2006 Christian Business Conference

On February 17-18, 2006, the Yale School of Management’s Christian Fellowship Club, in partnership with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, hosted the inaugural Christian Business Conference at the Omni Hotel in New Haven, Connecticut.

The conference, aimed at MBA students and entitled “Faith & Ethics in the Workplace,” focused on the role of ethics and accountability in corporate leadership. There were approximately seventy-five MBA students in attendance, not only from Yale, but also from other prominent programs including Chicago, Duke, Harvard, MIT, Pennsylvania and Virginia. There was also an impressive degree of diversity along racial, ethnic and gender lines. In addition to the Center’s own David Miller, the students were addressed by six senior corporate executives: David Dunkel, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of KForce, Inc; Henry “Hank” Higdon, Founder and Managing Partner of Higdon Partners LLC; Dennis E. Pemberton, Jr., Chairman and CEO of Global Asset Alternatives LLC; Jill M. Pemberton, Director of Finance, Airport Customer Service/ Air Logistics Divisions, for Delta Air Lines; Craig E. Philip, President and CEO of Ingram Barge Company; and Harri Sundvik, Managing Director of Nordic Investment Banking at J.P. Morgan- London. 

Demonstrating their enthusiastic support for the conference, School of Management dean Joel Podolny opened Friday’s events and Divinity School dean Harold Attridge commenced Saturday’s. Podolny noted that corporate accountability is strengthened when one is able to avoid disassociating oneself from that which one holds to be most important, and that often includes one’s faith. Applauding the MBA students’ interest in matters of faith, Attridge pledged the Divinity School’s continued support to joint ventures such as these.

Husband and wife Dennis and Jill Pemberton spoke first. Though they discussed several issues, including how their faith has enabled them to respond to racism in the marketplace, both focused on the relationship between faith and moral decision-making on the job. They noted that they both feel compelled to make moral decisions based upon their faith and that this was their primary way of closing the Sunday-Monday gap. David Dunkel continued the theme of faith-based morality, arguing that organizations must set the correct “tone at the top.” In particular, he noted that in terms of executive compensation, what is most important is not how much is earned, but how earnings are spent. As such, he argued that persons of wealth cannot ignore or forget their charitable responsibilities. Hank Higdon underscored a theme highlighted by Dunkel: the importance of trust. Higdon pointed out that despite the various temptations and fears that a corporate leader must face, giving in to them reflects a lack of trust in a higher power’s ability to overcome them- something that should be anathema to a person of faith. 

Like the other speakers, Philip was quick to point out the importance of faith in making moral decisions. Adopting the sports metaphor of “muscle memory,” Philip emphasized that it is important to practice one’s faith on daily matters of seeming insignificance so that one is prepared at “game time,” or times of great trial. Philip also argued that the best corporate culture is modeled after a family. Like families, corporations can suffer from the same problems and dysfunction. However, if, like a family, an organization ensures trust, fairness, fun and security, then it will create and sustain a desirable work environment for all employees. Harri Sundvik echoed Philip’s sentiment about muscle memory, noting that one needs to be committed to principles early in one’s career, long before the strenuous tests of the business world arrive. Using several cases to illustrate his ideas, Sundvik stressed the need for transparency. And he reminded his audience that transparency, whether one wishes it or not, often extends outside the office.

Drawing the previous presentations together, David Miller concluded with a discussion of what he calls “spheres of integration.” He argued that people of faith often integrate their faith into their work in one of four ways: by their ethics, by experiencing their work as a calling rather than simply a job, by practicing spiritual disciplines to enrich the faith that they see tied to their work and by evangelizing. While several of the speakers clearly fit into one sphere or another, the challenge for all- speakers and students- is to move out of one’s primary sphere and enter into others, hopefully developing a more comprehensive unity of faith and work.

Throughout the conference, there was a spirit of openness to discuss what are often divisive topics; a general hunger to learn from each other and the executives; a willingness to be challenged and to gros; and a desire to live a life of faithfulness and effectiveness in and through the marketplace. One sensed that the executives came away as moved and as enthusiastic as the students. Indeed, David Dunkel concluded his address with the following: “I think this has been a fantastic start. But it is a start. I think you need to think bigger. I challenge you to go from 75 attendees this weekend to 5,000 in five years!”