Business education must evolve. A faith-based lens can help relocate its purpose

Faith-based investing

The education offered to future business leaders, accountants and financiers is “deeply acultural, secular and exclusive”, writes City University’s Professor Atul K Shah. Faith-based approaches could guide a new model that’s fit for the modern age – one that nourishes trust, respects nature and builds more sustainable economies.

Professor Atul K Shah City University LondonSignificant questions are now being asked about the very purpose of business enterprise, and about the need for sustainable firms and leadership. This means that corporate leaders need to have a long-term mindset and to be concerned not just for their own bottom line, but also for wider society and the environment.

Secular business education – the kind taught in hundreds of business schools around the world, including to undergraduates, postgraduates and executives – only comes so far in that mindset. Even the professional training of accountants and financiers is deeply acultural, secular and exclusive. Top scholars and writers are now beginning to question whether business education is fit for purpose in our present era.

Even the concept of secularism originates from a particular western history and does not apply to all cultures – in many cultures, there is no clear boundary between faith and faithlessness. The Indian philosophy of Dharma is a good example of an inclusive worldview which embraces animals and nature as fundamental to human trusteeship of the planet. Meanwhile, sciences like economics are being classified by some eminent scholars and writers (like Herman Daly, John Cobb and Satish Kumar) as selfish, violent and materialistic, rather than living up to their original claims of universality.

The ‘cultural’ role of finance needs to be made central to its training and education

It is vital that business education transforms its paradigm as the needs of our world evolve. Trust is a key ingredient to sustained success in finance – it is critical to remember that within our broken, transactional society. This is an opportunity for faith-based investments and leaders to have a seat at the executive financial table and a chance for communities to work together towards ambitious societal goals.


Reform and renewal

To understand the roots of faith-based investing, it helps to look back to the roots of faith.

Faith communities have a strong sense of history, meaning and purpose in life. In contrast to mainstream finance, where there is an active denial of death, here, death is accepted and seen as a reminder of the larger goals and meaning of existence. Death is simply not discussed in the calculations of finance which are primarily corporate and made to be impersonal, when, in reality, finance is a deeply personal experience, even for business executives. This ‘cultural’ role of finance needs to be made central to its training and education.

Some faiths, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, are actually un-anthropocentric, making them particularly interesting in the age of the Anthropocene. We now know that of all the species on the planet, humans have done irreversible damage to the ecosystem. Reform and renewal require us to fundamentally change our beliefs and attitudes to nature. Economics has been a big part of the attack on nature, long treated as a resource. Human organisation into communities, as collections of networks and relationships, also demonstrates that for people who belong to faiths, interdependence is not a theory but a lived experience.


Moral compass

This social capital, knowledge and information sharing already brings significant outcomes from investment. Trust means that there is no need for complex contracts or high legal fees; relationships instead grow and flourish in an environment of mutuality and community. Knowledge about markets and opportunities is actively shared within communities, and joint ventures and cooperation also become normalised. Historically, the science and teaching of corporate finance seems counter-intuitive as its primary focus is on competitive financial wealth creation, rather than on sustainable business. Corporate finance has not yet fully recognised the importance of culture and community: it often gives the impression that none of this matters.  

Often business leaders do not exhibit their faith publicly, but it guides their decision making and relationships

In my own research on a variety of global faith communities, including Hindu, Jain, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Zoroastrian and Sikh – what I have found is that for business leaders, faith gives them a strong sense of meaning and purpose, and a conscience which guides their moral actions.

Often leaders do not exhibit this faith publicly, nor impose it on others, but it guides their decision making, the relationships and business culture, and the way they deal with suppliers, customers and employees. It can transform the quality of experience for a variety of stakeholders, and trust is grown and nourished, rather than diminished and destroyed. Elaborate rules and codes of conduct, auditors and lawyers are not needed to police the governance of these businesses. They operate ethically, simply because their leaders feel it is the right way to behave – they bring conscience and public interest to the top of the organisation. It would be interesting to see non-faith-based business leaders also consider their overarching guiding principles, their moral compass. Unfortunately, too many business leaders operate in a transactional way, where their own self-interest comes first – evidence of this is in the significant rise in board remuneration in the last 40 years, which can now be as much as 100 times the salary of the lowest paid worker.


Impact with humility

Among faith-based investors, there is also a very sophisticated understanding of the nature and limits of money, crucial to the operation of long-term impact. Money is seen as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Hindus and Jains worship the goddess Laxmi not just to gain more personal wealth and fortune, but so as to enable their economic success to serve the community better. In their annual ‘Chopda Pujan’ worship gathering, business leaders avow to open new books of account with ethical meaning and purpose, and a heightened duty to serve society. Saraswati, the goddess of arts, ethical wisdom and knowledge, is never far from these ceremonies, and seen as key to long-term progress. When interdependence is understood and embraced, expropriation is instinctively avoided. It is seen as harming the self.

Hindus and Jains worship the goddess Laxmi not just to gain more personal wealth, but so their economic success can serve the community better

This approach to enterprise results in outcomes which are highly impactful to all stakeholders and creates a shared sense of ownership and investment. Impact may not always be ‘measured’ in a social sense, but the nature of the leadership is such that jobs are created and maintained, suppliers and customers are respected, and employees are trained and rewarded such that their entire families can benefit from the income and the stability.

In a similar way, the environment can be protected through a minimisation of waste, and through products and services that are useful and lasting, rather than shoddy and temporary. As such businesses take pride in upholding their reputation, they do not seek to expropriate the customer – win-win is their motto. Faith-based leaders often deliver significant social impact with humility and self-regulation of behaviour. The experience of belonging and community, and the stories and memories of the past through faith and family, mean that culture and meaning survive and grow through such business enterprises.

Given the above, strategies and products designed to leverage the strengths of faith communities will lead to greater social responsibility and more sustainable economies. Such impact investment will enhance trust in society and replenish social capital instead of depleting it. Targeted approaches to education, health and social welfare will have much better outcomes as a result, because they will be sensitive to specific needs and priorities. To ignore faith communities in these times is to damage the very fabric of society that can lift us out of this climate and sustainable development crisis. There is an opportunity for us to work together in a new way. Faith leaders and communities provide us with a unique, untapped opportunity for sustainable development – they can bring long-term purpose, conscience and public interest, and nourish trust and relationships, rather than deplete them.

  • Atul Shah is a professor at the City University of London and the author of several books.

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