- - Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The big man in white is coming to visit the Big Apple, but it’s not to simply stroll through Central Park. It’s also not to swing through the United States’ largest city on the heels of a visit to Cuba (the thawing relationship between the two countries was organized by the Vatican). Some think it’s for the Pope to put some more pressure on the religious right in Congress to re-evaluate their thoughts on what it means to live by Jesus’ teachings. I don’t think it’s that either (although divine intervention in Congress would be most welcome to anyone of either party).

The real reason Pope Francis is coming to New York City is to put pressure on world leaders. World leaders are coming together at the United Nations General Assembly meeting to formally adopt a new set of global goals called the Sustainable Development Goals. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because the last set of global goals covering 2000-2015 were called the Millennium Development Goals and were frequently referred to by global politicians. The SDGs are part of a broader development agenda called “Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Most people do not know about the SDGs, let alone what it means for business.

So, what does this have to do with the Pope or business in general?

The SDGs look to achieve many things, but primarily: ending poverty, fighting inequalities and reversing climate change. Although the SDGs are global in definition, they are achieved through “target indicators” set by national governments. They’re not there for the U.N. to achieve; they’re there for each country to achieve. Governments will be working toward achieving these goals as part of their commitment to the international community and as part of their domestic and international policy agendas for the next 15 years.

Consequently, business everywhere needs to understand exactly how to navigate this emerging landscape to:

1) Do its part to help achieve these goals, and

2) Ensure continuity and stability in light of what will certainly be a changing regulatory environment (regardless of political party control).

Do not underestimate the impact that international pressure can have on any agency, administration, business, or individual in the age of social media. (Don’t believe me? Look at what happened to this dentist, this coffee company, or this-may-be-an-elaborate-PR-move by this former hedge-fund manager).

Pope Francis has been widely recognized by media pundits as being one of the more progressive religious figures in modern times. His influence has only grown since he ascended to the papacy. He has brought attention to the natural inequality that emerges over time in capitalistic economic systems, a controversial analysis presented by Thomas Piketty in “Capital in the 21st Century.” Although not the first economist to criticize capitalism, Mr. Piketty presents basic logic, aided by hundreds of pages of research, to show how owners/investors naturally accumulate greater wealth over time thanks to compound interest and investment returns compared to what the vast majority of workers can gain through economic growth and salary alone. Putting “people first” is one of the reasons why the Pope loves Mr. Piketty’s work, and why millennials love both the Pope and mission-driven social enterprises. Millennials, the next big generation of consumers all businesses should pay attention to, love authenticity and transparency, and they can see right through those who are not authentic.

While he still represents a relatively conservative institution, the Pope has also brought attention to climate change and social justice causes like immigration and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. And this is why it’s so important to take note of these SDGs. The Pope has enormous and still-growing influence over key demographics (millennials, Catholics, etc.), but also over communities of faith in general. He is reinvigorating the power of the faithful to pursue change locally and globally. There is a strong likelihood that he will leverage the power of the Vatican and the papacy to mobilize his different audiences toward putting greater pressure on national governments to achieve the SDGs in the name of religion. Unlike previous Popes (and their relatively low political influence both due to the lack of social media and the lack of political activity), this means a potential big impact on business at all levels.

At this point, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that Pope Francis is in New York City to follow through on his interpretation of the mandate of holy Scripture and to put pressure on governments to take these SDGs seriously. We can agree or disagree with the SDGs or with the issues they’re trying to address — it’s almost irrelevant. The question for business now is: How do we understand the changes that are coming with these SDGs so that we can reinvent, reposition, rebrand, restore, or simply ensure that our missions and visions are authentically-aligned with these world-changing goals? Do we have a truly green footprint? An abuse-free workplace and supply chain? Fair pay? Acceptable pay gap between the top and the bottom? Social good values, practices, and commitments? Real value creation for real people for real problems that stand in the way of having a decent life for employees, customers, and other stakeholders? These questions matter for the Pope. They matter for Millennials. They matter for the SDGs. They should matter to business leaders.

Some companies have a lot of work to do, and some don’t. Those that do, his Holiness is ready to cheer them on.

Jesse Chen is an experienced leader, civil society activist, technology strategist, and the co-founder and CEO of Powerline, a mobile app and web platform that helps leaders and communities engage and organize in meaningful ways. He is active in several global causes involving citizen participation and democracy such as the Global Citizens Movement, Civicus, and action/2015. Jesse recently gave a TEDx talk titled “Redefining Democracy for People’s Power” that focuses on leadership theory and the importance of engagement in between elections for strengthening democracy.

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