Wharton alum K. Robert “Bobby” Turner is a man on a mission – a mission to make a positive difference in the world and to inspire others to do the same. And when it comes to inspiring others to make a difference, he’s starting at Penn.
His message? You can make the world a better place. You don’t have to trade off profits for purpose. But know that purpose – not profits – is the key to personal happiness.
The Lauren and Bobby Turner Social Impact Executive Speaker Series invites high-profile luminaries to speak about their lives and how they have leveraged their power, fame, and wealth to change the world. Established in 2010, the series has brought Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Andre Agassi, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Eva Longoria to the stage at Penn as examples of individuals who are “doing well and doing good.”
Turner, W’84, acts as the host and moderator of the event. In early October, he spoke with actor, technology investor and producer Ashton Kutcher in a packed Zellerbach Theatre. And next week, Turner will sit down with the KIPP Schools’ co-founder Michael Feinberg, who is also a Penn alum.
Wharton Social Impact Initiative spoke with Turner about his views on social impact, and why he invites celebrities to his alma mater year after year.
WSII: When a person typically thinks of social impact leaders, the [actresses and athletes] of the world aren’t necessarily the first names that come to mind. But you feel differently. Why did you want the Social Impact Executive Speaker Series to have such a “star-studded” focus?
Bobby Turner: I think that part of what we need to do is enlighten our students so that they can recognize that social impact really is so all encompassing. It really is, when you think about it; it’s almost a paradigm shift in values when you think about the opportunities.
The history of the social impact speaker series goes all the way back to when I graduated Wharton in 1984. Because I graduated with a black belt in the art of creating wealth…I graduated with this great tool box of skills to go out and create wealth. And I always had assumed that with wealth, would come happiness.
What I realized later on, is that there’s not a tremendous correlation between wealth and happiness, and that the only thing that wealth would guarantee is a more comfortable form of misery in life.
I started thinking about [current students and recent graduates] and the reality is, they have a very different set of values than [those of us who] graduated college 30 years ago.
We recognize that what they want out of education is the power and knowledge to make meaningful change in the world upon graduation.
What motivates you to bring these speakers to Penn?
Part of the reason is to really bring leaders to campus who would attract as many students as possible. And once they’re here, we want to drill down on the basic fundamentals that, first, there’s no correlation between wealth and happiness, and second, that in the creation of wealth one does not have to be exclusive of also having a positive impact on the world.
And thirdly, [we demonstrate that] the greatest sense of happiness and accomplishment that all of these speakers have is not the creation of fame of fortune. It’s not their wealth. It’s not being in front of the camera. It is the opportunity they’ve had to have a positive impact on other people’s lives. And that, to me, I felt would a great opportunity.
My wife and I thought that we could bring these leaders to campus and enable students to expand how they define success. We wanted to bring leaders that they respected, they looked up to, but also leaders that basically felt, and could communicate that, making money and making impact on the world were not mutually exclusive. And I think that’s really the genesis of how it came about.
When you say that social impact is all encompassing, what does that mean to you?
Think about public education. If we want to solve the problems in public education we can’t do it in a silo at Wharton. We need to identify and quantify the issues in a collaborative effort with [with people in Medicine, Urban Planning, Nursing, etc.]. I mean, there are so many drivers that influence the success of education. It’s not just finance. So to truly come up with sustainable solutions you’ve got to collaborate.
The other thing that’s important is recognizing that social impact is inclusive. Socially responsible practices and ethics influence the success of all organizations. It doesn’t matter if you’re for profit or not for profit.
Social impact also is what I call purposeful profits, recognizing that there is the art of balancing a purpose beyond shareholder wealth with an absolute necessity for profits. It’s profits that enable TOMS to put shoes on orphans and homeless kids in Africa. It’s profits that allow Warby Parker to deliver a pair of glasses, reading glasses, to an inner city at-risk kid.
So there is that interdependency between profits and purpose, and that’s what social impact is to me: making sure that that hybrid between for-profit and not-for-profit also recognizes that you need to be impactful, you need a sustainable solution.
In the past, you’ve said the speaker series is about demonstrating that it’s possible to be both successful and socially responsible. What do you hope students take away from this? What do you hope they learn about social impact?
There’s obviously no secret that the generation graduating our school will have some pretty huge challenges, be it healthcare or federal deficits or education or global warming or housing or food security or infrastructure.
But the amazing thing is daunting challenges create daunting opportunities. And great career opportunities for our kids to pursue their passions, make money, and to make meaningful change. And the great thing about social impact is you get to choose.
You can choose the path of just making the most money, but recognizing that social impact is part of society now; making the most societal change, be the philanthropist or the social worker; or doing both, making money and making change.
What is so exciting to you about Ashton Kutcher? What’s intriguing to you about his work as an investor, advocate and as a public figure?
He’s a successful early-stage social media investor. He’s an incredible philanthropist in that he co-founded the THORN Foundation, which is an organization focused on the abolishment of child pornography and the child sexual slave trade. So he’s passionate about that.
But what really, really attracted me to Ashton was his recognition of his responsibility in his messaging. A couple months ago, he was honored at the Teen Choice Awards. And the speech he gave was so influential and so reflective of his disposition in life.
He didn’t get up there and say, “Oh, I’m so honored, I’m so handsome.” He said, “Do you know what sexy is to me?” And his response was “What’s sexy to me is intelligence and thoughtfulness and generosity.”
So that, to me, shows you a guy who is incredibly wise, recognizing that he can influence tomorrow’s children. He is so cognizant of his responsibility to drive values and to influence [young people] that I thought he’d be the perfect candidate for us. Because he truly lives and breathes and recognizes the responsibility he has to pay it forward for all of his great success.
Are there areas or topics where your passions overlap? For instance, his activism to end youth sex trafficking, or his support for technology.
Well, children. Anything to do with underserved or at-risk children. Everything I’m doing in my day job is about children. My Canyon Agassi Charter School Fund is about providing [hope to children]. Society breaks down when the next generation has no hope. And the only hope that we’ve had in this country for years is that one can exceed, one can achieve the American dream through education.
When I graduated, I sort of defined my legacy originally as wanting to have the most change in my pocket – I wanted to be rich. I think that as one gets wiser and one becomes more reflective on life and what you want your legacy to be, it becomes less of “I want to have the most change” and more “I want to have made the most change.”
A passionate supporter of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, Turner received a B.S. in Finance at Wharton in 1984 and serves on the school’s Undergraduate Executive Board of Advisors. He is the Chairman, CEO and Co-Founding Partner of Canyon Capital Realty Advisors. He has been a pioneer in the area of “triple bottom line” investing, with funds include the Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds, focusing on inner-city and urban real estate development, and the Canyon-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, a joint venture with Andre Agassi focusing on the development of environmentally responsible charter schools.