Working for workplace religious diversity, equity & inclusion


Business: A powerful force supporting interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace

19 Jul, 2017

Brian Grim, July 23, 2017

Comments to Cumberland Lodge’s Emerging International Leaders Programme on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). The programme equips future leaders and opinion formers with the skills and insight necessary to drive debate, influence policy and build a powerful global network.

I suspect the thought that I am going to share today will be new to some. The thought is simple. It’s that business can be a powerful force supporting interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace.

This is possible because business is at the crossroads of culture, commerce and creativity. Businesses bring people together for a common purpose – be it making a product or providing a service – that transcends cultural and religious identities and unites people in a common enterprise where differences give way to shared purpose.

Let me quote someone who was not especially friendly to religion, that helps make the point. Voltaire observed: “Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the [Muslim], and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts.”

To begin, let’s together watch the first of a number of short videos I’ll show today that demonstrate this social phenomenon where the marketplace brings people together. It’s a video from Lebanon, the only country in the world that celebrates Annunciation Day (March 25) as a national Islamo-Christian holiday. In the marketplace there is neither Jew, nor Muslim nor Christian – these differences fall away.

Of course, this video also demonstrates the powerful force the entertainment, music and film business can have on supporting interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace. Although it wasn’t fully clear, the artist, Tania Kassis, is singing Ave Maria in concert with the adhan أَذَان‎‎, the Muslim call to prayer. Here she is performing the same song in concert.

So, what I will endeavor to do today is argue convincingly that matters of faith and religious liberty are not just in the interests of people of faith, but they are in the interests of everyone in society, including – as I will demonstrate – business. I will also endeavor to demonstrate that business is a powerful force supporting interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace. I will demonstrate these points by looking at several interconnected concepts:

  1.  1) Faith – religious and otherwise – matters to the economy and to business
  2.  2) Business is a powerful force supporting religious liberty, interfaith understanding and peace

1) Faith – religious and otherwise – matters to the economy and to business

Reports of the death of organized religion have been exaggerated. According to recent research my foundation did for the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Religion, the growth of religious populations worldwide is projected to be 23 times larger than the growth of the unreligious between 2010 and 2050.

The research report Changing religion, changing economies has profound implications for the global economy. For example, today seven of the G8 nations have Christian-majority populations. But by 2050 only one of the leading economies is projected to have a majority Christian population – the United States. The other mega economies in 2050 are projected to include a country with a Hindu majority (India), a Muslim majority (Indonesia), and two with exceptionally high levels of religious diversity (China and Japan).

While the impact of more diverse religion is on the rise on a global scale. Faith, itself, is an important element of the global economy. For instance, faith in the economy, as measured by the monthly consumer confidence index, is viewed as a key indicator of the economy’s overall health. But what about religious faith – might it also matter for the economy?

Wells Fargo recently identified four market transformations they expect in 2015. The first three relate to global economic recovery and technology. But the fourth is that business will shift from primarily being about “making money” to being about “doing good”.

Socially responsible business is certainly a theme championed by religious leaders, including Pope Francis, Sojourner’s Jim Wallis, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Recent studies suggest that faith can positively impact the economy through at least two distinct vectors: ethos and engagement.

Ethos of the company

Worldwide, a number of companies adhere to a religious or belief-based ethos. For instance, Sanitarium, the most popular breakfast cereal company in Australia, is owned and operated by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. As a practical demonstration of the Church’s doctrinal dedication to health and well-being, Sanitarium is a South Pacific leader in producing healthy products and in organizing community programmes to encourage healthy lifestyles.

One such Sanitarium programme is their popular nationwide TRYathlons, which inspire children to get moving in a friendly and supportive environment with an emphasis on enjoying the experience as part of an active lifestyle rather than competition.

