#165 Sara Enright, Director of Collaboration at BSR (Business for Social Responsibility)

Sara Enright is a Director of Collaboration at BSR (Business for Social Responsibility), where she oversees the design and facilitation of a portfolio of private sector collaborations that contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. BSR is an organization of sustainable business experts that works with its global network of the world’s leading companies to build a just and sustainable world. 

Previously, she worked at the Business Call to Action, a multilateral alliance hosted by the UNDP focused on the advancement of inclusive business models that contribute to poverty reduction, and McKinsey & Company, where she consulted for global companies and development organizations on projects related to strategy, corporate social responsibility, and philanthropy. 

ara has an MBA from IE Business School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Plan II and Latin American Studies from The University of Texas at Austin.

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Bigger Than Us #165

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels 00:06

Sara, how are you doing today?

Sara Enright 00:09

Thank you, Raj. I’m doing very well today. And thank you for inviting us to the show.

Host Raj Daniels 00:45

Sarah, I’m so glad you could join. Sarah, I’d like to start out with a question after doing some research on BSR. In your opinion, what does a just and sustainable world mean to you?

Sara Enright 01:30

It’s a good question. So BSR’s mission is to create a more just and sustainable world, and we’ve worked with multinational companies as our partners in achieving that mission. We work with them through consulting, as well as through multi-stakeholder collaboration to try and advance against that mission. Our just and sustainable world is one in my mind in which everybody who lives on this planet is able to benefit from the enormous innovation and resources that we, as a human species, have been able to develop over time. In that I see that — poverty and and people who are living in circumstances where they’re not able to access the same levels of education, health care, and other innovations that the majority of us are able to access — I see that as a design flaw and something that needs to be worked on for everybody to be able to participate in a more just and sustainable world.

Host Raj Daniels 02:36

Interesting idea about a design flaw. Can you elaborate on that?

Sara Enright 02:40

Sure. I was thinking about this when we had the space race recently. In a world in which some of the world’s most wealthy individuals are able to build their own rockets and go into space, it seems to me pretty atrocious that we also have billions of people continuing to live in poverty without access to decent nutrition, food, and water. I believe that at this point in our development, poverty is a choice that we are making and that we can unmake.

Host Raj Daniels 03:12

Poverty is a choice that we are making. That’s that’s very deep there. I appreciate that. And since you mentioned BSR, can you give the audience an overview of BSR and your role at the organization?

Sara Enright 03:23

Sure. I’m the director of collaboration at BSR. And we’re a team of sustainability experts. I mentioned that we work with multinational companies around the world, as well as stakeholder partners, to build a more just and sustainable world. We have global teams based in Asia, Europe, and North America. We’ve been around since the 1990s and really experienced the full curve of how Corporate Social Responsibility has turned into a movement for corporate sustainability, the seeking of purpose, over the past couple of years. So we advise companies and work with them, both on a consultancy basis as well as through hosting multi-stakeholder collaborations. And my role at BSR is to really oversee the business model that we have for hosting those collaborative initiatives: making sure that they’re sustainable, not only in their high-impact focus on environmental, social, or governance issues, but also in how they’re financed and operated so that we can be there for the long run.

Host Raj Daniels 04:27

So you mentioned the early days of BSR. I think my research shows it started in 1992. So some would argue that’s one generation; at least 20 or 30 years. Let’s just call it 30 years now. What do you think has changed in the last 30 years that’s drawn so much more attention to the ideas you mentioned: diversity, poverty, etc?

Sara Enright 04:48

It’s an interesting question. I think I can only really speak to my own experience, which has been the past 15 years that I’d say I’ve been working in this field — myself, actively. Even in that short period of time, I’ve seen the attention to social and economic development shift from one of philanthropy — engaging in through philanthropic means through corporate foundations, private foundations, and individual wealth distribution — to thinking about these issues as something that may impact companies’ core strategy. They’re starting to look at how, then, companies can integrate ESG issues into how they implement their core strategy. 

