Working as a counselor for a business camp, I came face-to-face with clashing ideas of success and economic health.
While I understand that the for-profit sector comprises the majority of the US and global economy, I have actively avoid corporate America. I didn’t believe that the free-trade, free-enterprise, capitalist, corporate ethos is healthy for relationships between humans or between humans and the rest of our world. I challenge my students, at Outward Bound and at this camp, to look for the humanity in the people they meet…which means challenging myself to do the same. This weekend, I found multiple ways of framing economic growth and realized that I could see my values reflected within business. So I ask: how do you perceive business/free-enterprise/capitalism: an arms race for personal monetary gain? The modern way to help each other arrange our lives to be easier? A tool to choose family outside of permanent relationships? Something?
I entered camp believing that capitalism could only be interpreted one way: one person lining their pockets with wealth taken from their implicitly weaker consumers. Students heard this message told in various forms from at least ten speakers over the three-day camp, and I didn’t see a single person question the attitude. A motivational speaker, also a business leader, changed the tone to using business as a way to give back to the world, another said to create products that actually fulfill some real need. (Well, the latter implied that needs exist for capitalists to exploit them to the customer’s disadvantage.) But each team also had an advisor, and our advisor provided an alternative narrative, sprinkling life advise among business tips. She believes business relationships, ideally maintained over long periods of time, bond disparate people together to create safety and support nets for each other. Our team of seven students were, along with me, exposed to views that business exists to help one another during struggles.
I left camp with a series of frustrating and idealistic “what if” questions. What if corporate leaders worked to restore relationships between humans and between humans and other forms of life instead of break them down? What if we conceived of success not as profit margins but as lives made qualitatively better? What if the needs we identify to create new products came straight from the people at the margins? What if business worked to be accessible (as work or for consumption) to those less fortunate than the American majority? These questions are pointless against the complex gargantuan of capitalism. Perhaps a better question is whether these students, the next generation of business leaders, glimpse beyond the single attitude of money = success in business. If they see other attitudes in which to mentally frame free enterprise, these empowered and privileged students are thus able to begin chain reactions to change our world. What if.