Katie Hyson
Katie Hyson, Director of Thought Leadership for Business Fights Poverty, has over 10 years’ experience in business and social impact, including with multinationals in the finance and telecommunications sectors. She is an award-winning and published thought leader spanning disciplines of business innovation, stakeholder engagement and sustainability. As Director of Thought Leadership at Business Fights Poverty, Katie leads efforts to distil and distribute practical insights to enable businesses to scale their social impact. She holds an MA Environment Politics & Globalisation, King’s College London.

Business Fights Poverty – Building Back Better

Interview with Katie Hyson (Business Fights Poverty) by Katharina Münster

Hello Katie, could you kindly introduce yourself and Business Fights Poverty?

Hi, I’m Katie Hyson. I am the Director of Thought Leadership for Business Fights Poverty. I came to Business Fights Poverty having spent a decade working within bigger businesses, supporting their work to embed sustainability into their core organisations.

Business Fights Poverty was set up 15 years ago by Zahid and Yvette Torres-Rahman as a peer-to-peer support network. It is all about connecting and creating purposeful collaboration. It’s the simple idea, that when you bring together the right people around a shared challenge, with a focus on delivering a valuable output in a clear timeframe, you can create the space for generating powerful insights and deeper relationships.

Since you are working closely with companies, could you give a brief overview of how the pandemic has impacted them?

What we have experienced is that the pandemic has exposed and aggravated already deep-seated inequalities and vulnerabilities.

In the immediate weeks after the pandemic was announced, we partnered with Harvard Kennedy Business School and published the Business Fights Poverty COVID-19 Response Framework. This sets out guidance on how businesses can support the most vulnerable in terms of lives, livelihoods, and learning. We also published an online action mapping tool, which contains over 300 examples of how businesses are responding to the pandemic.

Alongside these, many of the companies and organisations we work with helped to create a series of Action Toolkits – practical resources and easy to use materials to assist businesses in responding to the pandemic – covering important topics such as: How to support vulnerable workers; how to address gender based violence; how to support micro and small business. All of these and more can be found on the Business & COVID-19 Response Centre.

Now, many organisations are moving from rapid response into a rebuild space. A lot of the companies that we are working with are thinking about whether Covid-19 is an opportunity to rebuild better. We have again partnered with Harvard Kennedy Business School and shared the Rebuild Better Framework.

Quote from the Rebuild Better Framework:

We need to start thinking about how to recover and rebuild, because action taken now will have long-lasting effects on people's wellbeing and resilience. This is an effort that must be led by government, but business, along with civil society, has a critical role to play.

I see there are many resources on your platform. Which ones would you most recommend to inclusive business companies?

There are a couple of podcasts I would recommend you taking a listen to which explore practical insights for inclusive business companies. Kathy and Alexis, two members of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – which is a part of the World Bank Group – would be a great starter. They have been researching how to leverage inclusive business models to support the base of the pyramid during Covid-19. You can listen to that here.

In addition, quite early on in the pandemic, I talked with Dominic McVey – he has been working deeply within apparel value chains and talks with firsthand insight about the vulnerability of workers, the challenges of accessing markets and the opportunities digitisation could bring in creating inclusive business. Our conversation can be found here.

There are many more podcasts, toolkits, insights, articles and blogs as well as live events you can join for free. All found on the Business Fights Poverty website. So have a good delve around. If you have a particular interest, the search function is very useful. And if it is not in there, drop me a line, tell me what you are looking for, and I will see if we can help.

In a nutshell, how can inclusive business companies support vulnerable workers during the pandemic?

One of the Action Toolkits we worked on immediately after the pandemic was announced examined how to support vulnerable workers. The Toolkit suggests that we can think about lives, livelihoods, and learning from a vulnerable worker's point of view.

Certainly, an immediate response was around lives: creating a distance between workers, changing shift patterns, hygiene breaks, ensuring everybody has the right information to stay safe.

From a livelihood perspective, the experts we worked with suggested recommendations for bigger companies in slumping sectors: exploring options with suppliers instead of cancelling contracts, repurposing workforce and equipment, and supporting informal workers. In disruptive sectors, it was about making sure that there was rapid cashflow so that value chains did not just completely get broken.

For some value chains, there is a question about whether they will ever come back. So, there is also a question about re-skilling.

You can find the fuller guidance and further resources here.

Street vendor wearing a face mask
Photo by Trungtuyan Cao on Canva

Let`s have a look at your Rebuild Better Framework. The authors suggest that “awareness and willingness to take action towards a fairer and environmentally sustainable future are gaining momentum”. But they also mention a counter current. What is your assessment now, several months after the framework has been published?

As I mentioned before, we teamed up with the brilliant Jane Nelson from Harvard Kennedy Business School on the Rebuild Better Framework. The Framework moves beyond the immediate “respond” phase, and looks at what actions business can take next in the near term to help individuals, enterprises and communities “recover” – to get back on their feet – and ultimately to “rebuild better”.

Several months later, it is hard to say how the bigger businesses will continue to respond. Initially after the pandemic, there were many big public commitments. For many these commitments continue at pace – often without the big news coverage. For others, it is about economic as well as societal survival.

A few people have said to me: At the end of the day, we will be judged by how we stood up and did the right thing during this time of crisis. The companies that did will be rewarded. So, I am hopeful that the values-based businesses will win over.

Zahid and Jane also wrote in the same framework that more and more collaboration was taking place due to the pandemic. Do you think that is something that will survive the pandemic?

The collaboration between organisations, between sectors, between people in different spaces, has superseded anything that we have seen before. I am genuinely hopeful that the UN Sustainable Development Goal number 17 can finally be realized.

Two of the Action Toolkits we worked on explored Rapid Innovation through Partnerships and National Coalitions. The experts that contributed to these and the research that went into them found that collaborations during Covid-19 are unprecedented. In size, scale, rapidity and focus. You can find these toolkits here.

What I would love to see is for the learning and energy from these collaborations to continue. We are continuing on the journey to examine how to ‘rebuild better’ and to create action around this. Our next big programme of events is taking place during UN General Assembly week. I want to invite everybody to join us – our free programme of online events will explore this very topic and others. Find out more and register for free here.

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Do you expect any other long-term consequences of the pandemic on inclusive business?

I do not want to undermine or underestimate the reality of the impact of Covid-19. Things are hard for many people, but I am hopeful. So, my three trends I hope will be a consequence of the pandemic:

  1. The shortening and de-complexing of value chains. I really hope that not knowing where your goods come from or who is in your value chain has been revealed as a massive risk. The benefits of less complex and shorter value chains with a little added resilience will be realised. Technology might help.
  2. Social impact. Human vulnerabilities are a serious commercial vulnerability. If your business does not look after its people, then your business does not really exist. I hope that we do not lose any of that understanding.
  3. Partnering. When we have a focus, we can work together. There are some potentially much bigger societal challenges heading our way – climate change for one. We must work together if we are to find solutions and mitigate the negative effects.

Would you like to add anything?

Be a part of it! Whatever your role is, you can play a part in this. Only together, only by collaborating, only by working across sectors, across borders, can we really make a lasting positive impact. So, I urge you, join us on BusinessFightsPoverty.org.