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Women in CSR: Donna Sockell, University of Colorado

Welcome to our series of interviews with leading female CSR practitioners where we are learning about what inspires these women and how they found their way to careers in sustainability. Read the rest of the series here.

TriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.

Donna Sockell: I am the former executive director and founder, Center for Education on Social Responsibility (CESR), Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado-Boulder and current head of the “Curriculum Think Tank,” a consortium of business schools working together to improve ethics and social responsibility education.

As CESR’s executive director, I saw my responsibility as enabling students to discover their values and to learn how to really live them in their professional and personal lives. When I started at CESR, I determined that’s what a business school-based corporate social responsibility center should do. That’s a different approach than is typically taken by ethics and social responsibility departments in business schools.

Changing a paradigm and building a program gives you a different role than stepping into a position of carrying forward established policies. A big part of my job was to get superb people in place who could be credible, expert values-discovery facilitators and outstanding teachers in the traditional sense at the same time. Shifting a paradigm also poses big challenges inside an organization. So my other big job was to try to make the environment in which those people operated – the university, academic, business school setting – to be as supportive and fertile as possible.

There are strong parallels to corporate environments. Established CSR departments do amazing things. I would love to see them partner more with the HR, training, and development parts of their companies and that would dramatically compound their reach and impact.

3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your organization?

DS: More and more, we have linked sustainability with values. There is often financial benefit to making environmentally and socially sustainable business decisions. But, if we’re honest, not always.

So we teach both sides—the ways to build financial success through sustainability and prepare our students to confront situations where economics and values may come into conflict. Accordingly, our evolution has included moving beyond basic awareness of the complexity of the relationship between sustainability and profits to developing a capacity to know how to act on that awareness day in and day out.

We created the term “employee social responsibility” (ESR) to emphasize the critical nature of countless daily business decisions of individuals. It’s not just about CSR departments, sustainability plans, or whether the employee opts for fair trade coffee in the employee cafeteria. It’s very often routine decisions that may not seem to have a significant bearing on ethics or sustainability. Each person needs to proactively make sustainable, ethical decisions in their own areas or responsibility and help others do the same.

3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your sustainability journey, and how.

DS: My father, who lived through the Great Depression, taught me about the importance of giving back to others. Typical for his generation, my father's immigrant parents faced severe economic hardships during his childhood. Unlike my dad, I was privileged in economic and educational terms, but, somehow, he communicated that with privilege comes obligations to others.

Though I did not seek to model myself after my father, his outlook made me think about what type of person I wanted to become -- someone I might like when I looked in the mirror -- and what my contribution to our world might be. I thought about my values, what mattered to me, and whether I was making decisions and choices that accorded with my sense of who I wanted to be. I also began to grasp the importance of developing internal guides to my conduct. My journey through higher education helped me discover that relying on government or laws, more or less free markets, religious leaders, teachers, friends, family, and bosses, among others, to tell me how to act removed the responsibility for my behavior from me and I had to be careful about that.

3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?

DS: Though I cannot trace this advice verbatim to any one person or educator, "Take responsibility for all that you do, who you are, and the impact your behavior has on others. Try to make a positive difference in the lives of others."

3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?

DS: CESR launched a 16-event week of activities called the CESR Stampede at Leeds: A Week of Driving Values in Business in April. Over 1200 people participated. The week brought together local and regional members of the business community, business students from seven area universities, non-business students and faculty from the University of Colorado, and our Leeds' students, faculty, and staff.

Discussions about values and sustainability can be infectious, and we need to enlarge the scope of who particpates for the sake of our world. Seeing that happen at the Stampede, seeing lots of different types of people come together this way was something special.

3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be?

DS: There’s one change that would transform the sustainability and social responsibility movements: to convince every business school administrator and faculty member to make a serious commitment to their students’ values development.

I’d also need to convince them what a serious commitment looks like, because that is not well understood, even by well-meaning people. “Serious” means that values are integrated into every subject and simply become part of that subject. Serious also means putting into place systems for individual values development and not imagine that an ethics class alone can do that job.

Just think what could happen if all business schools worked for a common cause, producing an army of business leaders who live and drive values. And just think of the opportunities missed and lives lost from not doing so.

3p: Describe your perfect day.

DS: Seeing students and working professionals come to the realization that they have individual power to live their values and influence the lives of others. I get to see that more than I ever imagined possible.

Andrea Newell headshotAndrea Newell

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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