Kellie McElhaney, Corporate Social Responsibility Pioneer, Featured in Book on Women Leaders

Kellie McElhaney, founder of the Haas School's Center for Responsible Business, describes in a new book on women leaders how she bucked corporate and academic trends to become a leader of the sustainability movement.

McElhaney, an adjunct assistant professor and the Margo N. Alexander Faculty Fellow in Corporate Responsibility, is one of 18 powerful women featured in Women Leaders at Work: Untold Tales of Women Achieving their Ambitions (Apress Media) by Elizabeth Ghaffari.

In the in-depth interview, McElhaney talks about how her thinking evolved, from her unease with the single-minded focus on profits in her first job at a bank to realizations about the power of corporations during the year she spent teaching in China.

“Companies like Proctor & Gamble and Coke could somehow get their products into the most far-flung villages inside China on the backs of donkeys, yet the public sector couldn’t get clean drinking water or utilities to operate properly,” she said. “I began to think about what if you could harness this power of Coca Cola to also help get clean drinking water in China.”

Harnessing that power became her career focus. After earning a PhD in education and business at the University of Michigan, she stayed on to teach. The concept of corporate social responsibility was emerging, but when she proposed a CSR course for the business school it was shot down as “inappropriate.” McElhaney persevered and the course—along with the programs she created, including the Net Impact Club—was highly successful.

Former Dean Laura Tyson recruited McElhaney to Haas in 2002, and she secured a $2.5 million gift to start the Center for Corporate Social Responsibility. She also built the student-managed Socially Responsible Investment Fund and the $10 million Sustainable Products and Solutions Program.

McElhaney offers frank advice to ambitious women—and men—who want to do good. “There are so many women leaving the work world right now…I see opting out as a dangerous move, and I think we need to look at how we can opt-in,” she says. “I would say the same thing to men: ‘Don’t leave the power of the corporation just because you want to change the world. Harness it.’”