Christine Bader '93: Unearthing Her Heart for Corporate Idealism
Issue   |   Thu, 10/19/2017 - 23:46
Photo courtesy of Ryan Lash
Christine Bader ’93 is a sought-after writer and speaker, having given talks at the CECP 2014 Summit, 2014 TED@NYC event and 2015 Duke Sustainable Business and Social Impact Conference.

Christine Bader ’93 is a corporate idealist. Though she’s seen the best and the worst at the world’s largest corporations, including e-commerce company Amazon and oil and gas company BP, she believes that big companies can be “a force for good.”

For the last 20 years, Bader has developed expertise in corporate responsibility, helping big companies realize their impacts on the world and creating policies to mitigate the negatives and enhance the positives. But she traces much of her legacy back to Amherst, where she developed leadership and love of community-building and grounded her passion for writing.

Early Interests
Bader grew up in Manhattan and attended Hunter College High School. Though tennis was a large part of her childhood, her inner writer began to stir at the age of eight when she received a diary from her uncle.

As a high school student, she had assumed she would attend Yale, her father’s alma mater, until she visited Amherst for the first time.

“I just fell in love with it on the spot,” she said. “I loved the environment, I loved the people. … I think the strong sense of community — being in a small community and a liberal arts emphasis — was right for me.”

At Amherst, she majored in American Studies. Professors such as Robert Townsend and Barry O’Connell pushed her ability to read and write. She remembers writing all the time — for papers, essays, The Amherst Student and more.

Though she played tennis in her first year, she later quit to join rugby year-round. Being among a strong group of women and later leading them as club president, she said, was incredibly powerful.

Her senior year, she started off writing a thesis on memory of the Civil War in American painting. During fall break, however, she realized she was much more excited about working on a paper for a different seminar on Asian-American history, specifically that of the Philippines. Though her mother is Filipino and had immigrated to the United States before meeting Bader’s father, Bader had never learned about the history or culture of the Philippines. Studying the Philippines for the first time gave her a motivation and energy she knew she wanted to pursue.

After fall break, she informed her thesis advisor that she wanted to change the topic of her thesis completely — to stories of Filipino-American businesswomen in the U.S.

“The reason my thesis focused on Filipino-American businesswomen was I felt there was a gap in the stories told about Filipino immigration,” Bader said. “[Existing literature] didn’t make any gender distinctions or they were about Filipino-American women working in the service industry, working as maids or nurses.”

Bader included her mother as an interviewee, and the thesis ended up “being a much more personal and powerful writing experience, which in retrospect I realized is part of what set into my book experience more than 20 years later.”

The Path to Corporate Idealism
Post-graduation, Bader spent a year working in underserved public schools through nonprofit City Year before completing a teaching fellowship at Phillips Academy Andover to help the school develop its community service program and coach squash.

Afterward, she returned to New York City and was placed in the mayor’s chief of staff office through the New York Urban Fellows Program. Serving with Rudy Giuliani’s chief of staff during his first term as mayor, she said she enjoyed the work so much that she stayed on for another year as special assistant to a deputy mayor.

“At that point, I started thinking like a liberal arts graduate that it might be time for grad school,” she said. She decided to pursue an MBA at Yale, which “felt a lot like Amherst to me in that people were really asking why … and thinking really broadly about the role of business in the broader society.”

After receiving her MBA in 2000, she joined BP, formerly British Petroleum. The company sent her to Indonesia, China and the U.K., where she focused on the social and community impact of BP’s major projects, “trying to make sure that BP’s presence was a good thing, not just for the company but also for the local communities living around BP’s operations,” she said.

In London, she met her now-husband, whom she married in 2007. The two moved back to New York, and though Bader was still working for BP at the time, she joined the United Nations in a part-time pro bono role as adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative John Ruggie for business and human rights.

Ruggie was charged with articulating standards for corporate responsibility for human rights, and Bader pitched this to her boss at BP, investing about a third of her time in this new role before leaving BP in 2008 to take up the U.N. position full-time.

“It’s government’s job to regulate and realize human rights — companies certainly cannot interfere with these rights,” Bader said. Companies, however, can and should play a positive role in upholding these rights — ensuring their employment practices are fair and hiring locally whenever possible.

