Net Impact Redefined for a New Generation

It’s 4 o’clock in the morning in Portland, Oregon and my 6-month old daughter thinks we’re on East Coast time. So she is as awake and happy as she gets, and I, somehow, am not.

I’m here for the annual Net Impact conference, a gathering of MBA students and professionals that want to use business skills to change world. This is my sixth time at the conference, and my third time speaking at the conference, including their first European conference in Geneva in in 2008, which I blogged here. What keeps me coming back to this event is the feeling I get when I’m there with the thousands of participants that there truly is enough talent and commitment in the world to do what needs to be done. To discover, to persuade, to implement, to do all the things necessary to create a world that is both sustainable and just.

I’ve been aware of Net Impact since I helped organize a conference on business, technology and the environment called Ecotech in 1997. That was so long ago that my conference didn’t have a website, but I remember reaching out to a group called Students for Responsible Business (SRB), an offshoot of BSR, and wondering what it was like to be an MBA that was passionate about sustainability. I wouldn’t have guessed that almost 5 years later, I would launch a Net Impact chapter at Stanford Business School.

SRB became Net Impact, and has been evolving ever since, even as the very concept of socially responsible business has morphed into a broader understanding that the tools of business can be applied in almost any setting, and that social responsibility should really be no different from the basic duty of any company to operate in ways that are responsible. In a sense, the founders of this organization understood that responsibility could not be a side project, but had to be a core principle. At this conference I heard from folks like Hannah Jones at Nike, who talked about the importance of innovation, and Ben Packard of Starbucks, who spoke on the topic of transparency.

Net Impact is often a place where companies announce new initiatives, share their best practices and recruit for new talent. But the bar is getting higher for the next generation of emerging business professionals.

In the almost 20 years since this community first formed both the world of CSR and the students themselves have changed. They are not just looking for good companies to work for. In the sessions I participated in on impact investing, I heard questions from students who plan to start social enterprises, become impact investors, or who are interested in being a part of a movement that challenges the assumptions of business as usual fundamentally.

Being with them, in addition to the dear friends I’ve made here, gives me hope for the future.

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