The Co-presidents of Net Impact Segal’s 2011 MBA cohort, Julian Harrison and Lindsay McIvor, were lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend the annual Net Impact Conference this year. We were accompanied by Colin Lam, the president of Net Impact Segal’s 2010 MBA cohort, and we had an incredible time together! Having Colin on the trip was especially fantastic because Julian and I were able to discuss at length with Colin about his experience as President of Net Impact, allowing us to gain helpful insight and ensure the continuity of knowledge, so we can facilitate a successful year for Net Impact Segal.
We arrived at our hotel next to the conference centre and the whole area of the city was buzzing with professionally-dressed Net Impact-ers, all of whom seemed really excited to be there. The first major organized event of the conference was the Welcome to Oregon Party, and it was held at a fantastic venue for socializing and dancing. We tasted local beers, met other Net Impact members from across North America and around the world, discussed our various visions for a Sustainable planet, and danced it up! The next morning we got our coffees and headed over to the conference centre for the first of two day’s sessions.
The sessions were absolutely fantastic – the topics that were covered, the speakers who came to share their knowledge, and the fellow students’ engaging and intelligent questions all contributed to an incredibly inspiring learning experience. The first session Julian attended was “Our Financial Footprint: Transforming the Economic System through Finance”, a session which generated many ideas including the notion of using a Genuine Progress indicator rather than simply GDP as a better way to measure total welfare. The first session I went to was based on the realm of International Development and was titled, “Conflict Minerals: How to Bring Peace to a Supply Chain”. The speakers included an executive from Dell computers and questions were raised from the audience by managers at Apple and Microsoft, among other big business names. The panel speakers weighed in on the responsibility of Buyer-Driven Supply Chain Companies, such as the large computer manufacturing companies, to understand where their resources are coming from and what effect their extraction is having on local communities’ socio-political and socio-economic conditions. The session highlighted the unfortunate reality that many essential minerals, especially those that are mined in underdeveloped countries such as those in Central Africa, are sometimes mined and sold in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuse.
There were also more interactive sessions available to attend and Julian participated in “Next Generation Strategies for Social Change: How to Use Markets to Achieve Missions”. In this session, Jason Saul, CEO of Mission Measurement, talked about how companies will enact social change if it is profitable, and called upon us to be the next generation to find ‘social solutions’. The attendees were put into groups of 4 or 5 and were asked to come up with a ‘social solution’ for Apple. The two points that had to be respected were a) that there would be a positive social impact and b) that there was a profit to be made. Julian’s group came up with the idea of enacting a waste removal program at Apple whereby Apple customers could pay a small fee to have their old computer dismantled and have its harmful components removed before being sent to landfill. Julian and his group came up with the idea that the dismantling be done in a safe environment, in areas where the Apple stores are located by low-income or people with mental difficulties. This would have the following impacts a) local employment for people who have trouble finding work b) removal of harmful components from landfills and b) profit for Apple (and a positive image). Their group won the challenge and received a copy of Mr. Saul’s book Social Innovation, Inc.!
One of the best sessions I went to was a panel discussion called, “Creating a Corporate Social Responsibility Program from Scratch”. The speakers included Tod Arbogast, Vice President Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility for Avon Products Inc.; Meg Garlinghouse, Head of Employment Branding and Community at LinkedIn; Michael Jordan, SVP Sustainability Strategy, Jones Land Lasalle; and had Regina Hauser, Executive Director of The Natural Step Network USA as the moderator. The audience heard about various frameworks, strategies, and tools for overcoming challenges to launch exceptional Corporate Responsibility programmes or how to take an existing program to the next level. The key messages communicated were the importance of having champions within organizations, preferably at the executive level; the need to foster relationships built on common goals across the organization; and the importance of employee engagement and accountability at all levels of an organization. The speakers emphasized the importance of devising plausible goals and initiatives which can be sustained over the long-run, and the need to install metrics of various kinds. Lastly, the speaker panel weighed in on the three critical skills for having a Sustainability/CSR-related career. They agreed that you must be a “people person” because you will need to be able to engage broadly across the company and community. It is also important to have fantastic conflict resolution skills – something which derives from being a people person. Thirdly, it is crucial to obtain and display an attitude of pragmatism in finding and communicating solutions to the Sustainability problems businesses face.
The speakers at the conference were of the highest calibre and included high-level executives from Nike, Boeing, Deloitte, Campbell Soup Company, Levi Strauss & Co., Starbucks, Gap, Dell, FedEx, and eBay. There were also speakers from Universities and Governments from the West to East Coasts of the United States. The opportunities to network and socialize during our time in Portland also really added to the value and fun of the experience. We connected with students from the UBC and University of Alberta Net Impact chapters and had a great night out on the town, from which some new friendships and good memories have resulted, and some joint Net Impact events are now in the works. We were the first cohort to have students attend and we would like to take this opportunity to encourage future SFU students to try to attend the conference and to thank the Beedie School of Business for supporting our attendance. It really was an invaluable experience to be exposed to the conversations which are being had by high-level executives of large and small North American businesses in order to understand where their heads are at, what kind of benchmarking is being done within and across industries, and what key ideas are working to drive Sustainability into the agenda of businesses.
All the Best,