Driving Positive Impact within Business and Human Rights

A conversation with MIB alumna Kelly Liu on sustainable and socially responsible business
A headshot of MIB alumna Kelly Liu

Kelly Liu can’t pick one thing she loves most about her job. Every day, she enjoys going to work.

Leading Cisco’s Supply Chain Human Rights and Worker Wellbeing program, Kelly Liu F16 advocates for workers rights by investigating how they’re vulnerable to different forms of labor exploitation and finding opportunities for them to thrive while working in Cisco’s supply chain. By aligning the corporate practices with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, she recognizes that sustainability and human rights are inherently entwined.

“Climate change is, at its heart, a social justice issue,” said Liu. “My job is to protect people so they can live with dignity, but there’s no point of that if they don’t have a planet to live on.”

Liu’s journey to the Fletcher School began in the Great Recession. Having earned her bachelor’s degree in marketing and nonprofit management in 2008, she felt her options in the nonprofit world were limited by the economic recession. After starting her career in marketing, she joined the Peace Corps in Botswana, where she worked closely with communities affected by HIV and AIDS. She credits her time in the Peace Corps for providing an intimate understanding of what makes people vulnerable to different issues; this experience illuminated the next steps in her career.  

“I wanted to give people the opportunity to choose how to live their lives. I think the international development model can often be patronizing and patriarchal in determining what people should care about,” said Liu. “Social capital means a lot of different things in different cultures. People should have money in their pockets so they can decide what they want to spend it on. That’s why I pursued a career in the corporate supply-chain.”

Following a short stint at Oxfam, the dots connected Liu to Fletcher during a trip to Cambodia. “I really wanted to focus on market-based solutions for people at the base of the pyramid. I was not planning on going back to grad school, and then I found out about the Fletcher School and realized I needed to go back to this grad school to work on this.”

She heard about Fletcher in August of 2013, took the GMAT and applied in October, and subsequently enrolled in the first class of Januarians in 2014.  

While the MIB curriculum shaped Liu’s perspective on business as a vehicle for social good, her experiences outside of the classroom were equally formative. Taking advantage of two Januarian summers, Liu interned her first year with Dean Bhaskar Chakravorti, supporting research on sustainable and inclusive business practices in multinational companies. Building off of this work, Liu attended the Sustainable Brands conference, where she met someone at EMC familiar with Fletcher. One thing led to the next, and she began a job she hadn’t known existed with an internship in responsible sourcing. Eight years later, she’s still in the field, advocating for people’s rights within supply chains.

Part of the joy Liu finds in her work comes from her core beliefs, developed through a career in sustainable and ethical business.

“Business should be able to catalyze positive change. On the one hand, a lot of businesses look at human rights issues as a risk,” she said. In practice, this means that companies seek to do no harm and ensure, at a base level, that their supply chain is not exploiting people. Beyond this comes the consideration of how the supply chain allows people to live and work with dignity. However, Liu sees another problem at the core.

“Sometimes companies look at how human rights impacts their supply chain when in reality, in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, we should be looking at how business impacts human rights and how the actions and decisions of business impact human rights,” said Liu.

“If all businesses were looking at it that way, I think things would be different. We’re already down this road—the multinational corporation is structured the way it is, supply chains are structured the way they are—it's difficult to back-correct within a very complex system, and that’s much harder than building a system that doesn’t have a race to the bottom implicitly built in,” she added.

If you ask Liu what her favorite part of her job is, she’ll identify two things: The times when her team is able to pause and see how many rightsholders they’ve impacted. And, recognizing the scale of the challenges with labor and human rights, Liu also relishes every opportunity to collaborate across sectors with peers in her role at other companies. By working together, they can strive to address systemic issues.

“No one company can change the world. It relies on the collaboration of many companies to align the big decisions, to improve working conditions and human rights outcomes,” she said. “That cross-collaboration is incredibly valuable to driving progress.”

Read more about Fletcher’s MIB Degree Program.