Lessons from a corporate idealist: Interview with Christine Bader

Photo credit:  Arsgera, Shutterstock
Photo credit: Arsgera, Shutterstock

Yesterday, we shared a review of Christine Bader’s book: The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. Today we’re excited to share an in depth interview with the author.

In addition to lecturing at Columbia University, author Christine Bader serves as a Human Rights Advisor to BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) and a board member with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a nonprofit that maintains a comprehensive website exposing the human rights effects, good and bad, of thousands of companies worldwide.

Her work and conversations with her peers inspired her to write The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. In the book, Bader reminds people working at corporations that as marginalized as they may feel, they are part of a global community making a real difference. A few weeks before the release of her book, I asked the author about the challenges these changemakers can expect to face in their careers and about her vision for how corporations engage in social change.

Why did you write this book and, more specifically, why right now?

I started thinking about writing this book when I was living in Indonesia and China and writing back home to friends and family about the work that I was doing for BP, and people found it really interesting. I realized that a lot of people didn’t know that companies had people like me doing the kind of work that I was doing — investing in the communities living near big projects– and that it wasn’t for public relations purposes; it was inextricably linked to the success of the business. This was just really quiet, patient, fascinating work.

Then I thought, “Okay, maybe there’s something to tell here” but it was really after the Deepwater Horizon disaster when I felt almost forced to write the book. I had left BP by then, but the BP that emerged in the aftermath of that disaster just did not resemble the BP that I thought I had gotten to know for a while, the one that went above and beyond what was required by law anywhere to protect people and protect the environment. It really made me wonder if I had learned anything at all in the previous nine years that I’d been with the company.

Bader headshot
Christine Bader

I started talking with a lot of the people I’d gotten to know over the years who were also working in big companies on sustainability or social responsibility and more responsible sourcing practices, like my friends who work at The Gap or other apparel companies in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster who similarly thought, “We’ve being doing great supply chain work for decades now and still we can kill 1200 people in a heartbeat, so what does this mean to actually do this work inside a big company?” And I realized that we saw a lot of the same themes and shared a lot of the same challenges and that we really have a collective story to tell, so that’s what inspired me to finally get going on the book.


Throughout the book, I kept thinking “this all sounds great when business is going well, but when push comes to shove, does profit trump it all”? Do responsible business practices go out the window when that’s at stake?

What I experienced in my first two assignments with BP was that investing in human rights and investing in communities was critical to ensuring that we could make any money. And I think the business case is much clearer in, for example, the extractive industry: in oil, gas, and mining, you really can’t get a project up and running and have it operate smoothly if the communities around you are rioting and sabotaging your equipment. So it’s not just nice to have philanthropic gestures, it’s essential to the business, and people are realizing that in the apparel and light manufacturing sectors, too. Investing in the health and wellbeing of workers means that their productivity is higher and their turnover is lower, and that’s good for the bottom line.

With financial downturns either for a particular company or for the economy, some philanthropic activities go away, but I’m actually okay with that. I want companies to be really rigorous about finding that sweet spot where the interests of the company and the interests of society align. That’s when it doesn’t go away, right? That’s when it doesn’t go away in financially tough times, because it’s so well embedded and so integral to the success of the business that it can’t be cyclical.

What does success for a corporate idealist look like? –>

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Kari's underlying philosophy of work in the nonprofit sector is that we need to ensure equal and easy access to the things that make us who we are: the arts, culture, and lifelong learning. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, she received her Master’s of Nonprofit Organizations from Case Western Reserve University and spends her time as a Consultant with Grants Plus and member of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network's national board of directors. When she's not cheering on the Cavs or scouting out the nearest coffee spot, you can find her posting on Facebook,Twitter and LinkedIn.
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