By: Blakely Blackford.

In March 2015, the Indiana state legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law which opponents argued legalized LGBT discrimination in the name of religious liberty. Ahead of and after its signing, Apple CEO Tim Cook was a voice of dissent. “I have great reverence for religious freedom. As a child, I was baptized in a Baptist church, and faith has always been an important part of my life. I was never taught, nor do I believe, that religion should be used as an excuse to discriminate,” Cook wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post. He went on to say that Apple did not stand for such discriminatory legislation, and he called on other CEOs to take a stand: “Opposing discrimination takes courage. With the lives and dignity of so many people at stake, it’s time for all of us to be courageous.”

Other CEOs spoke out. Marc Benioff, the head of San Francisco-based Salesforce.com, announced in a tweet, “Today we are canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination.” Bill Oesterle, then CEO of Indianapolis-based Angie’s List, cancelled a $40 million expansion project in the state capital. When Indiana modified the law, commentators credited CEO activism as the driving force behind the change. Later that month, Oesterle would step down, claiming, “You have to be a public company CEO or you can go work on political and social issues. You can’t do both.” An increasing number of CEOs and other business leaders disagree.

Almost a year to the day after Indiana’s initial bill was passed, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed into law HB2, short for House Bill 2. The state legislature had called an “emergency session” in reaction to a recently introduced city ordinance preventing businesses in Charlotte from discriminating against LGBT customers, with a provision to allow transgender people to choose public facilities based on the gender with which they identify. HB2’s full name—the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act—belies the full extent of the law, which reaches beyond public facilities to override city and county anti-discrimination policies.

Just days before McCrory signed the bill, he had attended an event where PayPal announced that it would open a global operations center in Charlotte, a project that promised to create 400 permanent jobs for skilled workers. McCrory boasted, “North Carolina is on fire in creating jobs, and Charlotte is leading the way.” Two weeks later, in response to HB2, PayPal CEO Dan Schulman announced that the deal was off the table, stating that the law “perpetuates discrimination and it violates the values and principles that are at the core of PayPal’s mission and culture.”

In April, the NBA announced that it was considering moving next year’s all-star game from Charlotte. Now, Michael Jordan, who as a University of North Carolina freshman made the 1982 NCAA Championship-winning shot and is now the majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets, announced at a May press conference that he may move the NBA team, which Forbes magazine values at $750 million, out of North Carolina entirely. He is giving the state legislature a month to repeal HB2, “or they can expect the Charlotte Hornets to play elsewhere.” Jordan is considering Austin and Seattle, among other progressive cities outside of the state.

Atop billions in lost revenue due to project and event cancellations and to companies and franchises reconsidering their investment in the state, the DOJ has stated that the law is a violation of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX—if not repealed, HB2 will jeopardize over $2 billion in federal funding for public education, including around $1.5 billion for the University of North Carolina.

CEO activism differs from traditional non-market strategy, through which corporations advocate for policies that directly support their business. It also differs from the more recent corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, where companies support environmental and social policies or programs that are good for business and their reputation. Ronnie Chatterji from the Strategy department of the Fuqua School of Business argues that what differentiates CEO activism from these corporate strategies is that it is not a strategy outright. In “Do CEO Activists Make a Difference? Evidence from a Field Experiment,” Chatterji defines this activism as cases in which “corporate leaders (mostly CEOs) speak out on social and environmental issues largely unrelated to their core businesses.” Chatterji uses the case of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Apple’s Tim Cook to parse how CEO activism can alter not only public opinion but also a company’s bottom line.

Chatterji created various introductory prompts to a survey in order to evaluate whether informing respondents about Cook’s activism affected their stance on the Indiana law or their intent to purchase Apple products. He found that providing “Cook’s contention that the religious freedom law legalizes discrimination against gays” reduced support of the legislation by 20%—specifically, 40% of respondents exposed to Cook’s statement marked that they were in support of the law, as opposed to 50% of respondents who were not prompted by the statement. The survey results support the notion that CEO activism, in framing public discourse, is able to shape public opinion and policy. In the case of Tim Cook and Apple, CEO activism also proved good for business. Chatterji found a “higher intent to purchase Apple products among respondents who were exposed to Cook’s CEO activism,” and additionally that the attributed statements did not alter the purchase intent of opponents of same-sex marriage.

In the case of Apple, the singular Fortune 500 company with an openly gay CEO, the positive effect of Cook’s activism on the company image is hardly a surprise. Chatterji contends that “CEO activism’s primary effect is through signaling which side of a public debate CEOs and, by implication, their companies are on.” This is the company that would define itself as a leader in the personal computing space a decade before the iPhone with its “Think different” ad campaign. In the campaign’s debut commercial, the voice of Richard Dreyfuss delivered a peace lover’s call to arms: “Here’s to the Crazy Ones. The misfits. The rebels. […] The round pegs in the square holes,” it began; it closed with a brand-shaping thought, “Because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Alongside society’s thought leaders, celebrities, inventors and creators, a growing number of CEOs think of themselves as these change makers. In the case of Chatterji’s research—an exhaustive study of the potential influence of Cook’s activism not just on public opinion on a law but also, ultimately, on consumer opinion—the benefits of CEO activism far outweigh the costs. Cook’s CEO activism is a brilliant if unintentional “Think different” 2.0. Chatterji underscores that “the benefits and costs of CEO activism will likely vary with the issue, with the nature of the corporate leader’s involvement, and with the elasticity of demand for the company’s products.”

Back to the present case of North Carolina and HB2, an open letter from the Human Rights Campaign and Equality North Carolina denounces the discriminatory legislation. 196 leaders of major U.S. corporations have signed it. Cook is on that list, as is Salesforce.com’s Benioff. It’s alphabetical by name, ending with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. The list of CEOs could serve as a cheat sheet for naming the most innovative, progressive companies—Airbnb, REI, Starbucks, Uber, Whole Foods, companies with .com in their names. Then there are the VC and consulting firms that support the innovators. Less expected are hotel giants, restaurant conglomerates, American Airlines. The CEOs of Citibank, Wells Fargo and Bank of America have all signed the demand to repeal the law. Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein’s name on this list of C-suite round pegs in square holes is evidence enough that CEO activism has spread far beyond the usual suspects.

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