In fact, breakfast cereals in general have Adventist roots. The parent company of Sanitarium was Sanitas, the original company set up by then-Adventists John Harvey and W.K. Kellogg to manufacture toasted corn flakes as a healthier alternative to the greasy American breakfasts of the day. Yes, and now you know the religious roots of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes!

Another example of a Christian inspiration for its business ethos is Sunshine Nuts in Mozambique. This is an example showing how one Evangelical Christian CEO, motivated by his faith, has started a company in Mozambique that not only stocks the shelves of America’s major food stores – from Giant and Wegmans to Whole Foods and H.E.B. – but empowers tens of thousands of people. His innovative business model is based on what he calls a “reverse tithe” – where 90% of profits go back into the local community. That means many American consumers are participating in a faith endeavor, perhaps unaware.

Such examples are not just limited to the Christian tradition. Some case studies set out in a new book, Practical Wisdom in Management: Business Across Spiritual Traditions, documents the ethos in each of 10 different religious and humanist traditions. These range from the humanism guiding Mondelēz International (formerly Kraft Foods) and the Buddhist influence on Whole Foods, to the Zoroastrian ethos of Tata Group, India’s largest conglomerate with operations on six continents and in more than 80 countries.

Corporate Engagement

Recognizing and drawing on the religiously affiliated identities of employees can help companies successfully navigate challenges and seize new opportunities. A study from the UN Global Compact Business for Peace platform and the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation shows how businesses, often at the initiative of people of faith within companies, can promote interfaith understanding and peace. And it is happening in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Brazil, Israel, the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as in the tense border between India and Pakistan.

In 2013, based on suggestions from employees, the Coca-Cola Company launched a project to promote understanding and dialogue by installing two “small world machines” in New Delhi, India, and Lahore, Pakistan, areas where religious tensions run high. Long separated by a border that has seen a number of wars, Indians and Pakistanis were able to use the machines’ live video feeds and large 3D touch screens to speak to and even “touch” the person on the other side. People on both sides of the border, who had never met before, exchanged peace signs, touched hands and danced together.

While some are skeptical that Coca-Cola’s campaign will have any long-term impact on relations between India and Pakistan, the company believes it is a step in the right direction, and it appears to be selling more of their product.

2) Business is a powerful force supporting religious liberty, interfaith understanding and peace

In September 2013, former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set up the Business for Peace platform to harness the largely untapped potential of businesses to bring peace while they grow their bottom lines. Because businesses are at the crossroads of culture, commerce and creativity, they have the resources and incentive to make the world more peaceful.

That’s the theory, but what about the practice?

A set of case studies published by the UN Global Compact and the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation shows that the theory has some legs. Businesses in various parts of the world are addressing prejudices that feed violent extremism and terrorism. Although no single initiative is a magic bullet to end all such violence, taken together they offer a glimpse into the peacemaking potential of business. The initiatives include:

Using marketing to cross borders: companies can make positive contributions to peace by mobilizing advertising campaigns that bring people of various faiths and backgrounds together, as WE’VE ALREADY seen in Coca-Cola’s Small World campaigns linking people in Pakistan and India through vending machines equipped with live video feeds.

Rewarding intercultural understanding: cross-cultural dialogue and cooperation is an essential part of the daily operations for multinational companies, such as BMW. In collaboration with the UN Alliance of Civilizations, the BMW Group offers an annual award for organizations that create innovative approaches to intercultural understanding, including interfaith understanding and peace. Among organizations that have won this award is a tour company in the Middle East, which offers new ideas to build bridges and bring cultures together through collaborative Muslim-Jewish tourism in the Holy Lands.

Supporting social entrepreneurs: the business environment provides neutral ground for religious differences to give way to shared concerns of enterprise and economic development. For example, Brazilian social entrepreneur Jonathan Berezovsky, through his company, Migraflix, helps immigrants and refugees start enterprises that empower them and show their value to the local community.