With Ruggie, Bader made consultations with human rights NGOs, governments, regulators and indigenous peoples communities to “find common ground in recognizing that companies have enormous positive impact in terms of bringing wealth and development, but they can also have negative impacts, which need to be mitigated.”

Then, in 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred.

Reexamining Corporate Responsibility
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded while drilling for BP in an oil field. The explosion killed 11 workers, injured 17 others and sunk the rig. It also created a massive offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, considered the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. BP was convicted of manslaughter and environmental felonies and paid a record $4 billion in fines.

Bader was crushed. She’d spent nine years at BP thinking that “the work I was doing on corporate responsibility really aligned with the business.” Now, BP was accused of negligence of both human rights and environmental safety.

The disaster and the “horrible BP that emerged” forced her to take a cold, hard look back at her time at BP. At the same time, however, she sought out friends and peers and used her “Amherst-inculcated writing to think and reflect and explore and analyze and come back around to, ‘Yeah, actually, I think business can be a force of good.’”

This period of reexamination led her to look back at the writing she’d compiled while working at BP. When she first moved to Indonesia, she’d written emails to friends and family every couple of months detailing her work and life. Over years of travel with the U.N. and BP, she’d amassed bits and pieces, and a few people told her, “You should totally turn this into a book.”

The public narrative is that companies are full of “evil, greedy people,” she said, but “there’s this amazing army of idealists inside the biggest companies who have a story to be told.”

“I wanted to tell that story,” she added. “That’s what inspired me to write my book.”

After finishing her work with the U.N., she put together a book proposal, got an agent — Jim Levine ’63 — and sold the proposal right before she had her twin children — a boy and a girl — in September 2012.

She spent 2013 writing the book and tested some of the material in a seminar she was co-teaching at Columbia. The book, titled “The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil,” was published in March 2014.

“It’s not a tell-all,” she said. “I was honestly trying to convey what my experience was in this company.”

Soon after the book’s publication, numerous people in the field of corporate responsibility reached out to thank her “for putting out a more nuanced account of life inside a company.”

Being a Force for Good
From 2015 to 2017, Bader worked as director of social responsibility at Amazon and led a responsible sourcing program to ensure affiliated supply chains for Amazon branding products were properly paying and treating their workers. She left the company this past May to spend more time with her kids, who just turned five.

To Ron Lieber ’93, Bader’s classmate and friend, Bader isn’t afraid to dive deep, and she doesn’t shy away from “some of the thorniest problems in business, with all their attendant messiness,” he wrote in an email interview. With Amazon, for example, Bader leapt in, trying to be a “force for good at an enterprise that is still trying to form some values outside of ‘Let’s make things as cheap and easy as possible for customers,’” Lieber said.

“I don’t know anybody with that unique combination of intense business smarts and a relentless desire to do the right thing,” he added.

Becky Wilusz ’93, Bader’s rugby teammate and friend, said Bader is one of the most down-to-earth people one will ever meet, even with her numerous accomplishments over the years.

“There can be a culture around self-importance, … especially as you start to move up in leadership and organizations, but she’s too real of a person to fall for that trap,” she said. “She’s the best at enrolling people in what she loves … because she gets to know them and wants them to be a part of what she’s doing and understand who they are.”

Intersections of the Past, Present and Future
When Bader looks back at her past, she said, there are a number of things that “are surprisingly consistent in how I’ve been,” she said. “I still carry a lot of that with me — my desire to support, to inspire, to cheerlead, to motivate.”

Running through the thread of her life has been a strong foundation in writing, which developed while she was at Amherst. “Just in the past say 10 years, as I’ve started writing lots of op-eds and writing my book, that’s when I’ve really appreciated the grounding that I had at Amherst and it’s really helped me find my voice now,” she said. “I think through writing I process ideas and I communicate my thoughts to the world through writing.”

Though the exact picture of her future is unclear, Bader said she is constantly reflecting on how her skills, experiences and passions, including her lifelong desire to build communities and share people’s stories, can contribute to what is needed today.

“I do hope for myself and for everybody else, for my fellow members of the class of ’93 who are coming out for their 25th reunion — that all of us are figuring out what work is ours to do,” she said. “To make sure we’re exactly in the right place. The world needs all of us to be our best selves, to be using our strengths and our skills and our passions, and fully aware of and embracing what those strengths and passions are.”