Jun 27, 2023 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Christine Jakobson

In a new interview series, Carnegie Council editor Alex Woodson speaks with members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort.

ALEX WOODSON: Was there a moment for you that made you want to make ethics a focus for your professional life?

CHRISTINE JAKOBSON: There was a distinct moment that shifted my perception of the impact ethics can have in the world at large and in business in particular. One of my first projects at Principia Advisory was a large engagement with Salesforce, a major Silicon Valley technology company. The overarching question we helped answer was who should be allowed to use their technology and for what purposes. We helped Salesforce create an ethics office, develop ethical principles, apply them to complex live business cases, and build frameworks to identify emerging issues.

One case asked whether retailers selling semi-automatic weapons and other firearms should be allowed to use their technology. Salesforce realized that they had considerable influence to weigh on this highly charged social issue and decided to not allow retailers to use their e-commerce technology to sell a range of firearms. Salesforce’s update to its Acceptable Use Policy made news not only in the U.S., but across the Atlantic. When I woke up to our work being covered on the front page of The Washington Post, I realized the power ethics holds. After this, I decided to dedicate myself full time to advising companies on complex ethical challenges instead of pursuing an academic career after my Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge,

ALEX WOODSON: How did you find out about the Carnegie Ethics Fellows Program and why did you think that it would be a good fit for you?

CHRISTINE JAKOBSON: I found out about Carnegie Council through the founder and chair of Principia Advisory, David Rodin. He is a former Global Ethics Fellow at Carnegie Council, and spoke highly of the organization. He invited me to a couple of events that I thought were fascinating and engaging. I started to follow the Council’s work, and when I saw the Ethics Fellowship come up, there was no question for me that I would apply, as it came at a moment when I was expanding my own ethical leadership skills at the Women’s Impact Alliance. I am very grateful to have been selected and to be a part of this first cohort.

ALEX WOODSON: How would you describe your role at Principia? How does ethics fit into your work?

CHRISTINE JAKOBSON: I joined Principia Advisory at the beginning of 2019. We are a global and diverse network of 50 ethicists, practitioners, and consultants, helping organizations with some of their most mission-critical challenges. I am now the responsible innovation lead, while also leading some of our client engagements across different industries from banking to energy. As our responsible innovation lead, I help companies that are developing emerging technologies to manage and mitigate risks but also to identify key opportunities.

As ethics advisors we provide strategic advice to boards and executive leaders in large enterprises. We build different tools and frameworks for ethical guidelines, ethical decision-making and foresight, addressing how to navigate tradeoffs and tensions. A key focus of our work is ethical culture, particularly after a crisis has occurred, which involves understanding the root causes that have led to a crisis in order to create the right capabilities and conduct that sustainably transforms a culture into doing right by the organization, its people and all stakeholders.

ALEX WOODSON: Principia’s biannual Ethics Study recently came out and it tied into some of the discussions that we were having at the Carnegie Ethics Fellows module last month. One of the themes of the report and one thing that we talked about during the module was “reactive” versus “proactive ethics.” What does this mean exactly?

CHRISTINE JAKOBSON: Reactive ethics is when an organization realizes the importance of and need for ethics after a crisis has taken place. This is often a moment when everyone agrees, “Okay, now it is really important to bring someone in to help us with ethics” – be that from a leadership, culture, or innovation perspective. Yet, this perspective also exposes that ethics is often seen to be costly, unnecessary, or burdensome. If ethics was a brand, it would need some serious rebranding. Principia’s Ethics Study illustrates this issue. It shows that 96 percent of business leaders agree that the ability to address ethical issues will be critical to future success in their industry, yet, only 43 percent believe that companies in their industry are equipped to address ethical issues.

In today’s environment, business leaders are expected to look ahead and deliver uncompromising integrity on complex issues. They can do so by engaging in proactive ethics—putting the right governance structures in place, making strategic decisions that anticipate future ethical risks, building organizational cultures that incentivize the right conduct, and developing products and services that are inclusive, equitable, and just. Adopting ethics early on counteracts accumulating ethical debt over time, which will need to be paid back – often with considerable interest. We continue to see that proactive problem solving, instead of reactive firefighting, distinguishes those organizations that are market leaders from their competitors.

"Ethics is not something that one person or organization does in isolation. Ethics is an ecosystem that we collectively build to achieve the greatest positive impact we can."
Christine Jakobson

ALEX WOODSON: Looking toward the future modules and when you’re done with the program, what do you hope to learn from the Carnegie Ethics Fellows Program, and how do you see it affecting your professional life?

CHRISTINE JAKOBSON: I am incredibly excited about the next two years, particularly about building up a network of inspiring people dedicated to ethical leadership. It’s wonderful to take the ideas we are developing together and bring them back into the communities we serve. From working for government, non-governmental organizations, academia, and business, building a network is incredibly important because ethics is not something that one person or organization does in isolation. Ethics is an ecosystem that we collectively build to achieve the greatest positive impact we can.

I am also excited to contribute to Carnegie Council’s Artificial Intelligence & Equality Initiative (AIEI). Like many people, I am currently thinking a lot about generative AI, about the incredible opportunities it is opening up, but also the immense known and unknown ethical risks it is posing. I am looking forward to mobilizing the collective intelligence, skills, and drive of the cohort to bear on some of the most important issues we are currently facing by engaging with key decision makers in this vast and fast emerging space.

Christine Jakobson is a member of the inaugural cohort of Carnegie Ethics Fellows and an associate principal at Principia Advisory.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the Fellow and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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