Should business leaders get involved in social and political issues?
The figureheads of change have shifted dramatically in the last 100 years. In the past, great thinkers, academics and philosophers conceived of notions of moral good, equality, access to improved living conditions and safety at work. As representatives of the people, politicians would enact this change. If they didn’t, the people’s representative bodies would apply pressure (think worker’s unions and the 38-hour work week, pay disputes or health & safety advocacy). Fast forward to the present day and those traditional roles have considerably changed.
Business leaders to the fore
Traditionally business owners have been seen as initiators of internal change within companies, delivering commercial services to customers or shareholders and taking responsibilities for social issues like gender equality within their own organisations. External causes were limited to the confines of their corporate social responsibility programs.
However, with a new surge in connectedness, and increased political and social dialogue driven by social media, business leaders of today act as catalysts for change outside their organisations. Leaders of progressive organisations are vocal about criticising perceived civil and human rights violations, encouraging social change, and acting on moral choices that would have gone unnoticed in a less connected world.
Business leaders are also quickly realising that the best way to drive social change is by collaborating with other organisations that carry a similar philosophy towards achieving an inclusive society – one that boasts of equality, access to justice and transparency. Hence it’s no surprise that Australian leaders from 30 of the nation’s biggest brands such as Telstra, Qantas, Holden, CommBank, Westpac and ANZ emerged as a force for social change when they championed same-sex marriage. The power of this partnership, collaboration and fierce campaigning crushed the notion of the traditional CEO and created a modern version – one in which the CEO is focused on purpose, not just profit.
Leaders of large organisations can now enact just as much social change as a political movement, and often in a much shorter time frame, due to their extensive resources and network. Microsoft and Bill Gates are household names. The only factor that is as well-known as the service his company provides, is Gates’ ongoing philanthropy. To date, the “Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation” has contributed an estimated US$30 billion to areas such as Global Health, Development and Education. Influential business leaders such as Bill Gates have found ways to combine profits and purpose by focusing on causes that would benefit the greater good such as climate change, social justice, human rights issues and more.
Be the change you want to see
The role of business leaders has changed. On one hand, the pressure to deliver customer and shareholder value is as strong as ever, but there is now the expectation of a strong social position as well. The CEO is now the central representative of the company’s values and the causes they choose to speak on determine the way that company is perceived in the public sphere. It speaks to values that consumers, partners and employees consider when deciding to align themselves with a particular brand.
Whether or not a CEO should demonstrate a social voice on potentially political matters is a tricky matter, but the end result is that social and commercial domains are becoming increasingly merged. Prominent members of the business community can exert real influence on political and social outcomes; and within that paradigm, pushing a social agenda that is in line with the customer’s values quickly becomes less of a novelty and more of a central requirement for brand trust.
Simon Wilkins is the General Manager from LexisNexis Australia
C-suite spotight: Melanie Perkins, CEO, Canva
Who is Melanie Perkins?
She’s the co-founder and CEO of Australian unicorn online design platform Canva, who ultimately became one of tech’s youngest female CEOs, at just 30, and recently became a billionaire aged 35, making her one of Australia’s richest and youngest.
Why is she in the spotlight right now?
Because less than a year after securing a US$6bn valuation during the pandemic, which provided a big boost to business, Canva has recently more than doubled its valuation, securing a $15bn valuation, which makes Perkins a billionaire, according to Forbes. The valuation comes in the wake of a new funding round in the first week of April 2021 led by T. Rowe Price and Dragoneer and raising $71m. At the same time, Canva announced its business has passed $500m in annualised revenue, up 130% from the year before.
What is Canva and why is it so successful?
Launched in 2013 by co-founders Melanie Perkins (CEO), Cliff Obrecht (COO) and Cameron Adams (Chief Product Officer), Sydney-headquartered Canva is a free-to-use online graphic design product that allows users to create everything from social media graphics to presentations and other visual content, as well as offering paid subscriptions like Canva Pro and Canva for Enterprise, with 3 million of its now 55 million users taking paid subscriptions.
Accruing 750,000 users in its first year, following a number of rounds of investment including from Mary Meeker’s Bond Capital in 2019 and this month’s massive funding round, Canva now boasts 55 million users across 190 countries, with offices in Sydney, Beijing, Manila, and most recently Austin, Texas, and is valued at $3.2 billion.
And while the company was originally most popular with SMEs, helping them draft and design print and digital assets, it’s since grown to become a real-time collaboration suite that’s being used by big firms including McKinsey, Salesforce and American Airlines. In fact, Canva claims that 85% of Fortune 500 companies use the platform’s services. They continue to add new features and during the pandemic, added presenter video recording tools.
How did Perkins get there?
The idea of Canva came to Perkins when she was at the university of Perth, where to earn money on the side she taught students design programmes. Many of her students found platforms like Adobe complicated and frustrating, and the ideas came to her to simplify and democratise design, to make it more approachable and accessible, more collaborative, and ultimately to empower all in design. So, she and university peer Cliff Obrecht, who became Canva co-founder and Perkins’ husband, created an online school yearbook design business, Fusion Yearbooks, to test it out. Operating from her mum’s living room, the yearbook design business was a massive success, expanding to New Zealand and France, and remains the largest yearbook publisher in Australia.
However, Perkins did not give up on her dream to create a one-stop-shop design site and at one point spent three months living with her brother in San Francisco where she pitched to more than 100 venture capitalists, all of whom rejected Canva. It was following a chance encounter at a conference in Perth with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Bill Tai, Perkins was winning over major investors including Hollywood celebrities Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson and building out Canva’s design platform with a fast-growing team of tech engineers and a high-profile tech advisor, Lars Rasmussen who co-founded Google Maps.
It was in 2012 when things really kicked off however when Perkins and Obrecht found a tech co-founder in Cameron Adams. The same year, they closed their first funding round, which was oversubscribed and raised $1.5m, with Canva going live in 2013. In 2019, an $85m funding round led by Silicon Valley investor Mary Meeker’s Bond Capital gave the company a valuation of $3.2bn, before the most recent funding around in April 2021 leading to a valuation of $15bn.
In her own words…
"I think it's pretty important to know that every single person is going through their own trials and tribulations. Knowing that it's tricky for everyone, that any adventure will be filled with rejections and littered with obstacles – somehow makes the adventure a little less lonely. And it's most important for people who feel like they are on the outside to know this."