I was on one side of the room. My head full of stories of the garment workers I met around the world and ideas about how students can make a difference in their lives.
On the other side of the room were two recruiters from Marlboro. Their heads filled with information on who their customers are and ideas of how to get more.
Between us sat 150 business students. The battle for their souls began.
Okay, it wasn’t quite that dramatic. I wasn’t the angel on one shoulder and the Marlboro men weren’t the devil on the other. They were actually really cool guys — really cool guys that market products that gave my grandma emphysema, but still really cool guys.
Our guest appearances in the class just happened to coincide. One of the Marlboro men was a former student of the professor. After the first class, the professor told his former student that he would never work for Marlboro, but felt like it wasn’t his duty to tell students what they should or should not do. The former student just sort of stood there speechless.
After one of the classes, I was chatting with the Marlboro men, when the professor of the next class asked us to leave so his class could begin. When we left, he said something like, “I would never invite Marlboro into my class.” A few of the students applauded.
Since I was chatting with them, the students probably thought I was a Marlboro man too. Maybe they were able to discern that I wasn’t since my business casual was a pair of blue jeans with a whole in the knee – much different than their business casual. Still, this really got me thinking about the career choice of the Marlboro men.
They are both brand managers at a brand that has a giant warning label on the side of their ads and products that they deform unborn babies and cause cancer and death. That has to be challenging. One of the students asked them about that and their answer was pretty much this: “We’re not encouraging people to smoke. We’re providing a product for those who do.”
What happens when good guys work for bad companies? (I know that bad is relative here. I mean bad in the since that their products or the manufacturing of their products harm the world and people around them.)
What if you were a good guy on a planet where the only good job was with the Empire? Ever since you were a kid you thought it would be cool to wear one of those paunch-hiding, waist-slimming, Storm Trooper shells of body armor. You worked your way up through the ranks and eventually won your way onto Darth Vader’s entourage. Could you have a bigger impact on the battle for good and evil?
Let’s say Darth Vader is giving the invisible death grip to someone who really doesn’t deserve it. You could lean over and whisper into his helmet, “Lord Vader, sir, Jim is a good guy who was up with his kid all night. So he pressed the wrong button and that little bastard of yours got away with the lady with the funny hair and Harrison Ford? That kind of stuff happens to the best of us. How about you let him live so he can keep up on taking care of his family?”
What if you could whisper in Darth Vader’s ear? What if you could help give a company a conscience?
Some people are quick to write off the apparel industry as an evil empire, but I’m always excited to have the opportunity to chat with someone on the inside or students who might be on the inside. I think they can do the most good, even more so than the Rebel Alliance.
Pressure to change might come from outside, but real change comes from within.
May the Force be with you.