By Maria Saporta
The 2019 HOPE Global Forum, once again, showed capitalism at its best.
The forum, held at Atlanta Hyatt Regency from May 29 to 31, brought together what has become one of the most diverse gatherings of business leaders and the general public. The 2,000 attendees literally came from all walks of life from many different corners of the world.
And the messages were powerful. How are we going to fix the inequalities that plague our society – from income, living conditions to economic opportunity.
The HOPE Global Forum, organized by Operation HOPE and its founder John Hope Bryant, has become a nexus where top CEOs and engaged community, business and philanthropic leaders can openly talk about poverty and the dangers of the growing divide between the wealthy and everyone else.
One of the keynote speakers – Robert Crandall, the legendary (and retired) CEO of American Airlines – opened up his talk by quoting Louis Brandeis, a Supreme Court justice from 1916 to 1939, who wrote: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. But we cannot have both.”
While Crandall said global warming is a real crisis of our time, “income inequality, wealth inequality, educational and career inequality represent a far more immediate threat.”
Crandall recounted U.S. history from the post-World War II era when “middle-class incomes rose faster than incomes at the top, and income inequality decreased.”
But Crandall went on to say that “unhappily, in the 70’s and 80s, corporate America changed its mind about its mission. Business leaders decided that the goal of business should be ‘maximizing shareholder value,’ which is shorthand for maximizing profits…
“The business community and our society as a whole also embraced two really bad ideas. The first is that economic growth is more important than economic fairness. The second is that lowering prices is more important than preserving jobs. The result is an economy that works well for the winners and very badly for the left behinds.”
Crandall’s words set the tone for the 2019 forum, an opportunity for top CEOs to show the more altruistic side of their business. Without a doubt, the CEOs and other leaders who participate in the forum tend to be people who understand the problems and are trying to fix them.
Kelly King, the CEO of BB&T – which is merging with Atlanta-based SunTrust Bank and moving the headquarters to Charlotte, spoke about the problems in public education, where most students in 3rdgrade cannot read at their grade level.
“I believe the private sector is going to have to solve this problem,” King told the forum. “As we think about the future, I want to leave you with the challenge to go out and change the world. Ask what is my purpose in this life. Clarity of purpose will help you change the world.”
Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, spoke of the lack of human decency in the world today. She then referenced on of the core beliefs of her father – civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. – by saying: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to being a people-oriented society.”
One of the more moving moments was when Bryant brought Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to the stage. King was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968, when he had gone to the Tennessee city to support the striking sanitation workers.
Bryant had gotten to know Strickland during the 50thanniversary commemoration of King’s death, when he told the mayor about one of Operation HOPE’s centerpiece initiatives – HOPE Inside – which brings financial counselors to workers and bank customers and help them improve their economic health by increasing credit scores and by gaining a better understanding of how money works.
“I get a call out of the blue,” Bryant said of when Strickland called him to say he wanted to bring HOPE Inside to the city of Memphis employees. On a visit to Memphis to talk about the program, Bryant asked about where Operation HOPE was needed most.
The answer? “The sanitation workers could really use it,” Bryant recounted on stage. “You can’t make this thing up.”
Thasunda Duckett, CEO of consumer bank for JPMorgan Chase, spoke of the challenge of the divide in the country.
“The average net worth of a single black man or woman is $200 while the average net worth of a single white person is between $15,000 to $28,000,” she said. “We have to make sure there is access to capital.”
Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, spoke of how he likes to fly in the back of the plane (often in a middle seat) rather than in first-class.
“It’s a lot more fun back there, he said. “When you’re up front, it’s boring.”
Bastian then explained how the airline has an employee profit-sharing program where it contributes 15 percent of the net income to employees.
“We have paid over $1 billion a year to our employees for five years in a row,” Bastian said. “I think it’s something other companies should consider. There’s not a more powerful tool (than profit sharing) to unify your employees around serving customers and the community.”
Later in a brief interview, Bastian said: “Income inequality is an incredibly important topic today,” and he said that Delta is helping address that issue through its profit sharing program.
One of Bryant’s spiritual advisors and mentors is former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who worked with King and also served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter administration.
“I’d like for us to know how capitalism is working for poor people and helping them become rich people,” Young said.
During the closing session of the forum, Young said: “I really have learned more this week than in many weeks in my life.” He was especially impressed by the “Twitter man” – Jack Dorsey, who is a co-founder and CEO of Twitter and co-founder and CEO of Square. But he readily admitted that he didn’t know about Square and the new technology.
Tony Ressler, a billionaire who is the majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks and executive chairman of Ares Management equity firm, explained one of the bigger inequities – the cost of borrowing money.
“Rich people pay a lot less money for their money than poor people,” Ressler said.
Bryant agreed. “Those who have the most pay the least.”
Crandall brought it home to corporate America.
“In 1980, the average big company CEO earned just 42 times as much as the average U.S. worker. In 2017, S&P 500 CEOs earned 361 times as much,” Crandall said. “Wealth is even more heavily concentrated than income. The richest 1 percent of Americans have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, and the top 5 percent hold two-thirds of all wealth.”
At the end of the forum, Young observed summed it up this way: “This is free enterprise at its best. This is democracy working for the least. Money is only a vehicle where the hungry will be fed, where the naked will be clothed and the sick will be healed.”
The 2019 HOPE Global Forum once again showed why it is a “do not miss” annual conference – one that builds on Atlanta’s foundation as a center for civil rights and provides a framework for Atlanta to become a place that tackles economic inequality in the name of social justice.