Will Business be a Catalyst for Change

This season, as we prepare to enter post-pandemic life, we are faced with the opportunity to examine ourselves and our society to decide what we want to keep, what we want to discard, and what we want to remake. Join us as we discuss both our individual and collective hopes for the Future.

Rick Sindt: Believing business provides leadership where other institutions may not because they must move at the speed of the market, Interim Dean Maciek Nowak talks today about how he believes now is the time for industry to lead the charge for change in our society. Observing everyone evaluating what is the most effective way to get their work done, he hopes that we emerge from this pandemic more open to change and able to build a more equitable world.

I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Rick Sindt: Hello, Maciek thank you for joining me today.

Maciek Nowak: Pleasure to be here.

Rick Sindt: So, let's start with some of your observations from the past year and a half during the pandemic to give us some context around the hopes that you're going to be outlining for the future later on in the conversation.

Maciek Nowak: Yeah, I think from a teaching perspective we learned so much. I can speak personally, I know going into the classroom online forced all of us to rethink our approach to what we're doing in the classroom. How we engage with the students and thinking about what activities really are the most– provide the most opportunity for students to interact with each other and with a faculty member versus those activities that are more, I guess, lecture-style in terms of more the faculty just delivering content.

And, can we separate those. And so times when we're together, we're focusing on the, the former activities and times where the students can, on their own, be listening to the content that is more one way directional. So, I think there's a re-evaluation of teaching that will have the most lasting impact on what we do moving forward.

I think from a more general perspective, obviously this is something that is been felt by every industry is this idea of what can we do in person versus online? So, where are those activities that it's more efficient for us to stay at home and be working with each other remotely versus those where it's most effective for us to be in person.

And obviously that pertains to academia, but, like I said, it's every industry that is tackling those questions now.

Rick Sindt: Yeah. So, I'm hearing that for you this past year is encouraging you to reconsider the most effective or efficient way of let's say, delivering a product, whether that be education or something that a business would create.

Maciek Nowak: Yes, absolutely. I think industries were, whether it's academia or manufacturing or transportation, we're doing things effectively in the past but the remote environment has opened the door to other considerations.

So, it's kind of forced us to reevaluate this. When under other circumstances, we were, in academia, we were moving towards online but it was done piecemeal slowly. And, we now are forced to make this dramatic change in and I think every industry similarly was forced to reevaluate and say alright we were doing things really well before, but maybe there are things we could be doing differently that will allow us to do it better.

And so, if there's any positive to come out of the last year and a half that hopefully will, that will be it, I think.

Rick Sindt: At the beginning of the pandemic, there was someone who wrote about this being a great pause for us, a time to reconsider the things you're talking about. And now that we are re-emerging into a post-pandemic life, things are opened back up, people are returning to old ways of socializing and getting together, and businesses are figuring out what's next for them. What, what are some things that you hope will happen in the coming months, years, or more?

Maciek Nowak: So, I think in these efforts to see how to do things better and how to use the things we've learned in this new world, I think that's open people up more to change maybe than they would have been otherwise and that has spurred a lot more openness to changing our usual way of doing things.

There are also the events of last summer, the policies that were in place under the last administration, all of these, I think created kind of this perfect storm of, “Okay, it's time for industry, for private industry, to really start to make some change because it's not necessarily going to happen otherwise.”

And so the way that that's, looking at environmental sustainability, right, the government has historically dictated that policy and whether it's the EPA putting restrictions on emissions or things like that, that industry is now saying, “Okay, that's not enough. It's not going to work. We need to do things on our own. We need to make change.”

Looking at the unrest from last summer, and this realization that it seems like you had, “enough is enough.” And, not that this was anyone was happy with this in the past, but it like, “okay, we really need to, we've changed so many other things. We're changing so many other things we need to, to finally make some substantive changes. In our policies surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion.” And I think it is really going to take business leadership to move us in these, these directions.

Because, ultimately, somebody has got to fund these changes. That money to drive that change has to come from somewhere. And it's, I think it's going to come from ultimately it has to come from industry to really motivate these changes. And I can go into more detail as to what I'm getting at as, as we continue on here.

Rick Sindt: I kind of want to break the conversation up a little bit, perhaps into business leadership, then talk about DEI, and then move on to the other pieces like sustainability that you mentioned. What I was struck by when you were talking about business, needing to take the lead is that I think perhaps that's something government has done before and now we're in a position where it is not, is the impression that I'm getting from your observations. So, maybe if we can expand on that a little bit.

Maciek Nowak: Yeah. And, you know, I think government still obviously has a very, very important role. And I think this again, with all this change, it's this idea of, “oh, maybe there are ways we can do things better,” and seeing maybe– potentially to use again, the environment and sustainability example–seeing kind of a vacuum in government pushing industry to be better about their efforts in the ways of the environment.

