Cost of Living·Q&A

When a CEO takes a stand: the changing world of corporate activism

What are the consequences for a business when politics intersects with commerce? We talk to the CEO of Indigo Books — Heather Reisman.

Indigo Books CEO Heather Reisman on speaking out from the corner office

Heather Reisman announces a donation to the University of Toronto in this March 2019 file photo. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)
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Something rare happened in the world of Canadian business this January — a CEO took a political stance publicly.

On Jan. 12, the head of Maple Leaf Foods, Michael McCain, logged onto his company's corporate Twitter account and criticized the Trump administration for escalating tensions with Iran.

McCain tied U.S. actions to the Ukrainian Airlines flight shot down over Tehran. 

This doesn't often happen. Corporate entities in Canada tend to stay away from controversial topics. But it is not unheard of.

Heather Reisman is the longtime CEO of Indigo Books.

She spoke with Cost of Living host Paul Haavardsrud about the times she has felt obligated to speak out. 

Here is part of their conversation, starting with Reisman talking about how, in 2010, she stepped in to help an Iranian woman who was going to be stoned to death over charges of adultery.

Just five days after Reisman started an online petition, it gathered more than 70,000 names demanding that the woman be set free. 

The CEO also wrote an open letter to the president of Iran urging him to release Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.

"I just thought, I just can't let this one just go by. The notion that a person would be buried up to their neck in sand and stoned to death … that initial impetus is what led to the decision to create a petition," said Reisman.


Do you think there's a difference between your private self and your responsibilities as a CEO of a company? 

No. I think your values are your values. Absolutely … if you're a different person when you're at work than you are when you're at home or when you're on a walk thinking about what you care about, then who are you?

What do you think it is that holds a company back?

If you take a position on something that is considered controversial, there's always the possibility that there could be some fallout that you have to navigate.

I believe, over time, your employees most value a CEO whose values are clear and strong.- Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books

For me to speak out about the importance of literacy and the fact that we are implicitly or explicitly ignoring that we are holding a whole segment of kids back from attaining rich literacy, it's not very controversial … people may not be aware but that's not a big risk.  You're gonna get a gold star for that and you're not going to risk a lot.

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It's [riskier] when you make a statement that could … cause some customers to say well, we don't like that position, or even some employees. I believe, over time, your employees most value a CEO whose values are clear and strong and who does not depress those values if there is a business issue. In fact, the opposite.

I think your employees most respect a CEO whose values are clear, who they align with, and who they can feel confident that all of the decisions of the company will be consistent with those values.


For more on CEO activism, hear the full segment by clicking "Listen" above,
or download the Cost of Living podcast.
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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