This is truly the age of CEO activism. More than 180 CEOs wrote a letter earlier today in The New York Times in proclaiming their support for the pro-choice movement amid a series of statewide legislations that restrict access to abortions.
While CEOs aren’t shying away these days from speaking out on controversial issues—guns, climate change, equal rights for LGBT and more, abortion, is a whole other ballgame.
The letter comes at a time when the country is split on subject of abortion—a 2018 Gallup poll found 48% of Americans identifying as pro choice and 48% pro-life. Compare that to 1995, when Gallup found 56% of the country identified as pro choice and just 33% pro life. Taking a stance on abortion in 2019—regardless of which side you fall on—will undoubtedly alienate someone.
How does a CEO make a public statement on a topic when half of the country will object to what you’re saying—and may even boycott your company as a result? Christopher Webb, CEO of ChowNow, a growing online ordering software company for restaurants based in Los Angeles, was one of the 180+ that signed the letter.
For Webb, the decision was all about supporting his employees. ChowNow opened an office in Kansas City, Missouri and, he says, initially there was a decent amount of interest in relocating there among his employees. Once the state signed a law restricting abortions, many of his Los Angeles-based employees did a reversal. He didn’t feel comfortable asking people to move to a state where they felt they had less freedoms.
“For us, we have to stick to our principles…if that comes at a cost, with people boycotting us, so be it. My employees were vocal about this,” says Webb. “My personal view in politics may be different than many of the other people who signed that letter. It may not be as pro-choice as people would assume, but it’s about supporting my employees.”
Webb says CEOs are being asked by their employees to speak out on issues, which is why more are taking the risk. ChowNow’s restaurant customers span 50 states, so while it is based in liberal-leaning Los Angeles, there’s a chance it could alienate customers in more conservative parts of America. He isn’t sure what’s going to happen with regards to fallout from this letter, but he is prepared to deal with whatever happens.
While some CEOs like Disney CEO Bob Iger have said they may actually shy away from abortion-restrictive states because of employee concerns, that’s not the case for ChowNow. Webb says he’s not closing the office and he signed a long-term lease to stay in Missouri. But he does say the office may not be as big as he would have liked because of people not wanting to relocate there.
The irony, he says, is that Missouri courted ChowNow hard to open the office in Kansas City, only to see their effort undermined by the legislature. “Many of the states [with these laws] are struggling to create jobs and they are really going out of their way to court companies in California and Los Angeles,” he says. “If you want us to come, we have to bring our values and principles. We appreciate diversity of thought…but you can’t get our investment without getting our principles.”
His advice for CEOs speaking out on a controversial issue? Honesty and transparency are more important than keeping quiet. “Not everyone is going to agree with you, but as long as you stay by your principles, I don’t see the harm of being honest,” he says. “Share what you believe, the rest will fall in place.”