At 42, Claudia Cornejo is attuned to the cadences of public service.
“There are times when one needs to act,” says Cornejo, a former minister of trade and tourism for the country of Peru, “and there are times when one needs to wait—for the right moment, the right time, to act.”
Cornejo’s lesson about timing springs from her days as a young intern working an administrative position for the Organization of American States in Washington, DC. Back then, the OAS was in transition. A new secretary general with a reputation for championing democracy, César Gaviria, had been appointed, and Cornejo was working in OAS’s Information and Dialogue on Democracy unit. A few years earlier Peru’s then president, Alberto Fujimori, had orchestrated an autogolpe, or “self-coup,” arrogating to himself full judicial and legislative powers. In a flash, democracy in Peru had been suspended, and yet few in Washington seemed to notice.
This was “real-world” stuff, explains Cornejo, who, in 2002, had recently graduated From Lafayette College with a degree in political science. Many at the OAS were urging Gaviria to seize the moment in order to convey to Congress the urgency promoting democratic institutions.
“My supervisor at the time took me aside,” Cornejo recalled, “and explained something that I’ve come to see as central to my understanding of history, of politics, and of policy making — that nothing can happen if it’s not the right time.” Many may have wanted it to be otherwise, the supervisor explained, “but she said it just wasn’t the right time for a newly appointed secretary of the OAS to make speeches to Congress about election monitoring.”
If people are frustrated, even disillusioned, by democratic systems, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still the best, most equitable form of government,” she says. “It just means that democracy has to evolve.
It wasn’t enough, in other words, to be on the right side of history. Effective change often meant recognizing that the window of opportunity sometimes opens slowly.
Later in 2003, at a campaign finance reform conference at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Gaviria ended a speech on the need for public funding of elections by noting that the problem of money in politics was widespread “among the world’s democracies and is being wrestled with around the globe.” After Citizens United, Gaviria’s observation seemed prescient; looking back at the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, it seems almost oracular. For those like Cornejo who today feel called to make a difference as leaders in business and public policy, the window of opportunity for change has slowly swung wide open.
The Time is Right for Democracy to Evolve
“If people are frustrated, even disillusioned, by democratic systems, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still the best, most equitable form of government,” Cornejo says. “It just means that democracy has to evolve.”
Her experiences within Peru’s ministry of trade and tourism and as CEO of the country’s national chamber of commerce, have given her a way of viewing that evolution from the perspective government and the perspective of private enterprise: “The system can’t just benefit the group of people who run it,” she observes.
Indeed, for Cornejo, economic prosperity and development must evolve with improvements across society for people to participate in that prosperity — and that, in turn, must be something that can be measurable, which means the use of more sophisticated indices of economic performance. In Peru, that can be a challenge, as 70 percent of the nation’s economy is “informal,” according to Cornejo — that is to say, off the books.
Elsewhere, people talk about having a side hustle, a way to make a little extra money. But in Peru, the side hustle is the main hustle.
“Elsewhere, people talk about having a side hustle, a way to make a little extra money,” she adds. “But in Peru, the side hustle is the main hustle.”
If economists can’t measure how the Peruvian economy performs for its citizens because that economy is mostly rendered invisible, policy makers cannot make good decisions to improve that economic performance — which deteriorates, and a vicious cycle develops.
Conscious Capitalism and the Evolving Role of Leadership
One of Cornejo’s objectives for her time at SIPA’s Global Leadership program is to think about ways to break that downward cycle. That, in part, is the goal of an organization Cornejo co-founded called Conscious Capitalism, which seeks to draw business leaders into the conversation about the role business leadership will need to play to address what SIPA faculty member Jonah Fisher calls the “tectonic” challenges of climate change, the disruptions of artificial intelligence, the likely increase of catastrophic “black swan” events like the COVID pandemic, and the rise of authoritarian illiberalism.
So what’s the path, in this context, to move forward?
“You have to have the difficult conversations,” says Cornejo. “You have to acknowledge that there’s something wrong in the system. Yet it takes courage to have that conversation, that dialogue, which isn’t about scoring political points but about finding solutions that help people.”
You have to have the difficult conversations. You have to acknowledge that there’s something wrong in the system. Yet it takes courage to have that conversation, that dialogue, which isn’t about scoring political points but about finding solutions that help people.
For Cornejo, such conversations are really about values, at least four of which come to mind.
The first is solidarity — the shared sense that unites cities, regions, and countries in the notion that the world’s problems cannot be solved via solitary action. “We cannot do this alone. We’re all in the same boat,” she says.
The second is about community. “Humans are social beings. We have survived and evolved and made progress as humans because we acted and lived in groups. We must develop this.”
The third is collaboration. “Our survival depends upon different communities coming together to help each other solve problems.”
And the fourth, a commitment to objective truth, combines all of these elements in a way that promotes decisive improvements in policy, in politics, in government, in business, and in the lives of people.
The good news? “People are already asking politicians, business leaders, and academics to be more outspoken about these issues,” she says. “We should have the courage to do that.”