Leadership at eBay: Corporate Social Responsibility Through Entrepreneurial Thought and Action
By Cheryl Kiser, managing director of the Lewis Initiative at Babson College
I’ve noticed something surprising in working with executives who possess both exceptional business acumen and a desire to be great corporate citizens: They generally think and act like entrepreneurs.
Consider Robert Chatwani as a case in point. Chatwani is co-founder of eBay’s WorldofGood.com, a marketplace for socially and environmentally responsible shopping. Last fall, Chatwani was appointed director of global citizenship at eBay, which put him in charge of the five signature programs in eBay’s global citizenship portfolio:
- World of Good.com by eBay
- eBay Giving Works, a cause-related marketing platform where sellers and buyers can use their transactions on eBay to benefit charities. There are 21,000 nonprofits in this program, and in 2009 more than $55 million was raised for nonprofits.
- MicroPlace, a micro-finance platform. MicroPlace helps alleviate global poverty by enabling everyday people to make investments in the world’s working poor, with as little as $20.
- eBay Green Team, an online community of hundreds of thousands of members who are engaged on topics of buying, selling, and thinking about green and sustainability.
- eBay Foundation, the first corporate foundation started with pre-IPO eBay stock.
Across his career, Chatwani’s focus has been on understanding how ideas originate, get implemented, and grow. Since his promotion, he also has been intent on ensuring that the five programs listed above achieve scale. In a recent interview, Chatwani described several lessons he has learned in his career thus far about starting corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives inside a large for-profit enterprise:
Think big and don’t limit your idea. In the summer of 2003, Chatwani was a San Francisco-based eBay employee traveling in Western India. In striking up conversations with local artisans in the area, he repeatedly heard the same story: We need more shoppers like you and greater access to markets. We would be able to create so much more opportunity for ourselves, our families, our communities, if we just had more people buying our goods.
As a result, he began thinking to himself: What if there were a way to link these talented artisans—and thousands more like them—with the millions of shoppers back home who buy $55 billion worth of mass-produced, factory-made products every year? Chatwani’s question might have been simple, but it wasn’t small. After all, it was about economic development, and creating market access for the world’s entrepreneurs.
Wondering with whom he should talk, he picked up the phone early on and called The World Bank. Eventually he got to a senior director who told Chatwani that his timing could not have been more perfect because The World Bank had been looking for ways to create more market demand for artisans and producers throughout the world. Various teams at The World Bank had expertise in economic development, and were experts in identifying supply from global producer groups. Shortly after that initial call, eBay began working with The World Bank to develop plans for greater market access for international producer groups.
Test the opportunity—while also discovering whether there are people willing to help you implement it. Prior to formalizing their operational plan, Chatwani and his team had conversations with more than 125 industry organizations and target consumer groups to understand the landscape, gain new knowledge, and discover opportunities. They also learned as much as they could about how to adapt eBay’s core business to their new market.
Chatwani also identified and tried to motivate internal champions. He started looking around the organization for individuals who were willing to support his team with resources. Working informally, he and his team inspired others within the organization to lend capital, ideas, and technology support that helped ensure forward progress. In creating new unfunded innovative ideas, Chatwani said, it is important to mobilize people within your organization who are willing to do whatever it takes to make a good idea happen.
Stay authentic by continually asking yourself three questions: Who am I? What do I know? and Whom do I know? Entrepreneurial research shows that successful startup founders habitually ask these three questions because they trust a simple insight: When you know what you are good at, then it is then easier to understand what you need from partners. In a world of widely distributed expertise and knowledge, companies can’t simply afford to rely on their research and resources.
Chatwani, like the entrepreneur described by researchers, focuses on knowing what external information to bring inside and what internal information needed to be shared outside the company. This logic facilitates a mindset of open innovation. In fact, eBay would not have successful citizenship programs were it not for the deep partnerships that have been built with external organizations, according to Chatwani.
Understanding what he doesn’t know is critical for selecting external partners, but also for developing a high performance team. When building initiatives, he really looks widely across the organization, even rewriting traditional corporate structures. For instance, cross-functional teams are critical because they allow employees to have the space and time to experiment and innovate. Plus, they break down the traditional notion of where teams were supposed to reside, he says.
Achieve the right “intrapreneurial balance.” When creating new ventures within a large organization, it was important to be part of but separate enough from the core business. This creates space for innovation, said Chatwani, but also lays the groundwork for the new initiatives to be absorbed into the business to achieve scale.
If you get the balance right, the development of new social enterprises within the company can flourish. The balancing act has to be managed in two areas:
- Trial-and-error strategy with rigor and discipline
- Really understand your customers to identify their needs
- Iterate quickly and build prototypes to test assumptions about your business model
- Use both financial and social impact milestones to measure progress
- Operate with something old plus something new
- Source experienced talent from within the company, and blend them with ideas from new talent from the outside
- Don’t re-create the wheel—leverage as many internal resources and technologies as possible
As I concluded my interview with Chatwani, I reflected on my many experiences and conversations with individuals creating and leading corporate citizenship programs. I thought about the many constraints they encountered while trying to create the impactful programming that Chatwani set in motion at eBay. In the past, I would counsel people on how best to communicate impact, align with strategy, enroll others, and do the “right things” to convince others of their ideas.
These actions are still important, no doubt. But, I now think what might be more vital is to set in motion an entrepreneurial process that begins with bold thinking, experimentation, and reflective action.