Having More Choices: Sustainable Development in a Connected World

Alexandra van der Ploeg, SAP

In an increasingly connected world, people have more choices overall. Expert Alexandra van der Ploeg tells us more about the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN and its role in the private sector. Sustainable Development is not a moral but a business imperative which shows the letter to CEOs from Larry Fink.

Alexandra van der Ploeg is Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at SAP globally. Alexandra is responsible for setting the strategic direction of CSR focused on bringing to life SAP’s higher purpose of “helping the world run better and improving people’s lives” through strategic partnerships and programs that deliver sustainable social impact and long-term business value. In this function she also oversees corporate giving, volunteerism and the development of multi-stakeholder partnerships for which Alexandra has a particular passion.

Alexandra joined SAP in 1999. She started with SAP Switzerland in charge of management development and over the course of the next ten years held various managerial positions in Human Resources. Moving into the CSR organization in 2010, Alexandra developed and managed various global CSR programs, such as building an infrastructure for social business in Haiti and the development of a range of pro-bono volunteering program, e. g. the SAP Social Sabbatical Portfolio. Alexandra also serves on the advisory council of IMPACT 2030 and is part of the Leadership Council of the Realized Worth Institute. She holds an MBA from Henley Business School in Great Britain.

Leading with Purpose in an Interconnected, Complex World

You can not will “something” to go viral or start trending, especially from a global perspective. Our world is too diverse. There is almost no exception for a one-size fits all trend – except for maybe purpose. While most trends lose momentum almost as soon as they appear, a global movement recognising how interconnected our economy, society, and environment are, seems to have staying power. More specifically, there is an accelerating convergence of purpose-driven business strategies and Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the United Nations’ plan of action for people, planet, and prosperity. There are clear indications that these two topics will continue to increase in relevance for the foreseeable future and will have a significant impact on the role the private sector plays in society as well as the role we play as business leaders.

Agenda 2030 – The Private Sector’s Unique & Unprecedented Role in Driving Sustainable Development


In September 2015, the world was witness to a historic moment – the adoption of Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by all 193 UN member states. Historic, as for the first time ever there was a clearly outlined and unified plan to achieve a better future for everyone. This plan of action laid out a 15-year roadmap to create a world without poverty, a healthy planet, and a just, peaceful society for everyone. Historic also, because the adoption of the SDGs resulted from an unprecedented inclusive process, with governments, business, civil society and citizens, integrated right from the start.

Over the last two and a half years, the world has taken some crucial steps together. Now we need strong leadership, collective action and multi-stakeholder partnerships to meet the Global Goals by their 2030 deadline. Just as it required an inclusive process to adopt the SDGs, it is clear that no one organisation can go it alone. We know we must partner across all sectors globally if we want to truly achieve transformational change. The private sector in particular, has a unique and pivotal role to play. At a United Nations forum in September 2015, the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told more than 350 leaders of business, government, civil society as well as UN officials:

“Now is the time to mobilize the global business community as never before. The case is clear. Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals will improve the environment for doing business and building markets. Trillions of dollars in public and private funds are to be redirected towards the SDGs, creating huge opportunities for responsible companies to deliver solutions.”

While much attention is given to raising awareness and understanding about the SDGs – it is rare to attend a business conference these days where the SDGs are not featured as an agenda point – we also increasingly see different types of coalitions and initiatives with the intent to move the needle from discussion to action, and further to collective action. Let me give you two examples:


We can’t impact what we can’t measure. Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data is a global network that brings together governments, the private sector, and civil society organizations with the goal of ensuring the opportunities created through the data revolution are used to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. There are currently 300+ global partners focusing on multi-stakeholder collaboration to pioneer new methods, derive new insights, build new infrastructure, and develop policies on sustainable development data with the aim of facilitating better decisions that lead to better lives.


Global goals. Local Roles. Our success comes from people, not corporations. IMPACT 2030 is the only private sector-led initiative, in collaboration with the United Nations, social and public sectors, and academia, that has the unique mission to activate human capital investments through employee volunteer programs to advance the achievement of the SDGs. The initiative believes that employees can be multipliers of impact. IMPACT 2030 focuses on three objectives to achieve its mission: activate, collaborate, measure. In September 2018 IMPACT 2030 will host its second Global Summit at the UN headquarters in New York. Look out for new initiatives coming from this group including cross-company, collaborative Signature Impact Projects that will take place in numerous locations across the globe.

