The Spirit of Capitalism

November 30, 2017
Karim Hutson
Karim Hutson is among a number of HDS alumni making a difference in the business world. / Courtesy photo

For 200 years, HDS graduates have carried an ethic of scholarship and service into their work for religious institutions, nonprofits, schools and universities, and governments around the world. But what about business? Do HDS alumni have an impact in the private sector? The answer today is a resounding “Yes.”

HDS alumni increasingly include leaders in a range of industries such as real estate development, finance, and energy and natural resources. As thoughtful as they are successful, they come to the School to build their knowledge of global religion and to develop skills that make them better leaders, including moral reasoning, pastoral care, and even counseling. Ethical and religiously literate, they want their firms to do well by doing good.

Karim Hutson: The Genesis of Good Communities

Karim HutsonKarim Hutson, MTS ’08, grew up in a church-going Baptist family. He also grew up in neighborhoods badly in need of investment and improvement. As an adult, he merged his passion for religion and theology with a commitment to enhancing the built environment of inner-city communities. The name of the real estate development firm he founded to advance this mission highlights its spiritual inspiration.

Genesis Companies creates aspects of the built environment that can be additive to the community as a whole,” he says. “We try to meet people’s needs—to go into a community and empower it to grow—in a way that is economically sustainable.”

Hutson didn’t start out as a developer. He was well on his way to a promising career in investment banking and private equity when he enrolled at Harvard Business School in 2004, but he says that the work “didn’t necessarily speak to my spirit.” While tending to a full course load at HBS, he decided to “sneak over to the Divinity School” to audit “Introduction to the New Testament,” a class taught by the legendary biblical scholar Helmut Koester. Almost immediately, Hutson was hooked.

“I just fell in love with it,” he says. “I was amazed by how interesting, how exciting, how in-depth the class was.”

The next semester, he got permission from HBS to take classes for credit at the Divinity School. He considered pursuing a joint degree, but he decided against it in order to graduate on time with his Business School cohort. MBA in hand, he returned home to New York City to start Genesis, but continued to take courses at HDS, hopping on the bus early on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and returning late at night. Hutson says that his HDS experience was helpful to him in establishing the values and culture around which he organized his new company.

“I started Genesis to leverage the positives of urban communities in a way that was more effective and made them more whole,” he explains. “I can’t say HDS gave me that impulse, but it helped me nurture it. Today, I see the work we do in real estate and development from a theological standpoint. In terms of principles, Genesis is in many ways affected by my time at Harvard Divinity School.”

At HDS, Hutson also learned practical skills that made him a better leader. He points particularly to his work in Professor Cheryl Giles course on pastoral care and counseling where he learned to listen and communicate in a way that has become the hallmark of Genesis’ reputation and its brand.

“One of the things that we really stand behind is open, honest communication with our stakeholders,” Hutson says. “Professor Giles’ classes were effective in teaching me how to understand, listen, and to talk to people in a way that makes them feel heard and respected. It’s been a huge component of our success—particularly in complex projects with many different voices and interests. Our ability to do that—and the principles on which we stand—were in many ways forged at Harvard Divinity School.”

Today, Genesis partners with local governments, churches, and nonprofits on commercial real estate developments that provide affordable housing and crucial services. He points to a project in New York’s Harlem neighborhood that included a space for mental health care and one for enrichment classes, aptly titled the Hope Center and the Dream Center, respectively.

“We want to create a built environment where folks can feel like they're living in a home that's healthy, that's efficient, and that's affordable also,” he says. “We want to help them to reach their goals.”

Hutson will achieve the goal of which he’s most proud this year when Genesis finishes a massive 28- building rehabilitation project in Harlem. The properties were in disrepair and financially unstable when the company took them over in 2015. Working with the City of New York, local banks, and community organizations, Genesis renovated the buildings without displacing any of the 358 families who live there, without raising their rents, and ensuring that the development would remain affordable for at least another 30 years. Financial savvy and hard work were critical for the project’s success, Hutson says, but the most important element was trust.

“Folks are willing to work with us because they believe that we're going do the right thing in the community, that we're going to take care of the people who live there,” he says. “We get many deals because people believe we're honest brokers.”

The Harlem project is one of many designed to meet the needs of often underserved populations. On another occasion, Genesis partnered with a church in New Jersey on a 64-unit development for senior citizens, some of them previously homeless veterans. Genesis worked with the county government to put a social services office on the ground floor of the building and provide better access for the community.