With that seeming vacuum, someone needed to fill that role. And I think that industry saw that as is something we need to do to move forward. And, you know, ultimately, industry does what the market dictates and they're hearing the voices of the consumers and the consumers want these want products that are environmentally friendly. They want to be able to use things that they feel aren't having a worsening impact on our environment. And so, in reaction to that, you have the example of GM announcing that by 2035, all of their vehicles are going to be electric. That's, that's quite an audacious goal but it's driven not all just GM business leaders saying, “look, this is what we're going to do.” They're seeing what's happening. They're seeing what the market wants and they're moving in that direction.

So, I think ultimately, if you want to look at it this way, I mean, the people we vote for our government representatives we choose in a somewhat similar fashion. You can argue that it's not that simple, but you might be able to see the comparison that in the same way we choose what companies we buy products from, which companies we work with and that's, in a way, we're deciding who are business leaders are by, through that decision-making. In my mind, I feel that businesses headed for the most part in the right direction that, that we're seeing what the market, and what we all, want is to go to a better place, to move our society in a better direction. And, and they're reacting to that.

Rick Sindt: And perhaps they're just able to react faster than goverment.

Maciek Nowak: Yeah, that could be a whole other podcast discussion, “bureaucracy and the speed at which it moves” But, yeah, I mean, I think you could definitely argue that industry can be more nimble and more quickly than waiting for government to make change to some policy.

Rick Sindt: Let's pivot a little bit to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion that you brought up because at the beginning we were talking about what can we do better and more efficiently and in a different way. That started out rather pragmatically, but we're, we're growing beyond like how can people hybrid work? To how can we operate as a society better? So since we're pulling back, getting bigger, what do you see happening in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space? And then, where do you hope it goes in the future?

Maciek Nowak: Well, I think one of the most jarring statistics that I recently seen was a Citi study that came out a few months ago, fall of 2020, where they found that racial inequalities have cost the economy $16 trillion. That's trillion with a “T” dollars, which is an incredible statistic and it just shows that business is failing. I mean, we're all failing these segments of the population and business is obviously a big part of that. And if you look at that 16 trillion, they found that the biggest proportion of that was that loans, that minority-owned businesses are not receiving the same opportunities for loans that other businesses are. And that lack of opportunity has cost all of us. And not just these businesses it's cost everybody. And so I see something like that and you can talk about different human rights policies, things like that, and we've made changes there, but really if you look at lending practices, that's pure business. From a business perspective, we're making bad decisions. And I think we're seeing that change. I mean, Chase has already moved to invest billions of dollars into these minority owned businesses. It's fantastic to see that and I think everyone wins that way and it’s inspiring to see business leaders making those decisions and realizing that they are a huge part of this problem and have got to put, literally, their money where their mouth is and do something to drive that change.

And, I think, looking at Quinlan's role in this, we're very excited to be a part of this and, given our focus on ethical leadership and helping to guide policy to drive those changes, it's thinking forward and it's exciting.

Rick Sindt: It seems, from what you just said, before when people would say oppression or racism hurts all of us, it always felt a little more tied to like social-emotional, non-tangible things. And now with this study, we have some really hard and really large numbers showing the actual cost of the marginalization of people.

Maciek Nowak: Yeah. I think that's exactly correct. I don't like inequality and I think most would agree. I don't want to see that and I have that, like you say, that intangible feeling that I, you know, I don't like it, but what can I do about it?

And, now we're seeing, look, this is something tangible that we can do about it. We can make this change. This is something we can measure and we can say, “alright, here's where we are right now today. Where do we want it five years from now? What should these metrics be looking like?” How can we measure that change and say, “Look, are we really making improvements or are we still at the same place we were 30, 40 years ago?”

So, again, I don't have my crystal ball here to say what that will look like, but in my mind, as an operations guy, I look at that and it's like, “Oh, yes, here's something tangible we can actually do to change this.” [What is] arguably the biggest societal problem that we have right now.

Rick Sindt: I think this falls more into that operations area, but the last–or the third–thing you mentioned was talking about sustainability, specifically. So, I would like to take a moment to unpack those trends that you're seeing and the direction that you hope things are going.

Maciek Nowak: Yeah. Like I mentioned with the GM initiative, I think we're, we're seeing so many companies that are hearing from their consumers that, “we want to know what is the impact of the product that I'm buying.” Now years ago, Walmart had proposed a sticker on all of their products that essentially quantified the carbon footprint of that product. It was a really interesting initiative but the problem they ran into is that every product we buy has such a long story behind it of where it came from, where the materials were sourced, [etc].

I often give this example, if you're looking at clothing, I've seen two identical shirts being sold in the same store right next to each other. They're exactly the same: same color, same size. If you look at where they're made one may be made in Indonesia and one may be made in Vietnam. And it just so happens that this company is sourcing from two different locations and so how do you put a carbon footprint on those products?

So anyways, the point being [is] that was a very interesting idea, but it proved to be a little too challenging. Now we're at the point where consumers really do want to have that information and I don't know if companies are going to be able to provide that specifically, but they want to know.