PartnershipThese are just a few examples of platforms and initiatives focused on enabling multi-stakeholder partnerships and collaboration to achieve the SDGs. Agenda 2030 recognises that everyone has a part to play and we will succeed if we each bring our unique competencies to the table. It is clear that this is just the beginning and we will continue to see more groundbreaking, partnerships, both with- and led by businesses around the world.

Sustainable Development is not a Moral Imperative – it is a Business Imperative

In January 2018, Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock Inc., issued a letter to CEOs with a very clear message:

“society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. Indeed, the public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.”

When the owner of an investment fund that manages 1.7 trillion USD in active funds, calls for companies to make a positive contribution to society beyond their financial performance, it sends a ripple effect through the business community.

How do you go beyond economic success to ensure that the economy, society and environment thrive?

It is not just the investment community that is asking businesses to be more socially conscious and in turn demonstrate purpose beyond the bottom line. In an increasingly connected world, people have more choices—whom they buy from, whom they work for, and whom they invest in. They want to work with companies that are not only dedicated to solving business problems, but companies that have a social conscience, as well. Recent research demonstrates that integrating purpose into the business strategy is not just a nice to have but a business imperative. For example,


Brand loyalty now means that 9 out 10 consumers would switch brands to one associated with a good cause.


The Edelman Trust Barometer, a poll of 33,000 individuals across 28 markets around the world, saw that 64% of the respondents expect CEOs to take the lead on social change rather than waiting for government to impose it.

Of course, many companies recognised purpose as an opportunity years ago, even prior to Agenda 2030, and continue to build on the momentum today. It is increasingly common to see companies, like SAP, documenting how social, environmental, and economic performance are interrelated, with each creating tangible impacts on the others; and how that strategy ultimately provides the foundation to secure a sustainable, profitable future. SAP is not alone. Many other companies like Bayer and Novo Nordisk have also turned to publishing integrated reports rather than just annual financial reports.

What you will notice about companies that are truly purpose driven, is that they don’t treat their purpose and/or social investments as add-ons, managed in silos, but rather completely integrated into their business strategies. We can learn a lot from companies like Patagonia or Unilever that have emphasised a higher purpose for years; in Patagonia’s case, since its inception. Social entrepreneurs can also serve as an exemplar of what it means to be purpose-driven. Social enterprises per definition have a social mission at their core – it is their reason to exist. While social enterprises face no shortage of challenges, the growing success of social enterprise incubators like the Acumen Fund, Yunus Social Business, or networks such as Ashoka or the Social Entrepreneurship World Forum, demonstrates that social enterprises as a business model are here to stay.

Agenda 2030 and Purpose-led Companies – Challenges on Leadership

AgendaThe Sustainable Development Goals and the irrevocable trend of companies to be more purpose-driven, undoubtedly have an impact on business leaders such as yourselves. Navigating, managing and succeeding in a world where boundaries between business, society and governments increasingly blur poses interesting challenges: How do you integrate purpose into the business strategy authentically and profitably? What impact does it have on leadership style and leadership development? How can you empower your employees to make a difference and serve your bottom line? Where can you create uncommon collaboration across sectors to help the world run better and improve people’s lives?

SAP is the world’s largest business software company. We serve some of the most amazing customers – and we always have exciting projects on the go. Our mission is to Run Simple, and we’re big on using our technological and business know-how to make the world a better place.
Our people are innovators, leaders, and all around great human beings. They come from many different countries, speak many different languages – and bring their own unique experiences to the table. At SAP, you’ll flourish in an environment that encourages free expression, collaboration, individuality, and diversity.
Gender equality is an important part of our mission – and we’re committed to having at least 28% women in leadership by 2020 and 30 percent in 2022.


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Global Female Leaders 2017: A Thorough Look Back

To sum up this great event in a single blogpost would be nearly impossible. Fortunately, we don’t have to try this, because our dear partner Accenture provided us with an in-depth White Paper, that you can now download on our website!

Just fill out the form below and enjoy over 50 pages of insights and key takeaways from the 2017 summit. We thank Accenture for their contribution and hope you enjoy the read!

Review Global Female Leaders 2017: Official Whitepaper

The Global Female Leaders 2017 summit took place from 7th to 9th May 2017 at The Ritz-Carlton in Berlin. Our dear partner Accenture provided us with an in-depth White Paper, that you can now download for free!

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