Key learnings on the theme of purpose-driven leadership


NationSwell’s 2023 Summit brought together the most cutting-edge and committed leaders in ESG, social impact, philanthropy, and other select fields. Across a full day of programming, participants elevated exciting and promising ideas and initiatives, reflected and revitalized, and gleaned actionable insights, practices, and collaboration opportunities to propel their leadership forward.

One of the main themes of the day was purpose-driven leadership, through which presenters and guests explored how to better center their values, prioritize human connection, and bring forward a “Better + Bolder” version of themselves.

Below are key learnings from the NationSwell Summit on the theme of purpose-driven leadership.

Note: Key learnings are also available on the Summit themes of economic mobility and business for good. A panel discussion on the fourth theme of sustainability was off the record.

Key Learnings

We must go beyond “allyship” and recognize our complicity and agency in addressing the societal challenges around us.

In a fireside chat with Graham Macmillan (President, Visa Foundation), Professor Ruha Benjamin (author, Viral Justice), reminded us that we are all affected by climate change, health inequity, and the myriad of other issues that we work to mitigate as social impact practitioners. And when we see ourselves in the issues, not simply adjacent to them, we understand that all our fates are linked. Recognizing the potential for any societal changes to benefit everyone in the long-term, not just one group, we are more compelled to center humanity in our leadership and decision-making.

“Be better and bolder by investing in the microscopic; people might not see it but they will feel it.”

Professor Ruha Benjamin ended her fireside chat with a succinct call to action: to change our everyday practices rather than solely focus on high profile actions that manage to break into the news cycle. Although actions like racial equity statements and large philanthropic investments are useful and valuable, it is also necessary to audit and participate in the small aspects that add up to a system so that we can change that system. Professor Benjamin recommended Beyond the Statement as one source that will allow organizations and their leaders to audit and transform their actions on racial equity, but the lessons can also be applied to other issues and objectives.

To center humanity in our work, we need to be softer and kinder. Doing so can build bridges of trust between those who do not see their inherent similarities.

In discussing human connection with Sheila Peluso (Chief HR Officer, Senior Legal Officer and Senior Managing Director, Cerberus Capital Management) and Scott Keoni Shigeoka (Fellow, Greater Good Science Center), Jenn Hoos Rothberg (Executive Director, Einhorn Collaborative) evoked the need for human connection and emotion in our work with a call to be “softer and kinder.” We can reach larger groups of people by focusing on the exhausted majority who are open to stronger ways to connect. In imbuing our actions with softness and kindness, we prime everyone, including ourselves, to be better and bolder.

  1. Solve the problem that makes your work necessary in the first place.

  2. T. Morgan Dixon (Founder, GirlTrek) highlighted GirlTrek’s mission to bring health and happiness to the lives of 700 million Black women. By inspiring behavioral change for its members and narrative change with its advocacy and campaign work, GirlTrek is a movement that is improving Black women’s health and creating new patterns that will last generations. 

  1. We must honor life’s and society’s transitions, allowing them to inform our practices and reinvigorate our purpose.

  2. As leaders, we must remember we do not need to accept things as inevitable, and that we are called upon not only to imagine better alternatives, but to build them. Purpose-driven leaders know what they want to build toward, but, as NationSwell Fellow Thea Gay reminded us in her Impact Spotlight: everything is constantly in flux, and we cannot plan without being open to change. When we know our abilities on a personal level, we can more readily go from “me to you to us” and build better systems together.

Entering each interaction – no matter the size – with humanity and clarity leads to a bigger, elevated culture of purpose.


In a fireside chat, Hamdi Ulukaya (Founder and CEO, Chobani) reflected on the inherent interconnectedness of leadership. In business, for example, there are endless touch points throughout daily operations, whether they are in the manufacturing plant, the office, or with consumers. For leaders, each of those touchpoints offer the chance to connect with grace and humility so that each person can feel recognition from leadership and see the power in replicating these mindful actions.

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