I believe that BSR has really been there through that full arc, starting, when we were really quiet activists, trying to raise awareness to companies of how important environmental and sustainability issues are to their core business, all the way through to today when we have CEOs recognizing that climate change, human rights, and inequality are no longer ambiguous. They are really quite impactful on the business’s ability to exist in 10 years’ time.

Host Raj Daniels 06:09

So in your 15 years, you said, “the shift from philanthropy to core business strategy.” In your opinion, how did that shift come about? What inspired that shift?

Sara Enright 06:17

I think there are a couple of things that are going on. I believe that people within companies have started to see the direct impacts of issues, such as climate change, on their core business. 

Therefore, it’s no longer a theoretical impact. It is now something that’s very tangible, as we’re sitting here with wildfires encroaching on Tahoe today. There are direct implications, that are very visible right now, that are engaging companies to take action. I also think there has been a bit of a generational shift. I believe that the people who are coming into leadership positions today in corporations have been raised with an understanding of sustainability issues. That goes beyond what I think business leaders were being trained in the previous generation. This is part of the oversight and responsibility of a company just as much as a serving shareholders and other stakeholders is. 

We’ve seen a shift in how companies talk about their, their purpose. It’s no longer to serve only shareholders; it’s also to serve the needs of the many stakeholders that benefit from business growth. That shift is, increasingly, adding momentum to companies’ engagement with sustainability issues.

Host Raj Daniels 07:54

I woud agree, I would lay my money on the generational shift, especially.

Sara Enright 07:58

I’m a little uncomfortable in saying that, however, because I went to business school at a time when global CEOs were standing up on stages and saying, “All of these things are happening, but it’s okay. The millennials are coming in. They’re going to shape how we do business because they have different values that care more about the environment and in society. And I found that, at the time, a little bit offensive because these people who are in decision-making roles that at that moment are seeing, looming on the horizon, deep issues that are being exacerbated by how we do business. They’re not making changes in advance. They’re waiting for the next generation, too. 

I understand now, as a geriatric millennial coming up in my 40s, I’m now inheriting that kind of lack of decision making and, indeed, working on these issues and trying to push them forward. But I don’t think it’s fair to put that on the next generation and the next generation after that. I think it’s up to us, as people engaged in leadership roles, to make the hard decisions now.

Host Raj Daniels 09:10

Yes. And I believe — you mentioned inheriting — we’re also inheriting a slew of opportunities to make a difference.

Sara Enright 09:18

Indeed. I also think that we’ve developed a pretty robust toolkit. We now know that technologically, it is possible to abate climate change. It’s now up to us to change cultures and mindsets in order to meet that goal.

Host Raj Daniels 09:33

So going back to BSR, I see this: “seven core areas of focus.” Can you go over those areas?

Sara Enright 09:38

Seven core areas of focus, so our areas of expertise. Sure. So BSR has what we call seven areas of expertise. And these are topics that we serve companies on to help them advance on material issues they’re facing as they look at sustainability. We think both about the issue areas, such as our areas of expertise — climate change, diversity, equity, inclusion, human rights, creating a more inclusive economy, and also how we advance women’s empowerment. But we also think about how we then embed these areas of expertise in a company’s operations. And we do that through our focus on sustainability management and supply chain sustainability. 

So looking at how a company embeds these issues, and the response to these issues in the policies and practices that the company incorporates. That their actions are holistic in how they approach these issues, both looking at how they engage internally, through sustainability management, as well as externally, with their supply chain and value chain through supply chain sustainability.

Host Raj Daniels 10:52

So I’m very interested in supply chain sustainability. Can you share an example of a client that BSR helped specifically when it comes to supply chain?

Sara Enright 11:02

Sure. One of my favorite projects has been working with companies that are looking to increase the inclusion and diversity of the workforce across their supply chain. And through a coalition that I directed over the past couple of years, the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition, we work to create an incentive system by which a company could request of their suppliers that they employ people from low-income backgrounds directly to work on their accounts. And at a coalition level, this created increased market competition amongst suppliers to differentiate themselves with their clients by creating inclusive employment programs and marketing those as part of their differentiating characteristics.

