In October, Jeff Bezos stepped to the podium at the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner to deliver a speech befitting a social activist rather than a CEO.
"We shouldn't just look past inequality," he told the crowd of more than 3,500 gathered in support of LGBTQ rights. "We should expose it, understand it, question it and fix it." He exited the stage as the proud recipient of HRC's 2017 National Equality Award.
The award comes at an interesting moment for Bezos, who is about to choose a home for Amazon's $5 billion second headquarters -- one of the most anticipated business decisions in recent history. But with experts and pundits from the business and tech communities abuzz with speculation about which will be the winning city, many are missing the real story.
Some of the cities and states that have emerged as frontrunners in the race to win Amazon's second headquarters are also promoting discriminatory social policies that stand in direct opposition to the values Bezos so eloquently extolled.
In Texas, for example, the governor recently signed a bill that allows faith-based groups working with the state's welfare system to block adoptions to LGBTQ parents. Still, Austin is a strong contender for HQ2.
And, in Georgia, four of the leading Republican candidates for governor have pledged to sign a controversial religious freedom bill, expected to come up for a vote this year, that permits vendors to reject services or employment to LGBTQ people on the basis of religious liberty. Though Democrats may oppose the bill, it still stands a chance of passing if one of these candidates wins. Nonetheless, Atlanta is a favorite for The Everything Store's second headquarters.
As a result, Amazon's HQ2 decision is an opportunity for Bezos to showcase the company's moral integrity. More than that, it marks a pivotal point in the trajectory of corporate America: Are the days of corporations chasing profits while ignoring principles truly behind us?
Over the past decade, there has been a marked shift in the role corporations play in American society. CEOs and executives used to be reticent to take a public stand on social issues.
Then came Starbucks' Howard Schultz, who publicly advocated for same-sex marriage in 2013, and Saleforce's Marc Benioff, who has more recently threatened to leave Georgia over the relentless push by local lawmakers to enact anti-LGBTQ legislation. They spearheaded a new era of corporate citizenship, wherein corporate leaders increasingly serve as arbiters of contentious moral debates.
At their best, they can tip the legislative scales in favor of certain policies. For example, when Indiana passed a religious freedom law in 2015, which, as the backers of the bill in Georgia intend to do, allows local businesses to cite their religion as a defense in denying service to LGBTQ individuals, the CEOs of Angie's List, Anthem and Eli Lilly, among others, banded together in opposition to the bill. They are believed to have played a significant role in getting the law reversed.
At their worst, corporate leaders can spawn public outrage and condemn their companies to perpetual scrutiny. Cautionary tales abound, most recently the ouster of prominent media executives who have been accused of sexual harassment. Others such as Uber have been criticized -- and their companies boycotted, in some cases -- for remaining silent on the issue of gender power dynamics in the workplace.
Amazon has heeded these lessons under the leadership of Bezos. Demonstrating its willingness to step into the trenches on social issues, Amazon fought in 2016 to stop Washington's Proposition I-1515, which would have repealed that state's non-discrimination protections based on gender identity. Joining "Washington Won't Discriminate," a broad coalition united against the proposition, the tech giant helped to defeat the bill.
Bezos can send his strongest message yet on corporate social responsibility by making the right decision on Amazon's HQ2. But he will send the wrong message if he looks past discriminatory laws that could make their way back onto the books in states like Georgia.
What's at stake here is far more important than the bottom line. Bezos has an opportunity to solidify a new course for corporate America -- a moral, principled course where profit is not procured at the expense of people.
"At Amazon," Bezos told the audience at HRC's dinner, "equality is a core value for us, and it's simply right." Now he has a chance to tell -- and show -- the country.
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