“It was really fantastic,” he says. “We were able to help a struggling non-profit. We were able to help seniors. And we were able to activate that block and that community by putting an office that was needed in an accessible place. It was a triple win for us on that deal.”

Hutson stresses that Genesis is a for-profit enterprise and will remain so. He says that it can be a challenge to maintain a healthy bottom line, but that part of the company’s mission is to demonstrate that community development work is sustainable and worthy of investment.

“For us to build affordable housing and not to have the ability to sustain and maintain it is really no progress at all,” he says. “It’s an important factor in the work we do. Sometimes there are trade-offs that we have to make to create a product that's going to speak more clearly and more efficiently to the community. It's not always about making the last dollar on every deal.”

For Hutson—as for his fellow HDS alumni making a difference in the private sector—an ethic of service is at the core of all he does.

“HDS opened me up to the meaning of service,” he says. “It helped me understand it and what I believe in a more fulfilling way. It enabled me to see how I could carry my values out into my business and serve other people. To me, that's just as integral a part of my success as whether or not I can run an Excel model.”

Katherine Collins: Sustainable Investing

Katherine CollinsKatherine Collins, MTS ’11, puts environmental, social, and governance factors at the center of investing strategy. As head of sustainable investing at Boston-based Putnam Investments, she helps the firm bring the $170 billion in assets it manages in line with the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investing.

"I want to get every investor thinking about fundamental questions with every decision they make," she says. "What is this company doing that is of real value in the world? If it's doing something worthwhile, is it with an eye to the long term, and in a way that's fair to customers, suppliers, employees, and others? Is the company involved in a good endeavor, one that's useful to the world, responsible in its activities, and not stealing from the future?"

At HDS, Collins developed the ethical foundation she says is essential for investors in an age of globalization, climate change, and widespread mistrust of the financial sector. She says that people, societies, and economies are more connected than ever—and so are the decisions investors make.

“Let’s say you’re writing an algorithm that is supposed to help make more consistent loan decisions,” she explains. “Your algorithm, rightly so, is based on historical data. If you just carry that forward, you may, without understanding it, embed in your decision-making process a lot of bias that actually ends up increasing your risk and amplifying inequities. And because we’re more connected, those effects are amplified in ways that it never has been before. That’s part of what happened when the global economy nearly collapsed 10 years ago.”

Today, Collins says that leading scientists, investors, and technologists understand the need for a clear ethical framework to guide their activity—a development that gives her hope. The challenge is where to find that framework at a time when many of these leaders no longer look to formal religion for guidance on moral dilemmas. She encourages them to follow in her footsteps and come to HDS.

“Formal religions can be exclusive,” she says. “We need to extend their wisdom into more secular contexts that are widely accessible. At HDS, you learn to translate from formal moral frameworks to an applied context without losing the depth. That's a really hard thing to do.”

During her years at the Divinity School, Collins became conscious of the religious and ethical ideas that lay beneath the decisions she made every day as an investor. When she left her position as the head of equity research at Fidelity Investments to enroll in 2009, she thought it would be a stretch to connect her professional interests with her studies. She was surprised to find it was no effort at all.

“The connection was just so obvious,” she says. “It was there day in, day out, in every single text I read, every single conversation I had, and every paper I wrote. This foundational layer, it's already there, but it’s under the surface of where most of us live our professional lives. If you're not attuned to it, you can easily forget that it's there. That’s why, when people ask about my time in divinity school, I tell them the deepest investment work I've ever done was my time at HDS.”

In Professor Francis Fiorenza's course on power, Collins found the basis for the different approaches investors advocate to improve corporate efforts on climate change. She recognized in those who advocate for “fighting it out in the boardroom,” for instance, a belief in bureaucratic power. In those who believe in “voting with their feet”—eschewing firms with subpar environmental policies—she saw a belief in democratic power. Moreover, Collins got a better idea of her own approach.

“For a long time I had been trying to figure out where I stood on these questions,” she says. “I was constantly being asked to pick sides. At HDS, I saw that different investment approaches reflect different philosophies on how power and influence work in different corporate and shareholder settings. All have merit in different circumstances. To me, it’s not an either/or kind of proposition.”

Collins says the type of ethical discernment that goes on at HDS is critical for business leaders today—particularly in the financial sector. In a regulatory environment that is dramatically more complex than it was a generation ago, investors need a moral framework that keeps them on course—and operates independently of a system that is often designed to deal with the last financial crisis, not the next one.

