By Maddie Maltese
At the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, MN, entrepreneurs, economists, business people and students from North America and Cameroon design new models of leadership and business inspired by the principles of the Economy of Communion (EoC).
There are some conventions that you attend out of duty and some with brilliant speakers that enchant an audience. And then there are gatherings that might not draw large numbers or are not widely advertised, but change your way of thinking and acting because the agenda is founded in real life stories and reflections, full of conversation about how social justice and business go hand in hand. I attended one such gathering June 9-12 at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, MN, and experienced that change is possible, desired, and shared by many; by a billionaire as much as by a business professor, by a priest heading an entrepreneurial university and by students that have left their country for an internship in businesses animated by economic principles founded in communion.
Among the participants at the 2016 North American Economy of Communion gathering were a group of academics from the Catholic University Institute di Buea (CUIB) in Cameroon. This university, which was founded in 2010 to foster entrepreneurship inspired by the principles of the EoC, already counts 2000 students. You’d expect classrooms, offices, laboratories and big screens. Instead, the university is made up of seven round ‘villages’; cement platforms where the pillars support a tin roof that hosts students across the schools of engineering, organic agriculture, economics and computer science. Father George, the president of the University explains that the “poor in developing countries are not objects in need of aid but subjects of change. We have wasted time accusing industrialized countries or in judging ourselves. Instead, our energies should be channeled into a true development of our communities, where the environment, business, spirituality and culture coexist side by side and develop businesses, schools, and community services. No student of the CUIB graduates without spending weekends over the course of a year volunteering and launching an entrepreneurial endeavor in their home community. The secret of CUIB’s success lies in the 30 minutes a day dedicated to Mass for Christians, in the prayer for Muslims, and in a time of spiritual reflection for the others. Without values you cannot provide direction to change.”
Poverty, Inc., a documentary that was presented at the EoC meeting by its director Michael Matheson Miller, challenged the work of humanitarian organizations that operate with paternalistic assistance in poor countries and that do not produce desired development outcomes. Examples include indiscriminate shipments of food in parts of Asia and Africa that cripple local agricultural production and alter the diet of entire villages as well as donations of clothing that can lead to crisis in local textile industries. “There have been two possible ways to act in humanitarian interventions: give people fish or teach people how to fish. Today, the developmental model must be one of ‘fishing together’. In other words, ‘fish with the other’ and listen to the real needs of the people, without out-of-context interventions that can cause unintended damage”, commented Miller. He encouraged the adoption of the EoC paradigm for development projects.
The EoC demands a new form of leadership, one that is capable of combining market expertise, innovation and care for others. A workshop led by Jim Funk, a management consultant, included role plays on how to solve complex conflicts within business organizations by applying the ethics of communion in which both management and employees are fully appreciated for their talents, intuitions, and ideas that can help the business and the person grow in a logic of shared social justice.
The experiences of various entrepreneurs and managers, who opened up and shared both successes and failures at the meeting, were key to demonstrating that change is a door through which one can see that even mistakes can lead to progress. In the entrepreneurial logic of the EoC, successes and failures can become opportunities to innovate and change.
This was demonstrated by the experiences of Anne Godbout, founder of a travel agency that specializes in pilgrimages and spiritual journeys; of Emery Koenig, who led hundreds of managers at a large global firm; of John Mundell, owner and CEO of an environmental services company who has succeeded in combining business, well-being and care of the environment. This very theme, addressed by the recent papal encyclical Laudato sì, was at the center of another presentation. The candid discussion that ensued reflected how little attention is paid to concrete action we can take individually and collectively to address environmental concerns and safeguard creation.
The story of Robert Ouimet, a successful Canadian entrepreneur in charge of a global food company, was particularly moving. When Ouimet met Mother Theresa in 1983, he offered to give away all of his goods for a social cause. The saint of Calcutta answered that he didn’t possess anything, rather that everything was lent to him and that his life needed to be at the service of his family, of his employees and of the environment, following the life style proposed by the Gospel. His human and financial capital were gifts received by God to be shared and put to good use. The choice to follow her words has not been without pain as his children and his financial backers did not always understand his decisions. Ouimet’s journey gave birth to a set of nine core business principles that guide his entrepreneurial actions. For example, one principle is to “Meet with terminated employees twice within six months following the termination”. Putting it into practice requires courage and readiness for emotional interactions. Ouimet stated, “I had to do it, because I wanted the persons to feel that, despite the reasons that led to the termination, I continued to value them, and that I would have helped them to find a path or occupation more suited to their talents. In all these years, only two persons refused to meet with me.”
Prof. Michael Naughton, director of the Center of Catholic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas, and Prof. John Gallagher, who teaches management at Maryville College, analyzed the cultural underpinnings of economic actions driven by communion. Naughton underlined that the principle of subsidiarity embodies the logic of gift; that every member of a business brings their gifts to the productive process and thereby produce not only products but also build community and hope. Gallagher confirmed the need for a new anthropology and of prophetic voices in the economic arena that can take risks in the name of hope and a sense of responsibility for future generations.
