As Twitter rants go, Stewart Butterfield’s was epic: a 19-tweet barrage of comments about racial injustice, the Charleston shooting and a “preposterous” Wall Street Journal editorial that declared institutionalized racism “no longer exists” in the United States. “Pretending [racism] doesn’t exist is really hard work,” tweeted Butterfield, the Canadian-born CEO of billion-dollar startup Slack. “And it is dishonest and unfair and cruel work too. It’s its own violence.”
Butterfield’s public rant was unusual for two reasons: First, he’s a CEO, and high-level executives rarely speak out on hot-button issues out of fear they’ll alienate customers. Second, he’s a Canadian CEO—a subcategory even more averse to public grandstanding (unless the issue involves pipelines or the viability of a fourth telecommunications carrier).
While it’s rare to see CEOs here take a public stand (witness the silence of Toronto’s business leaders when the Rob Ford scandals unfolded), a growing number of American executives are stepping into the public spotlight, taking stands on issues like religious freedom, gay marriage and gun control. Here are a few of the latest CEOs who’ve chosen to put their company’s bottom line on the line and talk politics in public:
Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has shown little interest in defending anything but capitalism over the years, but in 2012 he participated in a video produced by Human Rights Campaign in favour of same-sex marriage. A number of other prominent leaders have also spoken out on the issue, including Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who aspires to using his business for a “higher purpose” than just raking in cash (though he’s doing that, too), took a public stand against President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms, describing them as akin to “fascism.” (In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mackey proposed his own, more libertarian alternative.)
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey took part in demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, live-tweeting updates from the protests of the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Canadian CEOs aren’t completely silent. Onex CEO Gerry Shwartz and Indigo CEO Heather Reisman are a rare exception to the rule that Canadian executives must not openly discuss politics: In 2006, the Toronto power couple supported Stephen Harper’s position on the Middle East.
More recently, oil and gas CEOs stepped gingerly around questions from shareholders and media about the NDP’s proposal to review the province’s energy royalty system. In an inteview before the election, Cenovus CEO Brian Ferguson criticized the idea, saying he didn’t think there was “any room for any increase in royalties.” Now that NDP leader Rachel Notley won the election, Ferguson appears to be keeping quiet.
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