Host Raj Daniels 11:58

So putting on a consultant hat for a moment, if you could walk us through: does BSR go in and do a discovery session, first with a client, lay out some metrics, and then do reporting on the back end?

Sara Enright 12:10

Projects come to us in all different shapes and sizes. And we work with companies that are at the very beginning of their sustainability journey, in which case, we start with, quite simply, a materiality assessment, which is to map out all of the material issues that a company might face in its sector, in the geographies that it’s operating in — with the particular clients and customers that it has, to help them through the universe of potential issues — and then to prioritize those issues. 

To identify those that are really core to the business, that will either unleash or inhibit business growth, and those issues that are incredibly important to the stakeholders of the company. Those prioritizations help the company then built meaningful systems, policies, and programs around, to then have a long-term kind of plan for addressing those issues. That’s the bread and butter. The basics. And then we go all the way through to working with some of the world’s largest companies to facilitate in-depth coalitions that are trying to work on systems change together with civil society and sometimes even government.

Host Raj Daniels 13:22

So I know this must vary a lot. But can you give an idea of an engagement, what it would look like?

Sara Enright 13:26

Sure. So there are ones that are quite internal, like the materiality assessment that I just described. We might include in that assessment stakeholder interviews, to get an outsider perspective and help a company to understand the issue from multiple perspectives. But then, most of that work is a back-and-forth with a single client. We come together during several series of workshops to refine the materiality matrix and develop a strategy to implement on the recommendations. That can take place over the course of usually four to six months. And it involves a core team here at BSR working with a core team over at the client to advance that individual project. We also have relationships with these that are sometimes quite ongoing. So a company that might establish a strategy with us in one project will then return to us six months later to help evaluate the progress of that project and develop next steps. That then evolves into other forms of engagement over time. I think BSR is a membership in an organization. It really holds us accountable for the recommendations we make because we have these long-term relationships with companies where we need to see that they’re making progress on the sustainability issues that we’re advising them on.

Host Raj Daniels 14:53

And I see that you also do work with governments. Can you give an example of the kind of work you do with them?

Sara Enright 14:57

Sure. Our main focus is on engaging the private sector on sustainability issues. The government can be a partner in that. Sometimes we will engage with governments as donors to raise awareness or advocate to the private sector for a particular policy or issue. We’ve engaged with several governments on advancing women’s empowerment across supply chains, for instance. That resourcing really helps us to develop out much more robust public toolkits, tools, advisory, and recommendations than we would through just working on a consulting basis with individual companies. An example of an outcome there was developing the Women’s Empowerment Principles tool that helps a company to — it’s public online, it’s a partnership with UN Global Compact. It’s a tool that companies can use to assess their current state of how they’re supporting women’s empowerment, the workplace, and then steps that they can take to go further.

Host Raj Daniels 16:03

Thank you. Now earlier, you mentioned impact sourcing. Can you break down exactly what that might be?

Sara Enright 16:09

Sure. Impact sourcing is a concept that companies can use their procurements to have social impact as well as to receive goods and services. So it’s a way of looking at your procurement spend, and understanding that it can influence your suppliers to not only provide strong services but also to bundle into the deal inclusive employment programs that bring people out of poverty. So we like to say with impacts, we’re saying that it’s a way of using the power of procurement to reduce poverty across the value chain so that you’re engaging. 

It’s a concept that we’ve developed out through the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition, which lasted for the past five years. And it has companies such as Google, Facebook, and Bloomberg taking a leadership role in engaging with their suppliers, to create and to challenge them to employ people who were previously living below the poverty line or long-term unemployed and providing them with good jobs, career opportunities, mentorship, and safe workplaces, that they can then grow their career and bring themselves and their families out of poverty in time.

Host Raj Daniels 17:26

Thank you for that clarification. And also, you mentioned collaboration through thought leadership. Is this collaboration between companies, between organizations? What kind of collaboration is this?

Sara Enright 17:37

Oftentimes we will bring companies together who want to co-invest in the product, in creation of a new product, in the creation of a new recommendations or guidance document, that helps the entire industry or field to understand a topic in more depth. That this foundational document can then be used to, for individual companies, to take inspiration from and build out their own programs. 

