CEOs Push Back on Income Inequality … Finally

JP-Line-DrawingOn page 11 of the July/August issue of Chief Executive magazine, we call attention to a well-thought-through letter that MMI Outdoor CEO David Cobb wrote to Chief Executive about the issue of income inequality. If you believe Bernie Sanders, capitalism itself is at fault, nevermind that in countries where capitalism is not practiced dire poverty is often the societal norm.

Cobb makes the point that education and healthcare systems contribute to the issue by creating “protected oligopolies that do not have to compete openly for their customers.” In education, for example, “poor lifestyle choices and values systems” are partly to blame, as well as “the concept of throwing more federal tax dollars into the public system,” he writes.

Cobb is not alone here. In my conversation with our 2016 Chief Executive of the Year, Randall Stephenson of AT&T, it was evident that this issue bothers him just as much as it does Cobb. The son of an Oklahoma cattle-feed operator, Stephenson hails from a family that was far from wealthy. He worked his way through the University of Oklahoma and “paid my own way.” He says that he looks around his company and finds that most people employed there come from a similar economic background.

“Education and healthcare systems contribute to the issue by creating protected oligopolies that do not have to compete openly for their customers.”

“When I reflect on my own experience I ask, ‘Did I pull the ladder up behind me?’” he asks. “Did I close the door after I got in? No—in fact, I’m working very aggressively to ensure that these opportunities are available to more people. I’m working right now with the University of Oklahoma on something similar to what our company did at Georgia Tech. [Online learning programs that employees do on their own time.] I’m doing this at a personal level. Those opportunities are still there to ensure that these opportunities are available. Those opportunities have not gone away. But there are things we as leaders can do to enhance those opportunities? I want to ensure that the degree that I got at the University of Oklahoma can be obtained by somebody who is not advantaged, especially with government funding of colleges decreasing and with tuition going up.

“Technology is the answer—maybe not to everything—but it’s the answer to a lot of this,” he asserts. “Just as our business model gets disrupted every year by folks like Google and Apple, our educational system, especially our higher educational institutions need to be disrupted or they need to disrupt themselves. Our institutions need to be disrupted to ensure that the next Randall Stephenson has access to the University of Oklahoma to get the education that I got.

Just because state funding went away it doesn’t mean that we need to punt and complain about income inequality. We need to say, ‘Let’s get after it.’”

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