At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational look like — and how best to advance that work in practice?

Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of investors, executives, authors, philanthropists, social sector leaders, academics, and field builders who are helping to shape business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches.

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Vilas Dhar, President of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation (PJMF), about what this moment in artificial intelligence (AI) means for ESG practitioners, the importance of pushing past digital literacy and towards digital agency, and the big questions that leaders should ask as we build an equitable and human-centered future enabled by technological innovation.

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: Tell us how your professional and personal journey led to this work.

Vilas Dhar, President, PJMF: My life’s journey has been defined by an insatiable curiosity and a commitment to accelerating innovation that sustains human aspirations, creativity, and joy. This socially minded curiosity was shaped by the time I spent with my grandfather in India.  At the start of each visit, I would proudly show him the new tools or gadgets I was developing and he’d always respond in the same way, “Now that I’ve seen how much joy and creativity these tools bring you, how can they also uplift the people in your community, in your family, in the world around you?” 

That question defines so much of my journey and is one I continue to ask myself today. I’m an incredible optimist about the world that we can build together, and that optimism started at a very young age. I had early exposure to amazing technologies: from exploring firsthand the technical innovation behind my favorite video games to hearing my mother describe how a computer was changing her job as an administrator at a university. I saw all the incredible ways these tools helped us spend more of our time doing the things that actually mattered — like connecting to each other — and helped us move away from rote mechanical tasks. Because of these technologies, we were able to use our creativity and inspiration to build cool things that, in a way, improved our lives. 

But at the same time that I was growing up and seeing all the transformative potential of technology, I also spent a lot of time with my family in rural India — in a world where technology hadn’t yet entered the picture. We’re not talking about computers here; we’re talking about basic things like power and running water. I remember these movements of contradiction so clearly because they highlight the frustrating tension that shapes so much of my professional journey: on one side, I have an unshakeable optimism about what we accomplish through ingenuity and shared action; and on the other, I can’t fathom why we are okay with a world where only a few get to enjoy the benefits of that innovation – simply because of who they are or where they grew up. 

We have to change that. 

Behrman, NationSwell: You’re an expert on artificial intelligence. What can you share to help moor ESG practitioners around what this current moment means? How can we lean in?

Dhar, PJMF: When I look out at the world, it feels like there’s actual potential for a transformation of power. These technologies are creating new agency for people across the planet, and we’ve been given — right here, right now — a chance to make decisions that include technology, but aren’t just about technology. They’re about who gets to participate, who gets to decide, and who gets to inform those decision makers. They’re about the uniquely human element of this transformation – one that will affect us all.

The big question isn’t about asking how to better understand these technologies and map their potential to the social justice work we do. We’ve already seen these new technologies do amazing things, from empowering frontline earth defenders to predict and stop illegal logging and poaching, to revolutionizing the efficiency of humanitarian aid delivery after a natural disaster. Now the big questions we need to ask are around our values and what we hold dear; how we’d reshape our very society; how we’d think about democratic and inclusive political processes to amplify marginalized voices; how we’d measure the value of our time and our labor; and how we’d re-design our governance structures and mechanisms of participatory decisionmaking.

We built an entire class of institutions after World War II that did amazing work in creating new economic opportunity and uplifting people across the battered postwar world — but that was almost 75 years ago. And while the private sector has moved forward and civil society has moved forward, we have to ask whether these institutions are ready for the challenges of the 21st century. Are these institutions fit to tackle the enormous scale of global hunger, injustice, climate change, pandemics, and beyond? Our positive frame is to ask, how do we convene all the different stakeholders in society to uplift global majority voices — and not just the Global North? How do we build new multilateral institutions that are fit-for-purpose, community-driven, and resourced to proactively address the major global challenges that we will face over the next 100 years?

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some activations that might enable leaders to better meet this moment?

Dhar, PJMF: Two categories come to mind: intention and action. We have to name and hold a set of intentions around building more inclusive and participatory decision-making infrastructure. That requires those who hold power to open the doors for those who aren’t traditionally included in those rooms, and it requires them to build trust with underrepresented or marginalized individuals so that they are willing to engage with us. 

I have deep trust in communities to define and shape their own destiny. So often, we’ve assumed that those who hold the power, privilege, and tools we are speaking about can make decisions for everyone else. But the truth is, communities are great at defining their own course. If we don’t intentionally engage them as the architects of their own future and proactively equip them with the right tools, opportunities, and support to succeed, then we’re missing the point.

Then, we have to understand that every person on the planet needs to experience not just digital literacy, but digital agency. It’s so easy to say that AI is this new thing on the horizon that’ll affect us in some profound way, but we actually need to understand these tools well enough to determine what their consequences might be on our lives. We need to create and nurture a shared and accessible language to discuss these tools and advocate for equity, justice, and human rights as they proliferate around us. That’s both an individual and collective intention we have to set. 

And then there’s the action. We need a new social conversation about what economic and moral structures we want to build. And we need to include voices across civil society, across government, across business, and across communities. We need conveners who will step forward to bring those groups together. And we need a bold willingness to act, to begin implementing what comes out of these conversations. I believe deeply in honoring human inspiration; what I mean by that is if someone has an amazing proposal, we can talk about it for months or we cantry it within just weeks. It’s the latter approach that will inspire and cement positive change.

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some unique programs or initiatives you’re leading at PJMF that other leaders may benefit from knowing?