And so some of our collaborations, and sometimes not even in an ongoing way, but on an individual project will co-invest in the development of new materials and new thought leadership. We see this is one of the opportunities in bringing companies together; it’s really leveraging each other’s expertise and resourcing. Not by reinventing the wheel, but by pooling their resources to create new thought leadership. And what I think is more exciting, perhaps, than the creation of new material is then the next step, which is looking at the opportunities for collective action. Taking it a step further beyond creating a new knowledge resource and thinking through, “All right, how do we, together, continue to co-invest to advance together on the issue that we’re focused on?”

Host Raj Daniels 19:01

It’s very interesting. Do you ever have competitor companies work together?

Sara Enright 19:05

We do. We do. And as a nonprofit, I think this is one of the things that distinguishes BSR, is that we’re able to be a neutral space, a safe space, for even competitors to work together in a pre-competitive way to advance the honest sustainability issue that is a challenge to the entire industry. So we have a number of safeguards in place to prevent collusion and other legal risks of cooperation between competitors that we’re all trained to facilitate. And then that enables companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi to come together into the same room and discuss common challenges.

Host Raj Daniels 19:52

That must make for some very interesting conversations.

Sara Enright 19:54

Sometimes it leads to no discussion at all, but ideally, yes.

Host Raj Daniels 20:02

That’s great. I’m gonna switch gears here and get to the crux of our conversation. So I believe you said you’ve been engaged in this sector for about 15 years. What’s your why? What drove you? What made you made the shift to move into this sector?

Sara Enright 20:15

I’m really interested, personally, in big harried issues and challenges, and all the mess — I like cleaning up messes. And I feel like this is a space in which everything is a bit of a mess. And so there’s infinite opportunity to learn and engage with systems challenges. And I find that very exciting. This is a space where there’s just a tremendous amount of opportunity for innovation. And it’s constantly changing. That dynamic environment is very exciting.

Host Raj Daniels 20:48

While I appreciate you liking to tackle big hairy issues and the opportunity to innovation, there are many other areas that you could go into with the same challenges. Why specifically this one?

Sara Enright 21:02

In my youth I had the opportunity to travel, and I think I became very aware early on in my life of inequality and the existence of poverty. And I found that outrageous, and I continue to find that outrageous. So there’s a deeper kind of personal motivational motivation in all of my work that is driven by the desire to bring everybody up to a level that they can enjoy the same level of experience that I’ve had in my life.

Host Raj Daniels 21:36

Thank you for sharing that. Where did you travel?

Sara Enright 21:38

I spent some time in Costa Rica, and in Mexico, early on, and then Egypt as well.

Host Raj Daniels 21:44

And I see that you majored in Latin studies, is that correct?

Sara Enright 21:48

Latin American Studies, yes.

Host Raj Daniels 21:50

Latin American Studies. What moved you to study Latin American?

Sara Enright 21:56

I grew up in Texas. And so Hispanic influence was very strong. In my childhood, I found Spanish and Latin American culture to be this tremendously exciting doorway into understanding different world perspectives and different ways of being in the world. It was a way of exploring history, language, and government policy very different from that of the United States. And I found that was really critical in reshaping my worldview, to be more global than I think many people are raised to experience.

Host Raj Daniels 22:51

I agree. It does give you a whole different perspective when you travel. So what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about yourself on your journey?

Sara Enright 22:59

Right, I still think I’m very much in the middle of my journey. I’m still learning quite a bit about myself, most recently in the director role, which has been a fairly new position for me. I’m learning my leadership style and learning from other people’s leadership styles. I’ve had the fortune to work under some tremendously inspiring mentors. And I’m currently practicing different leadership styles and trying to understand: how can I leave people with my own voice and my own style that is inspirational and also helps bring other people into their power? I’m finding I’m less interested in being the person at the front of the pack, leading. I’m much more interested in being right in the middle, pushing everyone to be their bigger selves. 

That’s something that I’m continually experimenting with and really enjoying, seeing people around me push themselves and grow.

Host Raj Daniels 24:07

Let’s stay with leadership for a moment. What do you think are one or two things that are working for you right now in leadership?

