October 29, 2020

The New American Dream: People Come First

Jimmy Chou

We’re about to choose a new president and vote on congressional leaders, but post-pandemic progress depends on all of us. 

I am a first-generation American from Taiwan. My parents, Pam and Dan, moved our family of four to the United States when I was five years old. They came here for the promise of social equality, a good public education, and economic opportunity. They worked hard and those promises were fulfilled. 

As a young reader soaking up American culture, I was obsessed with Choose Your Own Adventure books. So much so that I still use this framework to describe my choices. My parents were the protagonists of an adventure about the American dream. Although we barely spoke English when settling in small-town Virginia, my parents built a business that created opportunities for our family and for others. They chose the risky path and it paid off.  

Recently, I’ve thought a lot about present-day America. Would Pam and Dan choose the same adventure today? The short answer: probably not. 

Choose Your Own Adventure  

This year is unlike any other in our lifetimes. We will remember 2020 as a year of destruction and disappointment. COVID-19 magnified economic and racial inequalities as well as political dallying and divisions. The global economy fell apart in weeks. At the height of the pandemic, we lost over 2,000 lives per day (a disproportionate number of which were brown and black). The weight of systemic inequity that has lasted for centuries exposed America’s structural and social shortcomings for the world to see. 

Technology exacerbated the problem. We’ve spent 10 months in some degree of lockdown, socializing with tools whose algorithms make it far too easy to surround ourselves with like-minded people, narrowing our thinking and polarizing our nation.  

But 2020’s Choose Your Adventure isn’t about politics. It’s about people. And we have choices to make.

Plot Twists and Turns 

Despite the destruction, might 2020 also be remembered as a year of resilience? 

Amidst overwhelming challenges, humanity has risen to the occasion. While imperfect, the U.S. government’s unprecedented fiscal response provided a boost of short-term stability. The Black Lives Matter movement finally attracted more strategic and symbolic support from white Americans. Neighboring families pooled resources to care for and educate their children. And businesses evaluated, pivoted, and transformed at unimaginable speeds.

Choose Your Own Adventures can have up to 44 different endings. It’s going to be a while before we know how this story ends.  

Next week, we’ll make a real-life choice, voting for our next president. As of today, October 29, 78 million people have already voted. That’s already more than 57% of the total votes cast in 2016’s presidential election. The early voting numbers illustrate that Americans—both Republican and Democrat—feel an unprecedented urgency to participate in this modern adventure.  

I’m not qualified to address most of the structural issues we face today. But as a CEO who works in close partnership with many other executives, I think business can—and should—play a bigger role in encouraging and enabling positive change. 

Choose “And” 

To do so, leaders must intentionally accelerate some pre-COVID trends and end some bad business habits. In my mind, that starts with five steps to make business more human. Like the election rhetoric, business often focuses on polarities. All too often, it’s this or that. But in this adventure, we must choose the bridge that connects the two poles. Notice that “and,” then choose it. 

  1. Recognize that enterprises are made of people. Businesses are not static, sterile things. They are composed of people who maintain lives outside of work. COVID debunked the myth of work-life separation. Business leaders need to create space for people to bring their whole selves to work. It’s uncomfortable but necessary. Imagine the second-order impacts of removing the stress of code-switching at work. Work and life. 
  2. Dismantle bureaucratic hierarchies and arbitrary silos. Our current organizational structures are a remnant of 20th-century manufacturing, more concerned with protecting and growing turf than servicing the needs of customers and employees. Today’s digital revolution requires a more fluid organization that brings together a loose network of teams, providing just enough structure to empower them to move quickly with limited friction. Control and empowerment. 
  3. Weave purpose throughout the business. This is so obvious yet so hard. At SingleStone, our founding purpose is to “elevate the human experience in business because it’s good for people and it’s good for business.” While it sounds great, we haven’t succeeded in embedding that purpose into everything we do. We’re actively focused on changing that—as the Patagonias and Ben & Jerrys of the world teach us what’s possible. Purpose and profit.
  4. Do no harm with data. (Thanks to my colleague Vida Williams for this idea.) As artificial intelligence—particularly machine learning—matures, we use data to create new products and services. The problem is that this approach bakes in our existing biases and exacerbates inequalities both inside and outside our organizations. We’re enamored with automation, but in this case, automation speeds up the broken process and reinforces a destructive feedback loop. We must intentionally use data for good, not just for profit. Again, purpose and profit. 
  5. Train the talent of today and tomorrow. Businesses must inspire and support continuous learning not only to keep up but to embed empathy in our products and services. This requires building teams that are both diverse and inclusive. It requires investing this year, even if the results don’t show up in your next annual report. Short-term and long-term. 

The Fork in the Road 

We’re all protagonists in the next chapter of this adventure. As citizens, the most important thing we can do is cast our ballots. The second most important thing we can do is hold our chosen leaders accountable—both for our nation and our businesses. As someone who benefited from the American dream, and as a parent of two young boys, I am vested in creating a nation that gives them the same opportunities my brother and I enjoyed. 

I’d love to hear how you think we can protect and promote a new American dream. Which ending will you select for this Choose Your Own Adventure? Please shoot me a note or leave a comment below. 


Jimmy Chou

Chief Executive Officer & Board Chair
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