The writer Anand Giridharadas used an opportunity to speak with thousands of corporate board members to criticize the group and say they make empty promises.
“A lot of your children and grandchildren do not respect your work,” Giridharadas said on Monday while speaking at the National Association of Corporate Directors’ annual summit, according to audio obtained by Business Insider.
Many directors were shocked and disgusted by the remarks, with attendees saying some threatened to demand a refund for the event or quit NACD.
Giridharadas also faced criticism from the economist Glenn Hubbard, who called Giridharadas’ thinking “crazy” as the two debated winner-take-all capitalism at the summit.
“I was not interested in a theoretical conversation about capitalism … without noting that we had on the call an economic arsonist who was now being brought on as a firefighting expert,” Giridharadas told Business Insider.
“Key to NACD’s mission, especially at our annual NACD Summit, is to expose our 21,000 members to contrasting views on the issues that will redefine how businesses create value,” NACD CEO Peter Gleason said.
“A lot of your children and grandchildren do not respect your work,” Giridharadas said on Monday to more than 3,000 directors watching the summit virtually, according to audio obtained by Business Insider.
Giridharadas slammed directors for their lack of action, portraying businesses as making empty promises while simultaneously dodging responsibility.
“This being a group of corporate directors, I ask again, where were you?” Giridharadas said in his remarks. “Where were you in the run-up to the climate crisis? Where were you during widening inequality over the last four decades? Where were you in the run-up to the subprime crisis? Where were you in the run up to the opioid crisis? Where were you?”
The aggressive remarks shocked many of the hundreds of people virtually attending the summit, which is billed as the “the largest and most influential director forum in the world.” NACD is made up of 21,000 directors, including board members from 97% of the Fortune 500 companies — the very people Giridharadas was calling out.
The summit’s chat room exploded into chaos as Giridharadas condemned corporate directors. The conversation was moving so fast that it was hard to keep up, according to Lauren Harrell, a board director who had attended the summit for her second year in a row.
Giridharadas was the first speaker of the summit, marking a startling introduction to the event for many who did not expect to be so harshly criticized at an industry conference.
“There were people who were like, ‘I want my money back. I’m not going to sit here and listen to this,'” Kent Lundberg, who attended the summit, told Business Insider.
Insulted attendees said in the chat room that they were going to ditch the summit or mute Giridharadas until he stopped talking. Some even threatened to cancel their NACD memberships in protest, according to Lundberg.
“Key to NACD’s mission, especially at our annual NACD Summit, is to expose our 21,000 members to contrasting views on the issues that will redefine how businesses create value,” Peter Gleason, the CEO of NACD, said in a statement to Business Insider when asked for comment on the backlash.
Giridharadas sparred with economist Glenn Hubbard, who called Giridharadas ‘crazy’
Giridharadas’ remarks were followed by an appearance from Glenn Hubbard, which made for a drastic swerve in a more conservative direction.
Hubbard is a professor at Columbia Business School and an economist who advised the George W. Bush administration. In stark contrast to Giridharadas’ remarks, Hubbard promoted the idea of free-market capitalism.
The event had been billed as a discussion of the “pros and cons of winner-take-all capitalism and what role corporations should play in creating a more equitable society.” A brief Q&A session involving both Hubbard and Giridharadas — led by Gillian Tett, the chair of Financial Times’ editorial board — ratcheted up tensions even further.
Giridharadas took the opportunity to slam Bush-era tax cuts, which Hubbard helped engineer. Hubbard responded by criticizing Giridharadas’ thinking as “crazy.”
“I tried to hold Glenn Hubbard to the account he deserves to be held to,” Giridharadas told Business Insider when asked for comment on the interaction. “He was having very theoretical discussion of these issues: If markets are functioning perfectly, then, blah blah blah. He was talking about Milton Friedman as a scholar surrounded by books, but he’s living in a country awash in pain.”
He added: “I was not interested in a theoretical conversation about capitalism and markets and democracy without noting that we had on the call an economic arsonist who was now being brought on as a firefighting expert.”
