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A rag picker scours a garbage dump for recyclable materials on the outskirts of Jammu, India, in March 2012. A recent study estimates that there are 1.5 million waste pickers in India alone. (Channi Anand/AP)

The Political Is Personal

Corporate Leaders, Meet the Little Guy

Lindsay Levin founded Leaders’ Quests to bring CEOs face to face with the developing world. Now her new book tells how corporate titans were changed by these one-on-one encounters.

What if CEOs and executives from the world’s most influential companies were brought face to face with the people most deeply affected by their work—those at the bottom of the supply chain? In 2001, as entrepreneur and CEO of an automobile dealer and service chain, Lindsay Levin refocused her work around bridging what she saw as a binary divide between the business and nonprofit sectors. She launched an endeavor called Leaders’ Quest, which aimed to close that gap by curating on-the-ground experiences for leaders to review the impact of their work more closely and interact with those whom it affects most deeply.

Now, 12 years later, in Invisible Giants: Changing the World One Step at a Time, Levin has succinctly chronicled more than a decade of bringing together some of the most disparate socioeconomic groups. It all began on a trip to Ethiopia, where Levin and her husband went on a site visit with Oxfam in Addis Ababa. As she sat in the hut of an Ethiopian bread maker—a single, impoverished mother of two—Levin writes, her “situation felt to me like the absolute certainty of uncertainty, a deep and apparently unbreakable cycle of poverty.” Levin calls this encounter the “single moment that fixed the core of Leaders’ Quest.” From there, she gathered partners and began organizing expeditions for leaders across the business and development world to delve into the major issues facing their sectors.

“So often, whether between business and NGOs, people with different political perspectives, or in the Middle East, I’d witnessed one set of voices shouting down another, as if success for one section of society required defeat for the other,” Levin writes.

Uniting them with a stark jolt of reality is the "quest," which comes in such varied forms as taking a technology company to visit the thousands who work and live in India’s garbage dumps or bringing financial leaders to answer questions about the global economic collapse posed by farmers in rural Kenya. With the hope of putting a face and location on social and environmental responsibility, global leaders are exposed to the bottom of their supply chains. On one trip, Levin takes a group of Chinese investors to visit migrant workers, who put on a tragic performance, acting out their lives in mime. “That day changed us. It changed our business,” a CEO told her after. “It forced us to look at our priorities differently.”

Levin describes these participants as invisible giants: “people who emerge to lead in the most vulnerable situations, inspiring energy and confidence in those around them.” She highlights a few particularly interesting ones, while mentioning many more. But the most powerful scenes come from encounters with wise and relentless local community leaders, as well as with marginalized characters who, despite their situations, refuse to sink into despondency.

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The business leaders aren't the only ones benefiting from the encounters. A few years into Leaders’ Quest, a participant in India asks what Levin can leave behind, and the organization morphs to include a fellowship—aiding promising local leaders from all walks of life to take on community projects. “They’d observed the difference a quest could make for participants, most of whom were influential people,” she writes. “Now they wanted to help us do the same for undiscovered leaders.”

Filled with detailed personal encounters, Levin’s work reads smoothly, almost like a travel memoir, and avoids the trap of being overly rosy or boastful. The development industry brings with it a range of uncomfortable situations and hard-to-interpret emotions, which Levin doesn’t shy away from exploring. At one point, while meeting Nigerian women who benefited from a loan program, Levin describes her own inner discomfort eloquently. “I felt shame for the yawning gap between us, rage at the inequity of it all, and fear at the precariousness of life,” she writes.

The story it has its arc of triumphs and struggles, and the self-realization that true progress can’t emerge without long-term, post-Quest commitment on the part of participants. One wish: that the book would take more time examining the specific collaborations or programs forged via these new connections. Regardless, it’s moving to find a caring attitude on the part of the corporate world toward the disenfranchised. In the book’s beginning, Levin notes that she and the Ethiopian single mother who sparked her program had more in common than either of them knew, but there was an undeniable feeling of shame that the Ethiopian woman would never have the same opportunities. “She and I were part of the same whole,” she writes. And if Levin’s participants can come to a similar realization, her efforts will bear fruit.

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