Sara Enright 24:12

I’m in a really interesting position with our collaboration work where I’m starting to see the emergence of collaborative leaders, people who are systems thinkers and networkers, who are coalition builders both internally, within their own organizations, as well as externally. We’re able to see issues from many different people’s perspectives and help to find that unifying factor that brings people to the table to negotiate and find shared value solutions from that negotiation. I hope to be one of those collaboration leaders. I’m very interested in helping to develop a cohort of collaboration leaders because I believe that skill set is to be increasingly necessary for us to address the world sustainability issues going forward.

Host Raj Daniels 25:04

The little I know about the Latin American community and Latin American history, I look at that culture as a very collective culture. Do you feel like some of these themes around collaboration have stemmed from your education in the area?

Sara Enright 25:20

Yeah, I’ve never really thought about it, Raj, and I wonder, what’s the chicken and egg? Am I drawn to Latin American culture because of its collective nature? Or because it resonates with my own? Or or the other way around? Has it influenced me? I’m not sure.

Host Raj Daniels 25:37

Well, if you ever find out, do let me know. So let’s fast forward for a moment. 2030, if Businessweek or Forbes, were to write a headline about BSR, what would you’d like it to read?

Sara Enright 25:53

2030 is when we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. And many of these are so mission critical to human development, that I really do hope — I would love to see BSR in the headlines as a leading organization that has been the long-term partner for change towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. We’ve been here for the long run. We’re investing and innovating with a long-term perspective in mind. And I truly hope that BSR is recognized for its sustained impact and focus on impact during this time.

Host Raj Daniels 26:33

I love the idea of meeting or exceeding the UN SDG goals. A question I forgot to ask you earlier is, A, how do companies find out about you, and B, what size companies do you work with?

Sara Enright 26:49

We work with multinational companies, so many of the companies that are participating in BSR’s membership are Fortune 500. They are international. We have representation from every geography of companies that are participating in our network. And traditionally, we served the sustainability teams of these companies. So it’s often word of mouth. It’s often just by nature of the fact that we’ve been around since the 1990s, since the birth of the sustainability movement. So a lot of times, referrals will come fairly naturally to BSR when it comes to developing a sustainability strategy.

Host Raj Daniels 27:31

If there are some smaller companies that are interested in a strategy, does BSR provide any kind of reports or documentation that a smaller company can use on its journey?

Sara Enright 27:41

I hope so. Most of our guidance and recommendations are designed for pretty mature companies: large, easily international in nature. But a good amount of our recommendations are public, publicly available, and published online. I do understand that SMEs and smaller enterprises have are able to access this information, but sometimes it can be a little too robust for their needs. So it’s a task of right-sizing to the level of resources and exposure that those companies have to the issues that they’re focusing on.

Host Raj Daniels 28:20

Sara, that leads me nicely to my last question, which is, if you could share some advice, words of wisdom, or recommendations — it could be professional or personal — with the audience, what would it be?

Sara Enright 28:30

I have a lot of people ask me, since I’m in a sustainability consultant, “How do I get into sustainability?” A lot of people coming to me from all sorts of different fields. And I’m increasingly responding that you really don’t have to be a sustainability consultant, or have sustainability in your title in order to work on environmental, social and governance. I’ve worked with people across all functions in business, from the procurement teams, finance executives, legal team, strategy, marketing, you name it. They’ve become the point person for managing their company’s approach to a material sustainability issue. 

It’s really about seeing the opportunity and stepping up, taking leadership, to engage on the long-term issues that are affecting your company and your industry, in whatever role that you’re sitting in, and really thinking of yourself as that leader for change and empowering yourself to take action. And I really encourage people to stop waiting for and looking for that perfect role, and instead become the leader that they want to see in their industry themselves.

Host Raj Daniels 29:44

I think I heard a quote once, and it says, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Sara Enright 29:49


Host Raj Daniels 29:50

Sara, I appreciate your time today. And I look forward to catching up with you again soon.

Sara Enright 29:50

Thank you so much, Raj. This was really a pleasure.

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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