Q&A with Zahid Torres-Rahman: Radical collaborative innovation in the face of COVID-19

Zahid Torres-Rahman

Co-Founder and CEO,
Business Fights Poverty

Business Fights Poverty has taken an active lead in promoting radical collaborative innovation in the face of COVID-19. In the following Q&A, Zahid shares his key learnings and perspectives on curating purposeful collaboration and gets us thinking about what’s next.

31 July, 2020

Q: Zahid, tell us a bit about yourself: Who are you and what you stand for?

A: I have over 20 years’ experience in business and international development and am passionate about helping businesses collaborate with others to scale their social impact.

Q: So, how did you end up getting involved with COVID-19 responses? 

A: It was just before 6 o’clock on 11 March, and I was on my last call of the day when news broke that the WHO Director-General had declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Sometimes life-changing moments are only recognizable as such in retrospect, but sometimes – like this one – you recognize their significance in the very moment.

It just so happened that my call was with Myriam Sidibé, world-renowned handwashing expert, and Catalina Garcia Gomez, Global Director of Corporate Affairs at AB InBev. For those of you who have met either of these inspiring women, you won’t be surprised to learn that within about five minutes, we had agreed to launch a Business and COVID-19 Response.

Add in three more driven women – Jane Nelson, Director at the Harvard Kennedy School Corporate Responsibility Initiative; Liz Patterson, Head of Responsible and Inclusive Business at the UK Department for International Development; and Yvette Torres- Rahman, my wife and Business Fights Poverty Co-Founder – and within a matter of days we had pivoted our organization to focus exclusively on guiding companies’ immediate and longer-term decision making to support the most vulnerable in the face of COVID-19.

For me personally, it felt like our 15 years’ of curating purposeful collaboration had all been a practice for this one moment. To their immense credit, our entire team leant into the challenge – working at a pace that none of us had worked at before.

Q: Business Fights Poverty has taken an active lead in promoting radical collaborative innovation in the face of COVID-19. What are the key learnings so far?

A: It helped that from the start, Business Fights Poverty has operated a fully-flexible, dispersed workforce model, and a large part of our experience has been in driving online collaboration. 

We compressed our Challenge-based social problem-solving approach – which normally takes 6 to 9 months – into a 10-day cycle and, through 18 events in the following 9 weeks, we brought together over 14,000 people across our amazing community and co-created 50 outputs to guide and inspire business action, in partnership with Jane Nelson and funded by UK aid from the UK Government, along with a number of our corporate partners.

You can find all of these materials in our Business and COVID-19 Response Centre, and I invite you to share them widely. These include our original Response Framework, published in March, and our follow-up, Rebuild Better Framework, which looks towards how businesses can support efforts to create a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient future. We have also produced seven Action Toolkits that focus on specific topics: tackling gender-based violence, supporting vulnerable workers, helping micro and small businesses, promoting handwashing and other preventative measures, creating national collaboration platforms, driving rapid innovation through collaboration, and supporting NGO partners.

While we were busy distilling actionable insights for decision-makers at the global level, Myriam and her team were accelerating massive action on the ground in Kenya through the National Business Compact on Coronavirus, and you can read more about her experience and reflections in her Action Toolkit (also available in the Response Centre).

This has been a true team effort, and I am grateful to all those who played a part: our lead authors, the close to 30 other people who stepped into our core team, the many experts and practitioners who shared their insights through our events, and the various companies and content partners who came forward to support this collective effort. More broadly, I have been moved by the many people across our community who have sprung into action, mobilizing their businesses, NGOs, or government departments, and collaborating in new ways – even with traditional competitors – to make an urgent difference. Over 30 of our fellow business networks have also been coordinating and collaborating with us behind the scenes.

Most inspiring has been the fact that this has all been done despite unprecedented personal and professional stress. We have all been impacted, and we have all been moved by those on the frontline who have been keeping us safe. We took the early, but difficult, decision to cancel our flagship Washington event, due to take place in April, and have since cancelled all of our large in-person events this year. Iain Forrest, a medical student and cellist from New York, was due to open our DC event. Instead, we asked him to perform for a video that we dedicated to all front line workers. The result is a performance that moves me to tears every time I watch it!

In terms of some key learnings, I would summarize them as follows:

  1. Be flexible
  2. Utilize existing models
  3. Partner with the experts
  4. Active decision-making
  5. Keep sharing

Q: What do you think is next for business and society in the battle against COVID-19?

A: This is only the start. The pandemic is far from over – and is only just peaking in many countries with weak health systems and social safety nets. With the pandemic likely to come back in force in many countries, and with the most vulnerable facing the greatest risks, we will be dealing with a complex mix of emergency response, recovery and rebuilding for a long time to come. 

Importantly, we as a community have the opportunity and, I believe, the responsibility, to act now to build a better future. Let’s face it; the pandemic has exacerbated deep inequalities and fragilities in the current system that have always been there. Actions we take now will have long-term consequences for those who have been most impacted, the very people whom all of us in this community have dedicated our careers to supporting.

Q: As the world looks to “rebuild better“, what key issues do companies and stakeholders need to consider?  And what is the role of partnerships in addressing these?

A: These questions are at the heart of a series of discussions we launched across our community and beyond – to understand what “better” means at a society level, business level and an individual level. This includes Business Fights Poverty Online 2020 where over 1,000 people from across the globe joined together for a week of conversation, connection and collaboration. 

Important questions we are working on that will also help businesses to rebuild better include: 

  1. How can we embed purpose into business?
  2. How can companies and others best work together to support MSMEs and vulnerable workers?
  3. What are the opportunities for re-skilling and up-skilling?
  4. What can be done to ensure equity in our workplaces?
  5. How can we collaborate to accelerate and deepen positive impact?

Anuj Dhariwal & Mario Augusto Maia from HelloScience both were guest speakers at the Business Fights Poverty Online event (13-17 July, 2020), which was part of the High-Level Political Forum (HLFP). The HLPF annual meeting is the core United Nations platform for follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

“As every crisis also brings new opportunities, we must see what we first need to unlearn, both as employees and managers, and what new skills need to be learnt. Digital skills were becoming a must have anyways, Covid-19 crisis just brought it earlier. Focus on new ways of working and how you may convert your obstacles into your USPs. Upskilling is a continuous rigor, like a fitness program, and not a one-month subscription”

– Dr. Anuj Dhariwal, Director, Head of Scouting & Venture, Novozymes

“Looking at it from an investor’s perspective, it would be highly relevant to see corporates with complete understanding, commitment and disclosure related to ‘social impact and risks through the value chains’ where they operate. This has always been appreciated but Covid-19 has certainly made the need for change even more pronounced with supply chain breakdowns leading to different social implications across it. Ultimately, corporates should examine every part of their businesses, activities, relationships and supply chain using social impact lens

Mario Augusto Maia, Head of External Innovation and Investments, Novozymes

Learn more about Business Fights Poverty Online 2020 

The resounding learning so far: People want to lean in, to “rebuild better” and are willing to roll up their sleeves in order to do so, but as an African proverb says:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

And we will be looking to work more closely with the HelloScience community in the near future, and would love for you to be a part of this work going forward. If you would like to know more, join the community or get involved, please do join us here: https://businessfightspoverty.org