Valerie Jarrett calls for evolution and involvement

NRF Retail Converge: The president of the Barack Obama Foundation on economic recovery, social media and activism

It remains a time of challenge for business — but also one of rich possibility and influence.

Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, president of the Barack Obama Foundation, and member of numerous corporate boards, joined NRF Retail Converge to speak about economic recovery, social media and activism within the business community.

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Valerie Jarrett
Valerie Jarrett,
Former Senior Advisor to President Obama

She shared the screen with NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay for the keynote session, “Business in rebound: Lining up opportunities for 2022 and beyond with Valerie Jarrett.”

In 2009, when Jarrett and Shay first met, the country was recovering from a recession and credit crisis. This time around, Shay asked Jarrett to compare and contrast current and past climates, and speak on prospects for recovery.

Amid the impact of the global pandemic, Jarrett said, today’s solutions have to be different from the past tactic of saving the big banks first and understanding the positive ripple effect that would follow.

President Joe Biden’s challenge, she said, was to get money directly into the hands of consumers — as so many had suddenly lost their jobs — and into businesses. Biden has been able to hit the ground running in a way that President Obama was not, she said, because he had worked with so many on his team previously.

But there’s another key difference in the timeframes: Today’s environment is more polarized.

The advent of social media has played a role. “Truth decay, if you will,” she said. “Layered on top of the politics is this sense of, ‘How do you get the actual facts out to the American people, to the American businesses, so that they can make informed decisions about whether their politicians are looking out for their best interests?’”

Social media is in some ways great, she said, because “everybody has a megaphone, everybody can put out whatever they want to say — it democratizes information. But there isn’t a filter as to what’s accurate and what’s not.” It makes the political environment much less safe.

In addition, she said, “the energy tends to be on extremes of the political spectrum, and I think, actually, most people are somewhere in the middle.”

Shay touched on the role that business leaders and the business community overall should play in articulating informed and thoughtful views in this time of extremes; consumers, he said, look to brands to stand for something and express a perspective.

“How do we help ensure the right information is out there for the people that want it on some of these issues?” he asked.

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The younger generation of consumers, Jarrett said, “are much more likely to shop their values” than their older counterparts.

“And that’s a good thing. They pay attention to whether or not businesses are socially responsible. Do they care about the environment? Do they focus on diversity and inclusion? And they make their decisions about not just where to shop, but where to work, based on those core values … of the businesses.” That puts pressure on those businesses, she said, to respond to what the consumer and the workforce desires.

Last summer, social justice and racial equity concerns led many businesses to speak out, “and I know that they were getting positive reinforcement,” she said. “Not everywhere, but by a substantial amount of both their customer and their employment base.”

The challenge to businesses, then, has been, “What can we do better?” Corporate boards are increasingly talking about implicit bias, mentoring opportunities, social responsibility, etc., and activism is on the rise.

That’s not just about being the right thing to do, she said: “People are recognizing that diversity is a strength and a competitive advantage.”

Shay also asked about working with the new administration to build the workforce of the future. Jarrett talked about past collaborations with schools and businesses to teach the precise skills needed. Beyond issues of social justice and race, she said, the business community can have a tremendous impact on closing the skills gap. She felt certain the Biden administration would be happy for suggestions.

“This is what keeps our country strong, is our economy,” she said. “You cannot disconnect the economy from those who are the job creators, and that’s business.”

Watch a clip of Sam's Club President and CEO Kathryn McLay with Deloitte’s Rodney Sides. To view this complete session and more visit NRF Retail Converge.

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