The Business Enterprise Trust

The Business Enterprise Trust

From 1991 to 1996, The Business Enterprise Trust, a nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto, California, celebrated many exemplary acts of courage, integrity and social vision in American business. The organization’s purpose was to explore specific acts of bold, creative leadership that combined sound business management with social conscience.


Over the course of six years, the BET hosted an annual awards ceremony in New York City and produced short video documentaries, business school cases and teaching notes. The stories of twenty-five BET awardees are featured in the book, Aiming Higher (AMACOM, 1996). An extensive array of business education materials are still available through Harvard Business School Publishing. These materials have been used in more than 500 business schools, universities and corporate management training programs throughout the country. Shortly after Wall Street trader Ivan Boesky delivered his infamous “greed is good” speech, Norman Lear hatched the idea of developing a “Nobel Prize” for exemplary, socially minded businesses. Working with James E. Burke, the former Chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, they founded the Business Enterprise Trust in 1989.

Lear and Burke recruited some of the leading lights of American business and labor for the BET Board of Directors:

  • Warren E. Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway
  • Katharine Graham of the Washington Post Company
  • Henry B. Schacht of Lucent Technologies
  • Robert A. Iger of Capital Cities/ABC Inc.
  • Ambassador Sol M. Linowitz
  • Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and Professor
  • Douglas Fraser of the United Auto Workers

The BET’S charter was to identify and investigate hundreds of cases of social innovation that have also made businesses more competitive. These included stories of companies that blended product innovation with social concern, and companies that had pioneered successful business models in the inner city. The stories told how some companies gained competitive advantages by improving their workforce diversity, and how others achieved superior corporate performance by appealing to the best in their employees. Among the honorees:

  • DAKA International broke the frightened silence of its industry, the restaurant and food service business, by creating a highly visible and aggressive AIDS education campaign for its employees.
  • Jack Stack, President and CEO of Springfield ReManufacturing Corp., taught everyone at his company how to understand the company’s financial statements, so that they could apply their own ingenuity to improve efficiency, meet key targets and reap bonuses.
  • Rick Surpin, the founder of Cooperative Home Care Associates, developed a quality-driven company that provides stable, full-time jobs for poor, minority women in home health care, a sector fraught with high turnover, low pay and little opportunities for advancement.
  • Vermont National Bank elicited more than $90 million in new deposits by creating a Socially Responsible Banking Fund, whose monies were earmarked for lending to affordable housing, organic and sustainable farming, small business, education and the environment.

In addition to 25 awards for specific acts of social innovation, the BET also presented Lifetime Achievement awards to such visionaries as J. Irwin Miller of Cummins Engine, James Rouse of the Rouse Company, Frank Stanton of CBS, and The Haas Family of Levi Strauss & Co.

The BET awards ceremonies were gala affairs that featured such keynote speakers as President Bill Clinton, Vice President Albert Gore, Senator Bill Bradley and journalist Bill Moyers.  They consistently attracted business luminaries, political leaders, socially responsible business advocates and national press.  Over the course of six years, the breakfast ceremonies in the Rainbow Room of the Rockefeller Center were hosted by Diane Sawyer, Bill Moyers, Barbara Walters and others, and attended by such business leaders as Lawrence Tisch, Jack Welch, and John Walton.  Short video documentaries of all honorees were shown, and copies distributed to business schools and executive training courses around the country.

After presenting six years of awards to 30 awardees, the BET ceased operations in 1998 after long-term funding failed to materialize.  Through its compelling stories, the Trust pioneered new ways of understanding and exploring social innovation in business.  It appealed to both idealism and practicality among businesspeople to use their enterprises to help address society’s urgent problems.  The spirit of business leadership that the BET honored was captured by James Rouse, who said, “I don’t think that people understand the power of vision.  Vision generates power, generates action, generates the capacity to fulfill it.”