, the initiative will introduce a new MBA course called Managing Human Rights and Business for students wanting a deep dive in the topic area. But bigger underlying changes stem from Natour and Strand’s vision to infiltrate such core courses as operations, finance and supply chain management.

“We need to get to students who will have careers in supply chain and will have careers in strategy, finance and marketing and make sure they come to those careers with an awareness and understanding of what and understanding how various business decisions could impact human rights,” Natour insists. “The way we want to do that on the teaching side is not only through dedicated courses on business and human rights, but also embedding human rights content in all of those mainstream disciplines in all of the courses we are teaching here at the business school.”

Not surprisingly, the approach is similar to NYU Stern’s Center, which offers three MBA courses and two undergraduate courses.


Strand says one of the ways they aim to accomplish the lofty task is to begin researching and writing human rights-focused cases. Alongside other faculty members within and outside of the Haas walls, Natour and Strand will be focusing efforts on writing cases for the Berkeley Haas case series.

“What we’re doing is writing cases for your operations classes, for your marketing classes, for your finance classes, that have these human rights issues and tensions embedded within them,” Strand explains. “Students who are your traditional operations or mainstream whatever functional area in the business school can start engaging with these issues as they will see them when they’re out in the world. Because very rarely will an issue come at you and say, ‘OK, I’m a human rights issue,’ with flashing lights. So what we want to do is embed them within these cases that we can then promote and get adopted and integrated within existing curriculum.”

One example Natour gives is a current research partnership with UC-Berkeley’s law school and the law school at the University of Washington on sustainable investing in human rights and examining ways to link human rights impact and financial performance. The idea, Natour says, is to not only form collaborations with other campuses and schools on Berkeley’s campus, but to give the ultimate ammunition for human rights integration–a link to positive financial returns.


Enter the Haas Socially Responsible Investment Fund, which is the world’s largest student-managed socially responsible investment fund. “This is very important because the final domain of figuring out how to link some sort of socially responsible performance with financial performance is and will be the human rights domain,” believes Strand. “It’s the trickiest to try to quantify and put in a traditional analyst model. We have a tough enough time on environmental issues. But they are at least fairly well defined and have a limited suite of units to use. As we move into the more social domain where it’s very ill-defined, there is a need for some institution to step up and take a leadership role and try to articulate this very important field in financial terms.”

Strand and Natour are converging on the notion of “values to valuation.” Essentially, it’s the idea of taking the values of caring about people and human rights and moving it toward the valuation of companies. Students are trained to evaluate companies on social responsible investing and environmental social governance frameworks.

“How do you assess a company’s performance in considering issues of potential child labor in supply chain and then how do you make a link to financial performances,” Strand ponders. “This is a completely new frontier. What kind of data do you feed your analyst sitting on Wall Street so they are able to incorporate human rights into their models? This is an aspiration that we have and want to help set the framework and foundation for, and then actually be able to deliver.”

Strand says this is also something employers are looking for. “We want the BlackRock’s and the Goldman Sachs’ coming to Haas,” explains Strand. “And increasingly they are and will, because those are the firms that are increasingly asking for the analysts that can assess environmental social governance and the financial returns.”


The final piece to the Berkeley Haas Human Rights and Business Initiative is collaboration, both within the university and in industry. “For too long, business has had an adversarial relationship with, for example, civil society,” says Strand. “How can business be an enabler for protecting and respecting human rights? If we can’t facilitate exchanges between business students and students from across the university out there, who will later go into NGOs, for example, then how the hell will we do it out in the world, where that collaboration is desperately needed?”

In addition to inviting panelists and guest lecturers from industry, Natour and Strand are inviting students and faculty from all departments and schools for events and research.


Leadership from Stern and Haas believe the mutual interest between industry and human rights-oriented MBAs will only grow. NYU Stern’s Center has created a fellowship for MBAs wanting to intern in human rights-focused positions. And the likes of Facebook, PepsiCo and New Balance have come knocking on Stern’s doors for interns.

And strand believes the companies willing to put the effort towards human rights growth will ultimately be the ones that continue to thrive.

“The companies that engage in this (human rights) in a meaningful matter are actually the ones that are going to attract the top talent and retain the top talent,” insists Strand. “Because human rights is an issue that is an example of something that people can be very passionate about. You get jazzed about getting up and working for a company where you can have a positive impact on society at large and people. And this is part of the re-humanizing the corporation, is enabling the people to care and exercise their empathy and concern for the well-being of others. Those are the companies that build really strong cultures and they’re going to win over the long-run.”


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