14 Examples of Socially Responsible Business Leaders

Many high-profile businesses have taken big leaps in their focus on climate change, workplace diversity, employee benefits, and more. These innovators didn’t just impact their own businesses — they made a permanent impact on their industries at large. Keep reading to learn about 14 of the most innovative and socially responsible leaders of the past few years, and be sure to look out for their names in the years to come. 

Rose Marcario, former CEO, Patagonia

Rose Marcario is rethinking the way that consumerism operates. As the CEO of the popular outdoor clothing company, Marciano implemented the Black Friday Initiative in 2019. Rather than rake in the cash during the biggest annual shopping day, Patagonia decided to donate a percentage of their profits to grassroots environmental organizations. Furthermore, the Marcario-led initiative pledged that Patagonia would match those donations up to $10 million.

Lisa Jackson, VP of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives, Apple

Jackson makes the list for spearheading Apple’s efforts to address climate change and other environmental issues. For example, Apple is issuing $2.5 billion in green bonds (more than any other corporation) to fund projects such as the adoption of 100% renewable electricity. 

Jackson continues to lead initiatives focused on clean energy solutions and other socially responsible projects. One of the most significant projects involved Apple’s investment in conserving forests around world. Jackson’s efforts have played a big role in showing why large corporations have a responsibility to address their role in the climate crisis. 

Sara Menker, Founder and CEO, Gro Intelligence

The founder and CEO of Gro Intelligence, Sara Menker is transforming the way we think about agriculture and food security. Her company uses data to predict global food and agriculture markets and is addressing the pressing problem of resource scarcity in the face of a rapidly expanding population. If you’re wondering how we’re going to feed 9 billion people by 2050, Menker is hard at work at solving that very issue.

Though Gro was founded in 2014, it gained prominence in 2019 during the government shutdown. During this time the USDA announced that it would delay its monthly report on supply and demand for 20 crops. What could have been absolute chaos for a host of farmers and investors was saved by Gro’s forecast technology. 

Dev Stahlkopf, EVP and Chief Legal Officer, Cisco

In her former job as general counsel, Dev Stahlkopf spearheaded and designed a policy change that would require all Microsoft vendors to provide contracted employees 12 weeks of parental leave with two thirds of their wages. 

Major corporations like Microsoft have a tremendous influence on the business world at large. Let’s hope this Stahlkopf-led initiative paves the way for more companies to prioritize parental leave, and enable both female and male employees to progress in their careers without negatively impacting their families.

Heidi O’Neill, President of Consumer and Marketplace, Nike

Heidi O’Neill has had a tremendous impact on Nike’s business practices and culture alike. Previously, the team running Nike’s women’s collection were made up of a female majority, while a mostly-male team ran the men’s collection.

O’Neill recognized the need for integration while continue to preach fair and equal representation. She even participated in an employee protest, calling for Nike to elevate its treatment of female employees and athlete partners.

Norman De Greve, Chief Marketing Officer, CVS Health

Norman de Greve is an advocate for elevating the standards of the beauty industry. He kickstarted the Beauty Mark campaign, in which beauty brands who advertise in CVS stores are required to notify customers if they photoshopped models in any of their advertisements.

Right now, about 70% of images comply with this standard, but he is working to ensure that every image in CVS stores and digital platforms is compliant by 2020. 

Mariana Vasconcelos, Co-founder and CEO, Agrosmart

A farmer’s daughter, Vasconcelos started Agrosmart in 2014 as a way to provide farmers with accurate tracking data backed by AI technology. Her technology used meteorological models and irrigation recommendations to increase productivity of crops up to 20% while saving 60% more water (source). The company monitors more than 200,000 hectares of crops, mainly in Brazil, but they are quickly expanding to other places in Latin America.

Today, Agrosmart’s technology is widely used—even Coca-Cola has worked with Vasconcelos’s company to monitor their fruit farms in Espírito Santo. 

Jonathan Marvel, Founder, Marvel Architects

Jonathan Marvel cofounded Resilient Power Puerto Rico, a nonprofit that has restored electricity to some of the poorest communities by taking advantage of the island’s abundant sun and other natural resources. 

Yet the company did more than just install solar panels. They helped recruit and train locals to install them, created a tool kit that communities can use to plan and finance new solar hubs themselves, and taught them how to set up water treatment systems that also run on solar power. 

Emily Feistritzer, Founder and CEO, TeachNow

Feistritzer started TeachNow, an online teaching certification program that guides teachers on how to teach to digitally native generations. She believes that education must change and adapt with the rest of society, a common theme among the leaders on this list. 

Feistritzer made our list for the efforts she’s made to push accessibility in education. She champions a collaborative learning method that eliminates the kind of top-down teaching typically performed in the classroom.

LeBron James, Founder, IPromise Schools

In a world where low-income often equates to under-educated, basketball star LeBron James’s biggest off-the-court goal has been to change the face of urban education.

In its first year of its operation, students at James’s IPromise school posted extraordinary results in the first set of district assessments. In fact, 90% of students who started the school year at least one year behind grade level met or exceeded their expected growth in math and reading (source). The school also provides a family resource center where parents can get GED prep, work advice, health and legal services, and even get groceries.

Jeanne Gang, Founder, Studio Gang

Jeanne Gang is the founder of Studio Gang, an architectural firm that prioritizes a socially engaged design process that foregrounds the relationship between individuals, communities, and environments.

Gang has produced some of today’s most compelling and integrated architecture, including an aqua tower and nature boardwalk at Lincoln College. She is committed to working on global and local issues through collaboration and innovation. She was also named the world’s most influential architect of 2019.

Marc Benioff, CEO, Salesforce

Marc Benioff isn’t just a CEO. As one of the founders of the cloud computing software company, he wears many different hats. For example, he’s invested in a number of tech startups, giving young and promising companies the opportunity to strive for Salesforce-level heights. Benioff and his wife have also pledged $350 million to the University of California for its children’s hospitals and research (source). 

An investor, philanthropist, and innovator, Benioff is a shining example of how high-profile CEOs can leverage their success to help less fortunate people and less experienced companies.

Hasan Rafiq, VP of Diversity and Inclusion, EY

Hasan Rafiq has innovated EY’s own approach to diversity and inclusion by introducing hackathons and design thinking to D&I problems. Rafiq wanted EY’s programs to go beyond simply challenging biases. Instead, he wanted to create practical personal and systemic behavior changes that drive better business performance and collaboration across EY’s global teams.

Kathleen Rogers, President, Earth Day Network 

Rogers has spent more than 20 years as an environmental attorney and advocate with a focus on international and domestic environmental public policy and law. Under her leadership, Earth Day Network has played a significant role in advancing the new green economy and has emerged as a dynamic year-round policy and activist organization. 

Final Thoughts on Socially Responsible Business Leaders

This list would go on forever were we to highlight every innovative, forward-thinking business leader that has made waves over the past year. But, we hope these examples illustrated how influential a successful business can be when they use that influence for good.

Of course, not every business leader has the power of LeBron James or the budget of a Salesforce CEO. But, leaders of any sized companies can make a difference by pushing social and environmental responsibility.

One thing all of these leaders have in common is that they aren’t afraid to break away from tradition and challenge the status quo. They see problems in the world, and they innovate and break the mold until their business is part of the solution.

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