Corporate Activism Heats Up in North Carolina

The onetime corporate leadership mind-set to “be seen and not heard” when it came to politics has undergone a rapid shift—hitting a fever pitch in this controversial election season. In March, North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill that would roll back the rights of LGBT people by allowing business owners to refuse service to LGBT individuals, force people to use restrooms that correspond with the biological sex on their birth certificates regardless of how they identify, and limit a spate of job protections for members of the LGBT community. Proponents of the law say that the intent is to safeguard religious freedoms and to protect women’s privacy in the restroom. But the growing list of vocal opponents claim that it’s nothing more than blatant discrimination and that it constitutes a civil rights violation. Since the bill passed, there has been a deluge of national criticism from community leaders, celebrities, and artists—musicians from Bruce Springsteen to Itzhak Perlman have canceled performances in the state. These are all folks you expect to hear from about social issues. But the cascade of corporate leaders who’ve spoken out has been extraordinary, with CEOs from Apple, Wells Fargo, IBM, Salesforce, PayPal, and the NBA denouncing the law. Over 120 national companies have now signed a letter condemning the law. The mayors of New York, San Francisco, and Seattle have banned government travel to the state of North Carolina. But for the already economically unstable state, this dissent is much more than a slap on the wrist, as CEOs of major companies are not just speaking out but making sure North Carolina faces major economic consequences. Most recently Pepsi—which was invented in North Carolina and still employs thousands in the state—came out against the law, and Google Ventures CEO Bill Maris has announced a boycott of funding to any start-ups in the state until the law is repealed. You can see a full list of companies that have come out for and against the bill here, and the differences between the lists—both in number and scope—are shocking.

And it’s not just talk and tweets. As a result of the bill, PayPal canceled expansion plans that would have brought 400 jobs to the state; Deutsche Bank froze creation of 250 jobs; A+E Networks, Lionsgate, and 21st Century Fox have all vowed not to film there until the law is repealed (joining Fox, Miramax, and the Weinstein Company in the pledge). Now, the Department of Justice is threatening to pull federal funds if the state doesn’t repeal the law.

It’s no surprise then that business leaders in North Carolina are worried about what effects the law might have on their bottom line. Bob Page, CEO of NC-based Replacements, Ltd., sent out a letter to customers ensuring that there would be no discrimination: “I want to make one thing clear,” he said in his eloquent statement. “Replacements, Ltd. affirms the dignity and beauty of each and every person. You will always be warmly welcomed.”

State leadership is anything but aligned on the subject, with Attorney General Roy Cooper calling the bill “a national embarrassment” and claiming it would set the state economy back.

With a who’s who of the corporate world putting pressure on the state, it remains to be seen whether state leadership will choose this hill as the one to die on (economically speaking): but one thing is certain, the power of CEO activism is real, and it’s likely here to stay.