Deborah Leipziger '85 is an international consultant, author, poet, and founding director of The Leipziger Group, where she currently advises companies and organizations around the world on human rights and environmental issues. She is a senior fellow in social innovation at the Lewis Institute at Babson College and has authored several books in the fields of sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Deborah has also taught at renowned American MBA programs, lecturing on the topics of social innovation, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility. In this edition, Deborah talks about how her years at Graded sparked her passion for writing and inspired her lifelong commitment to helping businesses create both social and financial value.
What brought you and your family to Graded?
I was born in Brazil but moved to the US when I was little. My family then moved back when I was twelve and I spent a year at a Brazilian school. My mother thought the American system would be more suited to my learning and transition, and chose Graded. She and her sister had studied at Graded, so it was kind of a family tradition. I was really lucky to receive a scholarship to study at Graded from 1980 to 1985, and enjoyed an amazing high school experience.
Tell us more about your amazing experience at Graded.
It was a very pivotal experience for me. I remember we had a wonderful writer's workshop, and I think it was the first time I started to think of myself as a writer and realize how powerful that could be. I wrote some of my first poems and first essays at Graded, and I was part of different writing communities. I wrote for the literary magazine Figa and also had an essay published in The Eagle Eye. That was my first publication, so it's something I'll never forget. I also had a huge amount of encouragement from my teachers and that was wonderful. My Portuguese teacher, Dona Emma, really encouraged me and inspired me to write poetry. At some point, I did an independent study in poetry that some teachers had created for me. I explored the lives of different creative people to discover what made someone "creative."
I also had deep friendships with kids from all over the world. My parents are European; my mother comes from an Italian family and my father is German, so I connected with the Graded community because it was so global. Everybody had two or three nationalities or had lived in multiple countries. I think that sparked my interest in global issues (which really influences my work now) and a desire to travel and live in different parts of the world.
You are a changemaker in the fields of corporate responsibility and sustainability. When and how did this interest arise?
I think it really did start at Graded; I tell people that when they ask me this question. Each day, I would go past the favela that was in front of Graded. The school had never had any kind of contact before with people in the neighborhood. In one of my classes, Educação Moral e Cívica, we started a group project and decided to go to the community and bring food, clothing, and books. I talked to the principal about it and at first, he was horrified. He then realized he wasn't going to stop me. It was a big moment for me because I realized that I didn't need permission to make a difference. Realizing this changed my life. Also, being in school with a lot of children of people from multinational companies, I asked myself, "Why is there so much poverty in Brazil? With so much wealth, why don't multinational companies address poverty?" So it was the kind of question I lived with, and I began to explore this in college and graduate school.
You studied economics and international studies at Manhattanville College and later pursued an MA in public administration at Columbia University. How did your studies lead you to your career choice?
My studies in college were very much influenced by the question I began to explore at Graded: "What can be done to address poverty?" In those days, we didn't really have environmental studies – it wasn't a choice, a course that was offered. At Columbia, I was able to create my own program, with classes from the Law School, the Business School, and School of International and Public Affairs to create a focus on international social development. This area of corporate sustainability and responsibility was a really new field then. I remember in my first job out of graduate school, the question was "What are multinational companies doing to promote development in a positive way?" I was thrilled to be working on this. As it was pretty new at the time, I remember going to the library only to find there were no books on this subject. There were just books on the bad things companies were doing. So I thought, "Here I am. I am a writer doing all this research. What a great opportunity!" I then teamed up with a group of academics in the UK, and we wrote the first book about corporate responsibility published in 1998.
While living in Europe for 12 years, I got to help companies develop some of the first codes and standards in the field. Now large companies have teams of 20-30 people working on these issues. Back then, they had lawyers who were very careful and cautious and customer service staff who listened to consumers' concerns, but they didn't really have dedicated sustainability staff, human rights teams, and diversity and inclusion teams – so that's really recent.
You also have done a fair share of teaching in graduate business programs. What do you teach today?
I am a senior fellow in social innovation at the Lewis Institute at Babson College, so I'm not currently teaching directly. But I have taught lots of Business School students about sustainability, human rights, and the work that I do because I love mentoring students. Teaching has been really great! Many of my former students are now executives at global companies, and it's always great to advise and learn from them.
I also realize that part of my teaching happens through writing. Writing different textbooks or case studies is part of what I bring to this field. One of the areas that really interests me is language and nomenclature. I feel like we are just developing the language of this field, which is really compelling. Even terms like "sustainability" or "inclusion" aren't the kinds of terms that we need. I think they are placeholders for the kinds of vocabulary that we need. So that's part of what I'm working on now: "What is the vocabulary for building sustainable companies or building companies that are ready for addressing climate change and addressing human rights challenges?" I am just finishing up a study on how companies are responding to COVID-19 and to humanitarian disasters, in general. That has also been very interesting: "What are the ways in which companies can fight the pandemic we face?"
What is your favorite hobby or pastime?
I love writing and reading poetry. Cooking with my daughters is also a favorite activity, especially as it allows me to integrate my Brazilian and Italian roots. Nature is also a big part of my life, and I take long walks every day.
Do you visit Brazil often? What is one thing you miss?
Not as often as I'd like! I have three daughters, and it's complicated traveling with everybody. However, we did make a trip a couple of years ago, and I hope to come back soon. I am really into color and I miss seeing the colors of Brazil; it's so inspiring. The street art is amazing. I took my daughters to see Beco do Batman and that was their favorite thing. It's really just full of life and color, and that is something I deeply miss.
Do you still remain in close contact with your friends from Graded?
Yes! I'm in touch with a lot of my high school friends on Facebook, and I visited one of my best friends from Graded in California last year. We have recently formed a group that gets together on Zoom every two weeks, so that's something I want to continue. I have a strong connection with my Graded friends to this day. Maybe even more than [the connection I have with friends from] college and graduate school.
What is your favorite thing about Graded?
Graded has given me the ability to feel comfortable with different languages and in different cultures. I use that so much when I travel. I have spent a lot of time in Asia over the past couple of years, and I always feel really excited to embark on a trip. People sometimes ask me "Well, aren't you worried?" And I reply, "No, I feel at home in the world." I think Graded gave me that gift.