Giridharadas said it was “incredible” that someone who teaches on a college campus would use “crazy” as an insult in a debate.
“All he had to offer was that I was ‘crazy’ and that my ideas were a ‘rant’ and ‘incoherent,'” Giridharadas said. “I hope for his sake, as someone who teaches on a college campus, he grows slightly more sensitive to the mental-health issues in this culture that have frankly made calling people crazy in a debate not really behavior we would expect from a teacher.”
Hubbard declined to comment on the event or Giridharadas calling him an “economic arsonist.”
“Anand Giridharadas and Glenn Hubbard offered divergent perspectives on the future of capitalism which sparked strong engagement, both positive and negative, from some of our 3,000+ audience of corporate directors and other governance professionals,” NACD’s Gleason said in a statement. “This underscores the difficult challenge ahead for boards as they try to balance so many and sometimes conflicting interests for their companies.”
Most directors didn’t expect the forum to start with such heavy criticism
Giridharadas’ comments, followed by the throwdown with Hubbard, took many by surprise.
“I think there came to a point where some of the audience stopped listening because they felt like they were under attack,” Cynthia Ruiz, who was attending the summit for her first time, said. “Because he was like: What have you guys been doing? Why haven’t you done this?”
Lundberg said some of the anti-Giridharadas crowd may have “rage quit” the conference in protest after the first few minutes of the writer’s remarks. But as the event continued, another perspective emerged in the swiftly moving chat, according to Lundberg.
These attendees were encouraging fellow directors to listen to Giridharadas, even if they were uncomfortable. (Lundberg said he was a fan of Giridharadas and, having watched videos of the writer, knew what to expect from the firebrand — even as others were surprised by the call outs.)
Harrell, an attendee who has spent the past decade in governance and boardrooms, was one of the directors to lean into the discomfort. She told Business Insider that she felt Giridharadas raised important questions about whether directors were living up to their duties.
“I appreciate sometimes we’re not going to feel comfortable and that’s OK,” Harrell said. “Sometimes we have to maybe reflect on, well, why does that make me uncomfortable?”
However, Harrell said, the majority of the people talking in the chat were defensive or shocked instead of taking the opportunity to listen to a different perspective. These attendees’ refusal to engage disappointed Harrell.
“Those that were adamantly opposed to hearing this perspective — it made me think about these are individuals that are in the boardroom,” Harrell said. “If you have perspectives that you don’t necessarily appreciate or enjoy, do those conversations get shut down at the table? What are you missing if you don’t engage in that opposite perspective?”
Ruiz similarly embraced the chance to hear Giridharadas’ remarks, despite seeing the majority of the audience respond defensively. As a woman of color serving as the president of the city of Los Angeles’ pension board, Ruiz said she attended the summit to have greater exposure to the world of corporate boards. She saw Giridharadas’ and Hubbard’s different viewpoints as a chance to learn.
“I am one of the people that appreciate the diversity because it’s helping me form my opinions,” Ruiz said. “I honestly believe that we’re going through a paradigm shift to put people first, and I think that’s driven by a lot of factors, including consumers.”
Giridharadas said he wanted corporate directors to know their children were infuriated by their complicity
Giridharadas told Business Insider he did not see the chat, and since the summit was virtual, he was not able to see how the audience was reacting.
“I think the message was necessarily difficult because they were trying to have a conversation about … shareholder capitalism versus stakeholder capitalism, and I think they were trying to have that conversation in the absence of a conversation about complicity,” Giridharadas said.
Giridharadas said his comments about children and grandchildren not respecting their director parents were sparked by both data on generational divisions and his individual interactions. He says he receives a vast number of emails from young readers of his book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” who say they are sharing the book with their parents or grandparents with different perspectives.
“I have heard countless stories about how they used the book to try to persuade people in their family, that the people in their family contributed to a world desolate of opportunity for their own children and grandchildren,” Giridharadas said.
“I think there is this dynamic where a lot of young people are not just mad at the system, but they’re mad at — in some cases what their own parents and grandparents have done to make the system what it is,” he added.