Dhar, PJMF: We are re-envisioningwhat it means to be a philanthropy in the 21st century – where  grant making is now just one of the many tools we have to build public trust. We’ve restructured how we think about strategic intervention in civil society, moving from an idea where people apply for a grant and we make a decision — which just feels so disconnected from the outcomes we’re looking for — to a process in which we first strategize with civil society around what an ideal future would look like, and then collaborate with them to build programs to advance that future. That means, while we still make a lot of grants, we also partner directly with nonprofits to build capacity around data and AI, and we partner with governments and academic institutions to build entirely new frames of reference for human-centered AI.

To this end, we’ve recently built and deployed a new initiative called the Centre for Trustworthy Technology in partnership with Deloitte and the World Economic Forum. Together, we’re creating an entirely new convening space to think about policy for the AI-enabled age. We work directly with communities across the United States to support the idea that those who have traditionally been left out should be key architects of not only our technologies, but also of the societies we live in — groups like CodePath, Per Scholas, and The Hidden Genius Project.

We also work with AI scientists from Indigenous communities, and our work with the International Wakashan AI Consortium is emblematic of our approach. We support AI code camps on Indigenous sovereign lands to train young people to harness the power of these technologies and to give them a pathway to educational and professional opportunities. We also support their efforts to build new AI tools and models to preserve Indigenous languages, capturing thousands of years of ancient wisdom and applying that wisdom to a world that uses AI to translate and help young people connect to their own stories. 

Behrman, NationSwell: To which leadership practices do you most attribute your effectiveness?

Dhar, PJMF: My leadership style stems from a core belief that leaders have to be willing to call out what’s wrong in the world today; to call out inequity, injustice, and systemic exclusion as antithetical to the world we want to create. One key part of how I practice leadership is that I question the way things are done, and whether what we’re doing today is actually helping to build a better world. There are two benefits to asking that question. The first is more straightforward: if what you’re doing isn’t actually helping, you can ask the hard questions about what it will take to change the course of your actions; and the second is that by taking this first step as a leader, you enable and empower the community of people who work with you and around you to be able to do the same. 

This is a shared journey. If those of us on the journey can say we don’t like what we do, and if we can say we know there’s a better way, then the question you’re left with becomes a very human one: How do we come together to do better? And the answer to that question contains the real work of leadership, which is all about building trust; about becoming more humble and more curious so that others can make their voices heard; about making sure that our outcomes and our visions are aligned. As leaders, we need to demonstrate that we are truly accountable to each other; and we need to find and build spaces of shared joy to actually incentivize us to do more and do better.

When it comes to some of the issues that we focus on, we’ve become comfortable with the idea that there are technologists who make technology decisions and policymakers who make policy decisions. But for us, leadership is about empowering communities to know that technologists and policymakers should act as representatives of community interests, and that communities, too, have a right to participate in these decisions. At the end of the day, we want to affirm and show that we are here to support and serve communities along their own journeys of self-advocacy and self-actualization. And that also implies a responsibility for us to take shared ownership over the decisions.

Behrman, NationSwell: Who and what are inspiring your leadership right now?

Dhar, PJMF: At a foundation like ours, I come into contact with so many inspiring trailblazers, movement builders, and bold disruptors every day – that I couldn’t possibly name every one. But I’ll name a few here. Brandon Nicholson  runs The Hidden Genius Project, an amazing intervention that gives young Black men a full suite of support and engagement to help them find professions in technology. The Project started in Oakland, but Brandon scaled his work to multiple cities around the country; he’s just an amazing, incredible emerging leader. Gabriela Ramos, the Assistant Director-General of UNESCO, has taken this very deep international, global majority approach to thinking about how AI and technology are transforming all of our political structures. She’s a great writer, an inspiring leader, and a trusted colleague and friend. Michael Running Wolf is an Indigenous AI scientist who has committed his entire life to using these tools to connect people to the stories and wisdom of Indigenous culture. Through his leadership, we have begun to foster the next generation of young Indigenous coders, scientists, and changemakers. 

I also want to highlight the work of our partner: Tara Chklovski at Technovation — an organization that teaches girls technology and leadership skills to catalyze climate action across the globe. PJMF is proud to support and partner with civil society leaders like Tara, who are revolutionizing the application of technology to further social impact, gender equity, and empowerment. I’m sharing a recent quote of hers from THE Journal: “At Technovation, we want to champion the equitable adoption of new technologies and acknowledge as an opportunity that our students must learn how to engage with ChatGPT and use it to develop solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” Tara and I recently hosted a LinkedIn live on “AI and Leadership: A Pathway to Girls’ Empowerment and Climate Resilience,” to dive into some of these problems and how our two organizations are partnering to address them.

In addition to the transformative changemakers I work with, I also derive inspiration from reading. One book that made a unique impression on me and my work was Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin – a story that reminds us of just how important it is to find joy and fulfillment in our lives and the work we do. The second is a tract that I’ve read many, many times in my life: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. It’s an inspiring work that shapes acceptance of the many, many paths to our own internal truth.

I also feel fortunate to work in a field that contains such rich discourse from a broad range of sources. For example, Politico’s Digital Future Daily is a tech newsletter that regularly features different experts in the digital space, ranging from Microsoft’s Chief Responsible AI Officer Natasha Crampson, to DAIR’s Timnit Gebru, to the Future of Life Institute’s Mark Brakel. These are critical resources to not only inform communities about how AI and other technologies might affect their lives, but to also foster democratic dialogue around forging an equitable and rights-based approach to AI development and use.

To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub. PJMF is a NationSwell Institutional Member. To learn more about membership in NationSwell’s community of leading social impact and sustainability practitioners, visit our site.