This second profile in our CSRwire series based on the book, Future Makers, is about Maria Emilia Correa – VP of Grupo Nueva. The sociologist, nature lover, environmental activist and business executive from Chile went from environmental activist outsider to ESG promoter insider.
In the beautiful headquarters of Grupo Nueva in Santiago de Chile, we were received by Maria Emilia Correa, vice president and head of social and ecological responsibility.
Grupo Nueva is a holding group for businesses operating in Latin America. It was founded by Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss entrepreneur who has been engaged for years in sustainable economic development in Latin America.
He convinced Maria Emilia that big business is the right place to work for improving the world. His holding group clearly shows how to achieve business management practically in terms of a triple profit: that means financial, social and ecological success. It was on this basis that Maria Emilia's position was created.
Sociology and Activism
Maria Emilia completed a law degree at the end of the 1970s at the University of Bogotá. Even then she was very interested in the social aspects of human coexistence. In 1992 she was asked by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to write a book on “Sustainability and Business in Latin America.” Pleased at the honor of being able to support Latin America on its path towards a sustainable economy and society, Maria Emilia criss-crossed the continent as a consultant over the next few years.
It was during this work that she met Stephan Schmidheiny. She says:
As I read the book Changing Course by Stephan Schmidheiny in 1992, his idea that business could be the driving power for positive change was completely new for me. This thought was completely contrary to the mindset of the conservationists, who saw ‘businesses’ as the enemy. In contrast, inside business, you’re in the right position to implement positive development—even when it’s sometimes difficult.
Thus Maria Emilia, inspired by Schmidheiny’s book, endeavoured to make clear to businesses the power and responsibilities they have in society.
Maria Emilia as Business Critic
Maria Emilia spent five years as the leader of the WBCSD in Colombia. In this function she was able to oppose various developments made by individual businesses directly and critically.
Through this work the chief executive officer of Grupo Nueva, Julio Moura, approached her in 2000 and offered her the newly created position of vice president for environmental and social affairs. She found the transition difficult:
In the years before 2000, I criticized businesses from outside and tried to show them what they could change. And now, suddenly, I sat on the important decision-making body of a corporate group with 11,000 workers and realized how difficult it was to implement many of the best concepts in reality.
Incorporating ESG Into Investment
At Grupo Nueva, Maria Emilia made social and ecological criteria firm components of all investment decisions. She explains:
Every business decision also has a social and ecological dimension. Business doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Managers are trained to think about financial ratios for hours at a time, illuminate them, optimize them, consider the smallest variables involved. At the same time they are making decisions about the living situation of hundreds of families in five seconds, or they don’t question the water, air and soil pollution caused by their choices. With us that’s radically changing.
For example, we hold ourselves voluntarily to the highest European standards in the formaldehyde content of our lumber panels. This standard, which is not required by our markets, costs us $6 million each year, which we have to save somewhere else. Despite this, we are convinced that this is the best decision for our customers and workers. In order to make it good for business too, we try to use such measures for marketing purposes.
Integration Into the Core Business
We wondered how such thoughts were manifested through the core business.
Maria Emilia names as an example a strategic standard that she enacted together with the chief executive: at least 10% of all the sales of Grupo Nueva must be generated by projects that improve the quality of life of their most financially disadvantaged customers. In order to promote the creativity of the employees, these projects must also generate the usual profit yield.
This standard has allowed the creation of many new approaches. For example, the irrigation machine division developed a drip-irrigation system for small farmers in Guatemala. This system was tailored to the local average size of cultivation areas and is therefore only half as expensive as conventional systems.
Because Grupo Nueva also allows farmers access to credit, the irrigation system could be sold in high numbers. On the one hand, this is good for Grupo Nueva’s stockholders, while on the other, water use in Guatemala was sharply reduced and the crop yield of small farmers increased.
Creating such positive changes for all stakeholders allows me to wake up happy every day. Profit is a good thing, if you can initiate good projects with it. As a business, we of course have a final responsibility towards our stockholders. It’s not our money; we can’t simply give it away. Our investments in environmental improvement and social responsibility are, on the one hand, risk management for our business. On the other hand, they are a bet placed on the markets and customer demands developing in this direction.
Bracing for the Future
How can these values be institutionalized so that they will live on? Maria Emilia wonders how much of her hard work would endure if the pressure from her and the executives were to let up. She doesn't know, but since she has striven over decades to order her life and work so that it does not violate her own principles, she was, however, quite sure:
We won’t be in a position to solve today’s problems with the same mode of thinking which created those problems. That’s the reason why it is so important to work with young people and expand their horizons. To show them that all of their activities in business have ecological and social repercussions and that this represents not only a great risk, but also a great opportunity.
More information about Maria Emilia and her work can be found at the following sites:
The VIVA Trust finances the activities of the Avina Foundation and other philanthropic initiatives that strive for the sustainable development of society with a portion of the dividends generated by Grupo Nueva.
Avina: An association of businesses devoted to sustainable development founded by Stephan Schmidheiny in 1992.
Joanna Stefanska Hafenmayer is the Managing Director of “MyImpact”, an organisation focusing on helping leaders to realize meaningful careers through coaching and seminars, as well as assessment tools and publications. An expert in the development of corporate responsible leadership programmes, Joanna is also a member of the Board of “Öbu” – the Swiss think-tank for business and sustainability – and leads the Responsible Corporate Leadership (RECOL) Forum, a group of innovative global enterprises in this area. Prior to 2012, she was a member of Microsoft Switzerland’s Executive Board as their Innovation & Sustainability Officer. Joanna was selected as a First Movers Fellow of the Aspen Institute.
Wolfgang Hafenmayer is the Managing Partner of LGT Venture Philanthropy, with a mission to improve the quality of life of less advantaged people. To realize this mission, Wolfgang built a team of 25 investment managers and philanthropy advisors on five continents to identify and support organizations with outstanding social and environmental impact currently improving the quality of life of 7.9 million less advantaged people. Wolfgang has been an Investment Manager with BonVenture, the first social venture fund in German-speaking Europe, and helped set up Forma Futura, a sustainable asset management company.