Boosting workforce diversity: when businesses are sensitive to the religious and cultural issues around them, they not only make reasonable accommodations for faith in the workplace, but they can also address difficult unmet social needs. Businesses in Indonesia did this by organizing a mass wedding for interfaith couples who had lived without legal status and with no ready means to become legitimately wed. By obtaining legal status, thousands of interfaith couples can now access the public health service, obtain education for their children, and have expanded opportunities for employment.

I should also mention that the businessman behind the initiative is Y.W. Junardy, a Catholic business leader in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

It’s fair to say that the potential of business to support interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace is largely unreported, unstudied and untapped. More research and incentivizing programmes would help change that.

First, we need to have a fuller picture of the range, impact and effectiveness of business initiatives to support interfaith understanding and peace.

And second, we need to increase positive incentivization of “double bottom line” enterprises that do social good and make a profit. Possibilities include giving a higher profile to the global programmes like the Global Business & Interfaith Peace Awards, a partnership initiative between my foundation and the United Nations – in fact, most of the business leaders I’m highlighting today were finalists in our 2016 Awards given out during the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Increasing such knowledge and incentives can inspire and give resources to a new generation of socially conscious business entrepreneurs and peacemakers.

Let me introduce you to several other finalists for the inaugural 2016 Global Business & Interfaith Peace Awards – business leaders from across the global who are advancing interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace. The religious, geographic and business-type diversity of these businesses and leaders shows that the values of interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace have universal appeal.

They are doing this in four general ways: through their (a) core business, (b) social investment and philanthropy, (c) advocacy and public policy engagement, and (d) partnerships and collective action.

(a) Core Business. A company can advance interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace through their core business. This means championing interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace through a company’s core business operations, including internal procedures, human resources hiring practices, training, product/service development, sourcing policies, supply chains, as well as the development of products and services that promote interfaith understanding and peace.

Brittany Underwood, Founder & President of AKOLA in Uganda and the USA is an example.

(b) Social Investment and Philanthropy. A company can advance interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace through social investment and philanthropy. This includes financial and in-kind contributions, and strategic social investment support for NGOs, UN and/or multilateral agencies or directly to affected communities and/or contribution of functional expertise through volunteering efforts.

Fouad M. Makhzoumi | Executive Chairman-CEO, Future Pipe Industries Group Limited, UAE & Lebanon is an example of using his business know-how and resources to erase the conditions that can feed extremism. He’s also been a speaker at the Rimini Meeting nearby.

(c) Advocacy and Public Policy Engagement. A company can advance interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace through advocacy and public policy engagement. This includes fostering social cohesion and inter-group dialogue and relationship-building in the workplace, marketplace and local community.

Kathy Ireland | Founder & President, kathy ireland Worldwide, USA & worldwide (Iraq, Sudan) is an example of how a business leader advances interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace through advocacy and public policy engagement through her support of an NGO as well as direct policy engagement.

(d) Partnerships and Collective Action. A company can advance interfaith understanding, religious liberty and peace through partnerships and collective action. This can be done by joining forces with Governments, UN entities, civil society organizations and/or other businesses to act collectively to promote interfaith understanding and peace and forge long-term partnerships for local or regional economic and sustainable development.

Frank Fredericks | Founder & CEO of Mean Communications, used his communications firm to do just this.

Looking Forward:

In a world that is more interconnected than any time in history, religious and intercultural tensions abound. Religious hostilities are sweeping the globe, disrupting societies and economies. However, there are those who are willing to step up and act as agents of change. During the 2016 Rio Paralympics, global business leaders were honored for their innovative work in addressing this problem. From Israeli tour businesses to Chinese Media companies to large Indonesian conglomerates, business leaders all over the world are doing their part to make the world a safer, stronger, and more open place. Come meet these business men and women and new awardees who are overcoming religious intolerance and discrimination at the 2018 Global Business & Interfaith Peace Symposium and Awards in Seoul, Korea, on March 7-8, held during the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics.

For more information on attending or to nominate a business leader, visit