The economy of communion and its 25 years if history show that Chiara Lubich’s vision on the role business could play in connecting with people in need, encouraging a life of communion, now has solid roots in North America. Profit at all cost is not the sole motivator for all business activity. Many entrepreneurs, such as those involved with the EoC, are chasing a bigger vision made up of the gifts each person has to offer, putting hope for a better tomorrow into action.
Pete Benedetto recently had the chance to interview him.
Please tell us about your work in academia:
I have been a professor of business ethics at the Heider College of Business at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska for the last 10 years. Although I teach business courses, I have my PhD in philosophy and so that affects the way I teach about business, ethics, and society. Philosophy asks the questions “what are you doing?” and “why are you doing it?”, which are questions that every person should ask themselves, not least of all people within business. I believe that every function of business – from marketing to finance – has the power to transform culture and society. I have found a small way to do this with my own business.
Please tell us about your business and its mission:
I have a real estate business buying, rehabbing, leasing and managing residential properties. I created this business in 1999 while I was studying for my PhD at Bethel College. My first real estate project came about when I had a ‘mid-life crisis’ of sorts, because I was nearly 30 and I felt all I had ‘created’ was a stack of research papers. I needed to also do something less cerebral and more connected to physical reality, and I was looking for a way to maintain ties with my hometown of Aurora, Nebraska.
I bought a house for $15,000 in Aurora and transformed it into my first rental property. I really enjoyed the process and reward of restoring a decrepit building into a home. There is a ‘redemptive’ quality to the work—and I do see my work renewing these buildings as being in line and in the spirit of God’s desire to renew and redeem creation. I went on to purchase, rehab and manage seven more rental homes within my hometown. After completing my studies, I moved to Omaha for the position I now have at Creighton. My wife and I decided to live near school, Gifford Park, which was known 10 years ago as a not-ideal neighborhood, with occasional knife-fights, prostitutes, and shootings. The first house was a Triplex I lived in which had been previously known for drugs and dog fighting in the basement. One thing led to another and and we now have 22 homes in Omaha.
One of the most rewarding things beyond the redemption aspect of rehabbing buildings is that owning this business has given me the chance to provide employment to homeless people and others dealing with various struggles. This is not always easy, but it gives me the chance to provide work and dignity to those in need. These folks have also become some of my close friends. We’re lucky to be in a walkable neighborhood where we know our neighbors, many of whom are our tenants, and to be directly invested in the community we live in. I feel blessed to have a well-integrated life where my day job and my ‘hobby’ of transforming homes are aligned.
How did you learn about the Economy of Communion?
I was at a conference in the Philippines on business solutions to poverty where I met John Gallagher and Michael Naughton. John and I had a series of really good conversations and when John heard about my interests and work, he told me about the EoC and recommended that I look into it. I did. Then he invited me to the EOC conference at Catholic University in Washington D.C. this summer, and I went to it and loved what I heard.
The conference in the Phillipines had inspired me to launch an MBA class at Creighton entitled Business, Faith and the Common Good, which then led to the formation of an institute of the same name. The Institute was created to “to promote discussion, collaboration, and research which help understand the relationship between business and faith, and how business can contribute to the common good.” I had begun a symposium by that name in 2014, and so for this year’s symposium in October of 2015, I invited John Gallagher to present, and also to speak in my MBA class and discuss his new book Structures of Grace, which is a survey of the business practices of the EoC in the U.S. So now we have a class, a symposium, and an institute aimed at the integration of faith and business, and EOC is a good fit for that concern.
Why did you choose to get involved?
The EoC’s focus on gratuity and reciprocity really stood out to me. The values and the vision of the organization fit with the work I’m involved in. The idea of connecting with like-minded people who I could learn from, be encouraged by, and, in some sense, be accountable to, really appealed to me. When making decisions within my business, I can now ask myself ‘How would others in the EoC look at this? What would they do in this situation?’ I wanted to connect with people who are intentional in running their businesses in a certain way. Other EoC members are model exemplars for how to do things better. The EoC helps help me to be more structured in putting into practice the ideals I’ve been trying to run my business by.
Tell us more about how the EoC’s philosophy affects your work:
Through reading the EoC’s literature, I gained a deeper understanding of the principles of gratuity and reciprocity – looking at the marketplace as a place of “gracious exchange”. The emphasis on the humaneness of business transactions – the fact that every business exchange involves and affects real people – provides a needed perspective that is often overlooked in our society. The EoC embodies and gives structure to the concept of what business is supposed to be about. I attempt to put this into practice when dealing with my tenants and others I encounter through my business.
What do you hope to contribute to the EoC?
I can start with what I personally have to contribute: First, I can promote EOC and help people learn about it through my classes and institute events. Second, I am a thinker and communicator, and I teach philosophical concepts to business students– which involves making complex concepts understandable. I’d love to help the EoC communicate with various audiences and be a sounding board for how to best convey our mission and work. I’d like to help other EoC entrepreneurs spread the word about what the EoC is and through this to inspire others to think about the role and potential of business the way the EoC does.