A Force for Good: A Student Reflection on HDS 3092: Ethical Discernment in Business Contexts

March 31, 2020
Audrey Choi
Audrey Choi, chief marketing officer and chief sustainability officer at Morgan Stanley, came to HDS on March 4 to speak as part of Professor John Brown's class on business ethics. / Photo: Michael Naughton, HDS communications

The following personal reflection was written by Chloe Merrell, student at the University of Cambridge. Chloe was awarded the Joseph Hodges Choate Memorial Fellowship, allowing her to study at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2019-20 as a non-degree special student.

Occasionally in life someone crosses your path and inspires you. This is how I felt when Audrey Choi joined our class “Ethical Discernment in Business Contexts” as a guest speaker.

A seemingly unlikely marriage between the Divinity School and the Business School, Professor John Brown’s class is as intriguing as it sounds. Each week we gather as a small group and work to unpick and untangle the complex implications of ethics in business contexts for both organizations and individuals. We refer to case studies, real life examples, and even draw on our own cultural experiences to enrich our discussion.

In previous weeks we had explored corporate strategy formation, how to voice our own personal values particularly when we sense disagreement or that our voice might not be heard, and religion in the workplace under a legal setting.

As chief marketing officer and chief sustainability officer for Morgan Stanley, Audrey was invited to our class to provide her professional insight into the fast-growing world of Environment, Social, and Governance—or "ESG".

ESG represents an umbrella term that encompasses investments that seek positive returns with long-term impact on society, the environment, and the performance of the business. In a way, it is perhaps one of the best examples of how an ethical focus can positively impact capitalism.

Given Audrey’s credentials there is perhaps no one better placed in the industry to offer an insight into how the world of ESG operates. Before Audrey and Professor Brown entered into a dialogue, we first watched her TED talk, “How to make a profit while making a difference.” It was clear to me from the video that Audrey was a natural storyteller, and from the near-two million views on the video, I certainly wasn’t alone in thinking so.

After assessing where best to begin, Audrey decided to share with us her life story as a means of explaining how she arrived at where she is today.

To say it is remarkable would be something of an understatement.

From Harvard to a Fulbright Scholarship, the Washington Post to a White House fellowship and then back to Harvard for an MBA, Audrey kept insisting with humility that happenstance and fortune were responsible for the positive twists and turns that kept on greeting her. But as more of her story unfolded we, as an audience, quickly understood that achieving such breadth in experience is only possible to one that can create opportunities from the situation they are placed in.

The class then shifted into a Q&A session where Audrey answered questions on a variety of topics, including: the future of ESG and where its potential weaknesses lie, how she personally would approach the issue of Harvard and divestment, as well as inquiries relating to her experiences in the workplace as a woman of color. 

From the way Audrey answered her questions, one could see how each of the different roles and jobs Audrey had adopted along her journey all played their hand in contributing to the position she was now in today.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Audrey’s visit was her capacity to speak to us at our level; there was a familiarity about the way she spoke. We are a richly diverse group—it’s one of my favorite things about our classes, knowing that there will always be perspectives or ideas that hadn’t even crossed my mind—and yet she was able to engage with all of us in a way that made us feel comfortable and at ease.

Since our class I have reflected most heavily on this point. Because as much as our class explores the practical aspect on ethics within business contexts, we are also asked at each stage by Professor Brown to introspect and consider who we would like to be in the future when we step into future business roles. What tools and strategies will we personally use? How will we know fundamentally that we are happy with how we choose to live our lives?

With Audrey, not only did I feel that she was someone who, throughout her life, truly believed in the power of sustainability and that business could be harnessed as a force for good to promote a long-term vision, but crucially, that the way to get people to understand your values is to value them, too; to deliver your vision on their terms.

As we wrapped up the class, Audrey took the time to ask each of us about our own backgrounds and why we were taking the class before then taking the time to listen to one-on-one questions.

It’s not all that often you walk out of class feeling inspired, but when you do, you know it’s a moment that will last with you for a long time.