“The regulation we're going to wish we had 10 or 20 years from now is not Dodd-Frank,” she says, speaking of the federal law passed in the wake of the 2008 stock market/real estate crash. “A better regulatory framework is principles-based instead of rules-based. It puts a greater burden on responsibility, as opposed to liability, and is more adaptive over time. You can have 8,000 rules on trading, but to really transform the industry you need investors who are motivated by purpose, and service, and loyalty.”

Jim Hackett: Moral Leadership in Economics

Jim HackettJim Hackett, MTS ’16, stunned friends and colleagues when he decided to step down in 2013 as head of the multibillion dollar Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to enroll at Harvard Divinity School. After a long and successful career during which he led several global energy companies, Hackett wanted to integrate his lifelong passion for the study of theology and ethics with his work in the private sector.

“From compensation-sharing, sustainability, anti-discrimination, and philanthropy to advertising, product and service quality, benefits, hiring, and firing, the business world is loaded with ethical challenges,” he says. “It’s important that business leaders develop a strong moral hierarchy to make better utilitarian decisions as well as those of absolute right and wrong.”

Now an advisor to private equity giant Riverstone Holdings, Hackett says that friends and colleagues approach him more often—and more profoundly—about ethical and spiritual concerns. He credits HDS faculty who helped him clarify and strengthen his own moral framework.

“Professors Michelle Sanchez, Frank Clooney, Catherine Brekus, Healan Gaston, and Associate Dean Emily Click aided me in my quest to learn more about the intersection of capitalism and moral precepts,” he says. “I am grateful to each, and to the professors that educated me in other essential areas of religious understanding at the Divinity School.”

Hackett’s HDS experience inspired him to pass the lessons of moral leadership on to young people considering a career that involves commerce—which includes nearly every profession. As a result, he now teaches “Moral Leadership in Economics” at both Rice University and the University of Texas (UT). The course’s demanding reading lists includes works from German philosopher Max Weber, activist and theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, sociologist Ralph Bella, social ethicist Garry Dorrien, and the late HDS Dean Ronald Theimann.

“My research at the Divinity School, the classes I took, and the readings assigned by my professors helped me to develop this course.” he says. “The experience at HDS gave me confidence to include moral precepts for economic systems from the lens of four different religious traditions. The example set by many of my teachers has helped me be more effective in interacting with undergraduates on moral and religious issues in lengthy, non-defensive class discussions.”

A devoted Catholic who calls himself “hopelessly dependent on prayer,” Hackett says he was also attracted to HDS’s multi-tradition approach to the study of religion. Particularly interested in the ideas and practices of Islam and Hinduism, Hackett today carries the knowledge and wisdom of these traditions into his classes at Rice and UT.

“The courses I teach include Hindu, Judaic, and Muslim moral precepts for economic systems,” he explains. “What you find in investigating most durable cultures and religious traditions is that they speak about ‘virtuous leadership’ in ways that are much more alike than not. That fact should provide confidence to a wide variety of potential—and existing—practitioners of economics who might question whether virtue is an essential ingredient in effective leadership.”

The HDS-business connection runs both ways for Hackett, who thinks the School’s faculty and students can learn a lot from those in the private sector. Just as business people need to keep an eye on ultimate concerns, students of religion can benefit from an understanding of the ways in which the forces of commerce improve living standards for billions of people around the world.

“HDS’s presence in the business community can provide reinforcement that moral philosophy, ethics, and religious and cultural understandings are vital ingredients in secular success in a global work place,” Hackett says. “Reciprocally, the presence of business leaders on the HDS campus can help HDS students to overcome negative stereotypes about the profession and learn more about commerce, which provides support and resources for ministry, academia, government and nonprofits—the career choices of many HDS graduates.”

Hackett says that the stakes of this collaboration couldn’t be higher. The spiritual and the mundane must come together in service to humanity in order for businesses and communities both to thrive.

“I believe the combination of the sacred and secular worlds is one of the most important necessities for humans in the future,” he says. “HDS is trying to play a more central role in discussions about meaning-making and spiritual and religious understandings in all parts of society—including business. All of this is necessary. The world needs the spiritual and secular engines of society to work in concert with each other. It always has needed this, and it always will, if we are to flourish as a species.”

—by Paul Massari