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Ford Foundation president praises CEOs like Benioff who have criticized capitalism

Max Zahn

Wealth taxes proposed by presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have pitted the progressive leaders against business titans. But in recent months, top chief executives like JPMorgan Chase CEO (JPM) Jamie Dimon and Salesforce (CRM) Co-CEO Marc Benioff have advocated economic or business reforms of their own.

In a newly released interview, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker lauds the new attitude from business leaders, saying he hopes it will translate into action.

“I'm actually quite encouraged that we're seeing directionally a change in the discourse from the leaders of our corporations, and hopefully in terms of their behavior,” says Walker, who controls a $13 billion endowment that makes Ford one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the U.S.

Walker cited recent comments from Benioff, Dimon, Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio, and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink.

The Business Roundtable, a group chaired by Dimon that represents CEOs at 192 firms, in August called on companies to balance the needs of shareholders with employees and community members. (A handful of the CEOs declined to sign onto the group’s statement, including Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman and Alcoa CEO Roy Harvey). Last month, Benioff minced no words, writing in a New York Times op-ed that “capitalism as it has been practiced in recent decades” has led to “horrifying inequality.”

In April, Dalio wrote on LinkedIn, “I believe that all good things taken to an extreme can be self-destructive and that everything must evolve or die. This is now true for capitalism.” In a letter to CEOs earlier this year, Fink posited that companies should offer retirement advice to employees as a way to “create not just a more stable and engaged workforce, but also a more economically secure population in the places where they operate.”

“We're at a point in this country now where I believe the core issue [is] of what kind of country are we going to be,” says Walker, whose recently released book “From Generosity to Justice” is available free in e-book or audiobook form.

“Are we going to have a democratic capitalism that uses a stakeholder model of a series of interests, and those interests being, of course, shareholders at the top — but [with] workers, customers, and communities?” he added.

Walker made the comments during a conversation that aired in an episode of Yahoo Finance’s “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

A native of rural Texas, Walker made it on Wall Street as a banker for the Union Bank of Switzerland — but he left it behind to volunteer full-time at an elementary school in Harlem. Eventually, he shifted to philanthropy, working at the Rockefeller Foundation and then the Ford Foundation, where he has served as president since 2013.  

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker appears on Influencers with Andy Serwer.

Walker — the head of an organization founded in 1936 with a gift from Henry Ford’s son Edsel Ford — is “committed to capitalism,” he says.

But he takes fault with the current version of our economic system, which in his view has worsened inequality.

“The problem is we have a kind of capitalism that is distorting the potential of capitalism to deliver benefits for more people,” Walker tells Serwer. “So we have designed a form of capitalism that over-indexes for higher income people.”

Walker invoked a period of broad economic prosperity that transpired last century, which many historians date to the first few decades after World War II.

“That made our form of capitalism the envy of the world,” he says. “What we're seeing today does not make America the envy of the world.”

Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.

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