Recently, the editors of UVA Today asked me to participate in “On Words,” an occasional series in which faculty members write about evocative words and phrases. Naturally, I chose “commerce.”
Surprising as it may be for a sitting dean to say, I do not believe that everyone needs to go to college to be successful. Rather, all members of our society should have access to skill acquisition that creates equal access to engage in the workforce, and thus commerce. There is dignity in working and those who exchange their labor for compensation should receive a living wage. The grand experiment that is America needs to be reimagined in a way that provides all members of our country access to a life with enough economic security that families can not merely survive, but thrive. My personal story of being one generation removed from poverty illustrates this.
In the last year, I have heard the word “commerce” more times than I can count; every phone call, every meeting, even at home. But I keep coming back to a singular meaning. “Commerce” is the purposeful exchange of goods, services and ideas to strengthen and advance society.
While commerce can be limited to a single transaction, I take a broader view: commerce considers the whole philosophy of exchange. Rooted in an examination of fair and reciprocal trade, commerce often functions as the framework through which countries and communities work to balance economic growth, create job opportunities, provide beneficial goods and services, and, most importantly, improve the standard of living. At the same time, greed and corruption have propelled the construction of systems that run counter to the purposeful framework of exchange; systems that have resulted in the exploitation of people, societies and the environment.
The paradigms that have been created to execute commerce have resulted in both life-affirming and gainsaying outcomes, sometimes simultaneously. When I consider commerce in the United States, it is inextricably linked to free enterprise where there is economic freedom, competition, equal opportunity, binding contracts, property rights, profit motive and limited government. Any time even one of these qualities is undermined, commerce can become a conduit for the exploitation of some in exchange for the economic benefit of others.
The clear and pressing challenge that we face as a society is to address past, current and future barriers that obscure one or more of these qualities for members of the citizenry. This includes the grim reality that, according to the Pew Economics Mobility Project, children born to families in the top quintile of incomes are more than two times as likely to remain at the top than a poor child is to ascend into the middle class. When we look at statistics like this, we must admit that we have constructed a paradoxical system that comes nowhere close to providing equal opportunity through commerce.
Growing up in a family that was one generation removed from poverty, I am of the firm belief that home ownership, food security and access to health care were the main drivers that propelled my three siblings and me into college and subsequent economic mobility. My cousins who did not fare as well were not simply less hardworking. Rather, it was much easier for me to be a good student when I did not have to endure daily challenges surrounding my basic needs.
Engaging in commerce was not frictionless for my parents, but as first-generation college students and my mother’s status as a veteran, they were able to navigate barriers that others were not. When it came to college, my parents were able to bridge both the financial and information gap for me that enabled me to finish undergrad in four years, debt free.
Living in a rented room with their parents in a boarding house, having to share a kitchen with other families, and facing homelessness on a monthly basis made it nearly impossible for many of my relatives to fully engage in the educational process. Their parents’ inability to gain footing in an economic system that is more challenging for the working poor hindered their chances of educational and economic success.
How do we become a society where the socio-economics of your parents are not deterministic of one’s outcomes? That is the grand challenge that new and better constructs of commerce can fundamentally address. Careful and conscious transactions have the power to create a marketplace that transforms the system as we know it – one that stands strong against greed and amoral exploitations, while removing barriers and opening up opportunities. If we can explore a system in which moral and meaningful exchange is paramount, our collective society will thrive, as individuals will be empowered to access the benefits of commerce fully and with dignity. Similarly, if we can educate and empower business leaders who recognize their ability to use commerce for the common good at every turn, then I believe commerce can become the force multiplier for the advancement of the intersection of business and society.
One thing is certain: when everything we know is upended, commerce continues. I believe it has the potential to be a very stabilizing force that can move a society, and a democracy, forward. Progress – through commerce – has come from challenging the status quo; from generating and exploring new markets, new products and new ideas; and allowing consumers to vote with their dollar. Very recent history shows us how commerce can be a catalyst for making great strides toward the common good. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, grocery stores remained open and stocked, companies facilitated the ramp-up in manufacturing of PPE and testing materials, and science and pharma converged to enable the vaccine discovery.
Consider this power. So often, we talk about commerce as a potential pathway to achieving a goal or an outcome, but stop and ask yourself: What if commerce is not only the way to something, but also the way through?