Stakeholder Business 

Reimagining Capitalism: An Online Masterclass with Rebecca Henderson

Jul 10, 2024

The Stakeholder Business Society recently hosted an enlightening online masterclass featuring Harvard Professor Rebecca Henderson. This session, moderated by Nathan Havey, co-founder of Stakeholder Business and the writer and director of the award-winning documentary film, Beyond Zero, explored Henderson's work on reimagining capitalism, her pivotal experiences, and her focus on addressing systemic issues through a blend of inner development and societal change.

From Organizational Change to Climate Advocacy

Rebecca Henderson’s journey into sustainable business began with her early work on large-scale organizational change and innovation management. Starting at McKinsey in the 1980s, she observed firms struggling to adapt to market changes. "I spent my time closing plants in northern England and really trying to understand why firms with 100-year-old brand names just couldn't seem to understand how the world was changing," she recounted.

A turning point came when energy companies began consulting her about climate change. Viewing Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth crystallized the urgency of climate issues for her. She co-launched the first sustainable business class at MIT Sloan. In 2009, Harvard Business School recruited Henderson with the mandate: "Rebecca, we missed the financial crisis. It's your job to make sure we don't miss the climate crisis." At Harvard, she aimed to influence CEOs with the pressing need to address climate change through business practices.

 The Birth and Impact of "Reimagining Capitalism"

Henderson developed a course titled Reimagining Capitalism: Business and the Big Problems, which quickly became the fastest-growing elective. This led to the book, Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire, published in April 2020.

Despite initial fears that the COVID-19 pandemic would overshadow her book, it resonated widely. The book’s message led to translations into seven languages and Henderson giving numerous talks worldwide. "I thought, oh my God, the book's going to disappear without a trace. My book tour was canceled. This is terrible. But it turned out that everyone wanted to hear about capitalism in a world on fire," Henderson said.

 Addressing Systemic Stuckness

Henderson recognized the deep systemic issues and the “stuckness” of the current system. She took two years off to reflect on these challenges and consider solutions. "I took a couple of years off to think about that stuckness. And how would you think about it? And what we might be able to do. And that's what my current work focuses on," she explained.

Henderson emphasized the need to shift the societal narrative or "social imaginary." This involves moving beyond seeing individuals merely as competitive and self-interested entities and instead fostering a perspective that values cooperation, connection, and sustainability. "I think we need a new story, a new social imaginary, new assumptions about what it means to be human, new kinds of social structures, new kinds of collective narratives," she stated.

Global Challenges and the Need for a New Narrative

Henderson highlighted both global progress and severe implications of climate change. She pointed out advancements in reducing poverty and increasing life expectancy but stressed these came at the cost of burning fossil fuels, leading to significant climate repercussions.

Henderson used data from the N-Roads Climate Simulator to illustrate the potential impacts of a 3.3°C temperature rise. Despite current efforts to mitigate climate change, this projected increase presents dire consequences. Henderson explained that such an increase would lead to severe droughts, more intense heatwaves, ecosystem collapse, and millions of climate refugees.

Her key message was that while we have the technology and resources to address these issues, we lack the cultural will and the right societal framework. She called for a new societal narrative that integrates inner development with systemic change. "We need a whole society mobilization. But to get that, I think we need a new story, a new social imaginary, new assumptions about what it means to be human," she emphasized.

Integrating Inner and Outer Work

Henderson stressed that personal inner development is essential for sustaining long-term external actions. This involves building inner resilience, finding a sense of purpose, and connecting with others in meaningful ways. Henderson shared her experiences of meditating daily, spending time in nature, and engaging in activities like ecstatic dance as ways to maintain personal well-being and resilience. "You can't hold it if you can't hold it for yourself. And this is what I learned in two years off," she said.

Henderson’s approach is not just about individual self-care but about fostering a collective sense of community and cooperation. She believes that building supportive communities is essential for fostering resilience and driving change. "We need to build a reciprocal society, one in which inner development is highly valued," Henderson stated.

Systemic Change and Education

Henderson highlighted the importance of addressing deep-rooted systemic issues through education and awareness. She emphasized the role of business leaders in driving systemic change and the need for educating future leaders on sustainability and ethical business practices. Her courses at Harvard aim to instill these values in students, preparing them to lead with a sense of responsibility towards the planet. "We have 300 case studies at the Harvard Business School about how firms can change. I really believe you can do this and make money," she said.

Encouragement for Those Feeling Discouraged

For those feeling disheartened by the seeming lack of progress, Henderson’s message offers both realism and hope. She acknowledges the difficulties but also provides a pathway forward through inner work and community building. By focusing on personal resilience and fostering supportive networks, individuals can find renewed strength and motivation to continue their efforts.

Henderson’s emphasis on the need for a new societal narrative or "social imaginary" provides a hopeful vision. She argues that shifting our collective mindset and values can pave the way for more profound and lasting change.

Conclusion and Reflections

Participants in the masterclass asked questions about practical applications, community engagement, and balancing inner development with external actions. Henderson’s responses highlighted the necessity of integrating personal growth with collective action, emphasizing that systemic change requires a shift in both individual perspectives and societal structures.

Rebecca Henderson’s masterclass offered a profound exploration of reimagining capitalism by integrating inner development with systemic change. Her approach addresses global issues through personal resilience, supportive communities, and education, paving the way for a sustainable and equitable future.

The session concluded with Brad Aaron Modlin’s poem, What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade, which underscores the importance of inner connection and community. The poem’s lessons on finding meaning in everyday tasks, maintaining connections, and cultivating inner peace reflect Henderson’s message that addressing global challenges requires both personal inner work and collective societal change.


What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade
Written by Brad Aaron Modlin

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen

to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took

questions on how not to feel lost in the dark

After lunch she distributed worksheets

that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep

without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—

something important—and how to believe

the house you wake in is your home. This prompted

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing

how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts

are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am

is a complete sentence.

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation

look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking

for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something.


About Stakeholder Business

Stakeholder Business is dedicated to transforming the way businesses operate by prioritizing the well-being of all stakeholders, including employees, customers, communities, and the environment. The company's mission is to foster sustainable and ethical business practices that drive long-term value and positive impact.

The Stakeholder Business Society is a community of forward-thinking CEOs committed to redefining success in business. The Society provides a platform for collaboration, learning, and support, helping members implement stakeholder-centric practices within their organizations. Members have access to quarterly masterclasses, monthly masterminds with fellow CEOs, leadership retreats three times a year that provide inside access to innovative thinking at cutting-edge companies, and access to a personal stakeholder business concierge to help members along their stakeholder leadership journey.

For more information about Stakeholder Business and the Stakeholder Business Society, please fill out the form below to join our mission of creating a sustainable and equitable future for all.




Want Consistent Stakeholder Business Insights?

Sign up here for our curated stakeholder business tips, interviews, and custom content not found anywhere else. 

We'll never spam you or sell your contact info.