20 Feb 2014

Managing the World’s Trouble Spots

Getting businesses to tackle social problems around the globe is mission critical for Bob Goodwin
Re: Sam MacHour (GMP 3); Subra Iyer (GMP 3); Jimmy Park (GMP 3); Steven Layton (GMP 3); Parag Shah (GMP 3)
by Jill Radsken


There’s no problem the business world can’t solve. That’s the thinking of Robert Goodwin (GMP 3, 2008), who believes companies—and the great minds who run them—can find sustainable solutions for humanitarian crises.

“For whatever reason, business resources are not involved in a meaningful way to help with these problems. Somehow this bridge has to be built,” says Goodwin, who until earlier this month was CEO of Executives Without Borders (ExecWB), a sort of facilitator for corporate social responsibility. (Goodwin just announced he is moving into a new role, as director of corporate affairs and philanthropy and executive director of the Mattel Children's Foundation, based in El Segundo, California.) “Business can be the greatest force for good on this planet.”

At ExecWB, Goodwin and his team recruit for-profit partners to reach into developing countries and create basic services and long-term solutions to fundamental problems. In Haiti, a recycling program built to reduce flooding from clogged canals has helped to reduce cholera transmissions and create sustainable jobs. In Brazil, a business consortium is providing a group of proven nonprofits with operational know-how to scale their health and education programs.

Goodwin’s days as a global citizen began in the air force. In his early years as a second lieutenant, during the mid-1990s, he worked in foreign military sales in Saudi Arabia, then in Colombia setting up radar and communication systems used in counter-drug operations. His time in Colombia opened his eyes to widespread poverty.

“I took the time to learn about the people, the environment. I found that people worked with the cartels because they didn’t have other opportunities to support their families, and I realized I was dealing with the symptom of a problem, not the root cause,” he says.

To learn more about the private sector, Goodwin left the air force to work for a multinational company and to prepare for business school. But his path changed course in early 2001 when President George W. Bush’s new administration in the White House appointed him to assist with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s transition team at the Pentagon. After shoring up new leadership, he moved to the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and helped to create the Global Development Alliance, an agency initiative creating public/private partnerships for response to global emergencies.

His work included the planning and delivery of humanitarian aid during the war in Afghanistan—an experience he found both powerful and frustrating. When a US town raised money to donate an ambulance to the Afghan people, for example, his agency initially refused to transport it “because there were virtually no General Motors vehicles there, which meant no spare parts or maintenance available,” Goodwin recalls. Ultimately, politics won out, and the ambulance was shipped, but Goodwin knew it provided no benefit to the Afghan people or the war effort.

“It was an example of good intentions but poor results. Had those good intentions been directed in a different and more sustainable manner, it could have made a big impact,” he says.

Another compelling lesson in good, if misdirected, intentions followed when Goodwin was tapped to help rebuild the Iraqi healthcare system after the fall of Saddam Hussein. After the United Nations headquarters was bombed in Baghdad, most UN officials and nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers fled the country. That left the US military tasked to build schools and clinics, an undertaking that ultimately fell short.

“In my mind it was a conflict of business models—an organization can either kill people and break things, or help people and make things. To do both well is impossible,” he says.

The transitory nature of the US military presence also made it hard to create meaningful relationships with Iraqis, and Goodwin realized the business world and academia had a distinct advantage.

He went back to the Pentagon to try to change the way the military engaged with civilians, then to serve at the White House. In 2007, he retired as an Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary to work for International Aid, a faith-based NGO in Michigan. “My faith is part of what drives me to serve others,” he says.

On a mission to bring safe water to Cambodia, Goodwin realized such basic services needed savvier marketing and better business strategy. While Cambodians happily paid nearly 40 percent of their income for cell phones, they were unwilling to spare dollars for clean water filters. “I’d watch them on a cell phone and drinking water filled with bacteria and parasites,” he says. “For me, it was such a market failure.”

The challenge in Cambodia became the case study Goodwin brought to his GMP classmates at Harvard. “Even though I was a systems thinker, GMP gave me new ways to think about how to align incentives and manage an ecosystem,” he says. “It had me sit back in an environment that’s challenging, asking, Am I following the right strategy?”

The GMP program also exposed Goodwin to remarkable business people, including Sam MacHour, who brought together the original group around the idea of EWB. Goodwin led the effort to turn their concept into reality and the group asked him to take the reins as CEO in 2008. Classmates Subra Iyer and James “Jimmy” Park helped drive EWB’s programs in India and Honduras while Steve Layton and Parag Shah served on the founding board.

The business-minded nonprofit has evolved mightily in its short life, shifting focus from individuals’ involvement to company-wide efforts.

“Originally we were sending people out to projects and then it was, ‘See you later.’ Doing what they did best in their free time seemed too much like work, so we shifted to companies allowing employees to work on company time. We also began working with companies to align efforts to their core human capital and business development strategies so it was not some ad hoc project,” Goodwin says.

ExecWB’s successes have been nothing short of extraordinary. Goodwin encouraged Marriott to build a hotel in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. The hotel—which Goodwin calls both an astute business decision and smart social one—is scheduled to open in 2014.

Another meaningful triumph is Ramase Lajan, a recycling program started in Haiti two years ago to fight water-borne disease. Partnering with a local recycling center, Goodwin and his team helped create 26 centers, each one run by Haitian entrepreneur. The program, which washes and grinds plastic bottles into flakes so they can be turned into fabric in the US, has already collected 70 million bottles. Ramase Lajan currently provides jobs and income for more than 1,500 people daily and has generated more than $460,000 in the local communities.

“One of the first days, I saw a guy bring 40 pounds of plastic, and he got cash on the spot. I asked, ‘What are you going to with this money?’ He said, ‘I’m hungry and I’m going to buy food for my family because they’re hungry too, and I’m going to save some of it so we don’t get hungry again.’”

The man’s response dovetails beautifully with ExecWB’s core philosophy. “It’s not a handout,” Goodwin says. “We’re providing people an opportunity for dignity.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of GMP 3
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