A third-generation president of a multinational corporation in the travel industry once told me that he almost didn't go into the family business. "I wanted to change the world, make it a better place," he said. He wasn't sure that business, with its relentless pursuit of profit, was the right place to try to achieve lofty goals.

His grandfather convinced him business was a good platform for helping society.

Corporations, in their essence, are entities that are neither good nor bad. But when they're headed by greedy, dishonest or uncaring executives, they can tarnish the image of business leadership in the eyes of society.

Historically, the business leadership metronome has slowly ticked between greed and enlightened self-interest, but two well-known leaders in the travel industry have used their wealth, creativity and celebrity to inspire entire sectors of the industry to reconsider a "do-gooder" cause.

Virgin Atlantic's Richard Branson and Starwood Capital Group's Barry Sternlicht have each recently committed to projects that take an unapologetic, environmentalist stance and, with muffled hubris, suggest their actions might change the world for the better. I believe they're right, and that their past successes and influence are such that, whatever they do, others in aviation and hospitality will likely follow.

These events occurred at one end of the scale, the global conglomerate end. But corporate missions that may change the world are not beyond the ken of smaller businesses, too. We have written before about the programs run by AmericaShare, a nonprofit arm of Micato Safaris: Guests on safari can add days, at Micato's expense, to visit Nairobi's Mukuru Slum and volunteer to help AIDS orphans by sponsoring scholarships.

Mohamedin Ali was a child in Mukuru, a 15-year-old Somali refugee struggling not to let his D grades slip to Fs. In describing the circumstances of his life, there wasn't much to distinguish the desperateness of his situation from that of his peers, but upon meeting him, he was hard to forget. At 6-foot-6, he towered above his classmates, and his smile shone like a beacon from that height.

His dream was to come to the U.S., and it touched AmericaShare's executive director, Lorna MacLeod. She contacted a man who operated a basketball clinic, thinking he might be interested in sponsoring Mohamedin. She found a high school in New Jersey that would accept him as a student, sight unseen. She committed to housing him with her own family.

Getting a visa to the U.S. for a poverty-stricken Somali named Mohamedin is not easy. But with only three days before school was to begin, a chain of amazing events, starting with the issuance of his visa, began.

Economy class on the only flight that could get him to New Jersey in time for school was sold out, so Micato booked him in business class. Because business was oversold, he was bumped up to first class.

Mohamedin chatted with the passenger sitting next to him. The man, fascinated by his story, asked what he could do to help. Mohamedin said he didn't need anything, but that his community did.

The man was managing director of Kenya Airways. As a result of that conversation, Kenya Airways built a community center in the Mukuru Slum.

Today, four years later, Mohamedin is enrolled as a sophomore at Drew University. (As it turned out, there was an A student lurking within.) As for basketball -- well, here the miracles end. It turns out Mohamedin is the world's worst player.

The potential for business to change the world comes in many forms. I find Sternlicht and Branson's multibillion-dollar dreams encouraging. I find Mohamedin's story touching and inspiring.

What has your business done to make the world a better place? Write and let me know, and I may share it with other readers. I believe more business leaders can be trusted to do right more often than the public believes. And we could all do with a few more dreams and a little more inspiration.


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