If you can't tell me that carbon footprint information, can you at least show me what you are doing to make your company more eco-friendly? And so I think companies for–I don't want to say for the first time, but because many companies have been doing this for quite some time–but I think we're seeing it's a much more massive movement now. Where if you're not doing things that are eco-friendly you're in a minority and consumers are going to move away from you. So, it's definitely it's been a very exciting movement in that direction.

Rick Sindt: One of the curiosities I have around moving to a more green economy–and things being more sustainable–I wonder about the supply and the impact of all the rare materials that we now have to use to like make batteries, to make computer chips, etc. I wonder, what is it damaging? Cause mining typically is damaging in some way. I wonder if we're trading one evil for a lesser evil, if that makes sense, of the resources we use; like, instead of using fossil fuels we are now using rare things that will run out eventually and then we'll have to find something else.

Maciek Nowak: Well, yeah. I mean, you can argue that we're a dynamic people, right? I think we do not want to run out of these rare minerals because who knows what other positives they may be good for down the road. If we use everything up–like all of our lithium resources or something like that. So, yeah, I mean, it's not great that we're doing this, but at the same time we are trading something really bad for something less bad and hopefully we continue to–I mean, there's constantly research being done on how do we you find better energy sources for the various things where we're using and right now we've settled on batteries and storing energy in batteries and for all kinds of things, but obviously cars are such a prominent energy use that people’s focus in on that.

But, you know, there's constantly research being done on how do we store more and do it using materials that are less impactful. I can't speak to [because] I don't necessarily know where things stand, but I think–in general–if you look, I think we're, we're moving in a positive direction.

Rick Sindt: Before you talked about Quinlan a little bit, and maybe to close, I'd like to hear more thoughts you have on how you believe higher education will operate moving forward and how you hope that Quinlan will operate in the community of Chicago in the future?

Maciek Nowak: In terms of general higher education, I don't think it's any secret that things are changing. As I was saying earlier, we all learned a lot about our teaching and so when we have the opportunity to go back in-person I think the key will be that we don't forget those lessons. Like I said, there are certain components where we know they're much more engaging with the students. Standing in front of a whiteboard and speaking to the students, I would hope is going to become a relic of the past. […] I think the lecture isn't dead, it's just maybe the format. We don't all need to be in the same place at the same time to hear me, or any professor, talk. It's better if we're all in the same place if we're doing an engaging exercise, if we're taking part in a simulation, if we're taking part in some type of activity that gives us a sense of working on the problem that we're discussing. So, I would imagine that is hopefully the direction we're headed to where classroom time becomes valuable time when we're all together and we can really do a lot more engaging activity together.

Now in terms of Quinlan's role, obviously, I would like it–in terms of a teaching perspective–to move in that direction. But in terms of the other initiatives that we discussed, I think our location in Chicago is so perfect for us to make a difference. Because if you look at Chicago, it really defines so many of the problems that we face nationally. It's a divided city. The north, south and west sides are all very different from each other. The north side obviously has more abundant resources. It's a more affluent. Whereas, the south and west sides simply don't have access to those same resources and as such they are different cities. And so, given where we are, it's part of our mission to make the city that we're in a better place.

And I think number one, on that list of things to make it a better place is to make us a whole cit. To make us a city that you don't have these disparities between different areas. I think the first steps are not to go in and say, “Hey, look, we're Quinlan. We know business and so we can teach all of you how to conduct business better.” No, I think the first step is to go and engage with these communities and learn about the problems that they're facing and what they're dealing with. We don't understand at all because we're not experiencing that and [we need to] go and work with them and see what are the business issues that you have? And then from there we can start to think about, given what we know, given our experience, can we help? What can we do to help you with your business? And, and so it's really, moving forward, it's very much a, I would view it as–to borrow a phrase from our Dean of the Institute for Racial Justice–“it's really a two way street of learning.” Where we're hearing their problems and by doing that we gain a better understanding of those problems and we gain a much more of an appreciation for what we have and how we can potentially help without coming in and saying, “look, we know everything.”

We definitely do not. I can't speak for everyone, but I do think we need to at this point. I think that would be step one, as we move forward.

Rick Sindt: In closing, I'd like to challenge you to try to take everything we talked about and summarize it in a sentence or two. In a sentence or two, what are your hopes for the future moving forward?

Maciek Nowak: So, I would say that my hope would be that industry can continue on this path; that we don’t forget about all of the change over the last year and a half and we continue this leadership, that we work with government and various other organizations in the communities, and we ultimately are able to use the power that business has to drive change in these various areas of environmental sustainability, DEI, to really ultimately continue to help society improve.

Rick Sindt: Maciek, it was really nice to talk to you today. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Maciek Nowak: Yeah. It was, it was a pleasure chatting with you as well.


*This transcript has been edited for clarity.