In the days after Donald Trump was elected president, I found myself reaching out to chief executives of several key businesses that Fast Company has covered. The presidential campaign had convinced me that neither party’s candidate, and neither party, had a compelling vision for how our technology-driven culture could both energize our country and include all Americans. What I encouraged of these CEOs was to use their perches to fill that leadership vacuum.
There has long been debate in America about the role of the corporation. Is it a job- and wealth-producing marvel? Or is it a nefarious, rapacious beast? “Corporations aren’t to be trusted,” argues Ian Bremmer, president of global strategy firm Eurasia Group. “The presumption that America supports capitalism has never been true: The number of people who have capital and want to risk it is a tiny fraction. Most Americans just want to be treated fairly.”
What’s clear is that U.S. businesses and business leaders wield tremendous power. How they use that power will help define the future of our world. Some executives believe that the best way to exercise influence is to move into government from the private sector. Others see the spheres of influence within companies as their own points of leverage: The combined annual revenues of the 20 largest American businesses is more than $3 trillion, larger than the gross domestic product of all but four countries. And these companies cross many borders. If you calibrate the number of lives that big U.S. companies touch directly—like Facebook, which has nearly 2 billion people in its user base—they have as much potential for impact as any national official.
So what might business leaders do with that influence? That question is at the heart of our cover story, which explores how executives like Mark Zuckerberg and companies from Airbnb to Uber are grappling with their roles. More and more companies are signing on to Pledge 1%, a commitment to dedicate 1% of their equity, their product, and their employees’ hours to nonprofits. CEOs like Marc Benioff, at fast-growing software provider Salesforce, are actively proselytizing that aligning a business with higher values, rather than solely pursuing maximum dollars, will actually boost financial performance in the long run. “You’ve seen the rise of more activist CEOs who stand for things,” Benioff says, “and represent their employees and their stakeholders in the same way a politician would represent the people who vote for them . . . What is your compound growth rate of good over the lifetime of your company?”
It’s possible that all of this is just a fad, and we’ll go back to a time when delivering profits and dollars to Wall Street is all that matters in the C-suite. But I hope not. Because some of the smartest people in the world run some of the most impressive, highest-impact businesses in the world. If they use those positions for something more than just making money, for making the human condition better across the globe, then anything is possible.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly characterized the combined annual revenues of the 20 largest American businesses. We regret the error.