Net Impact 2010: A shot in the arm

There’s nothing like being back on a college campus surrounded by ~2,000 students to make me pine for my own B-school days. Ah, remembering the night that my friend Wei and I stupidly pulled an all-nighter for the PAC-10 case competition. Marveling at the beautiful spreadsheet model that I previously could only dream about were it not for the help of my classmate Samir and some patient professors. Helping talk my friend Cass into adopting a puppy when we were visiting a store while doing a research project for at PetSmart. Or lying on the floor of my living room bawling, convinced I would never get the job I wanted, despite the assurances of a very supportive career management center staff.

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Last week, I had the chance not only to take the requisite trip down memory lane, but also get a boost from the 2,500 MBA students and professionals who descended upon Ann Arbor, Michigan Thursday for the annual Net Impact 2010 conference. Since I attended my first Net Impact conference back in 2003, the conference has more than doubled in size and now attracts a regular flow of leading CSR professionals, many of whom remarked that this is one of their favorite CSR conferences (click here to read nice summary of conference from Marc Gunther). And I have to whole-heartedly agree.

Why? Because of the energy. The students attending this conference are laser sharp in their questions during the sessions and passionate about the potential for corporations to think and act differently in the future. I had the opportunity to talk with a number of students 1:1, during the sessions and breaks and also during career counseling sessions I signed up to do. Across the board, they exhibit systems- thinking and a strategic view of how the resources of the private sector can be brought to bear to address today’s challenges, from water conservation to human rights. And they are being creative and passionate about carving out a future career path that will let them leverage their B-school skills and provide them with personal meaning in the long term.

And that’s what I mean about this conference being a shot in the arm. This year’s conference reminded me of just how far we’ve come in the past few years in integrating sustainability and CSR into business education and business more generally. Even a complete cynic about the value of CSR would find it hard to deny that there’s something happening in business schools and major corporations today. Do we still have a long way to go? Of course we do. But the conversation is shifting more toward the importance of integrating sustainability and CSR into business strategy and making it more relevant to the traditional B-school disciplines. What does sustainability look like in a supply chain/purchasing department? What about IT? What about Finance? What about Marketing and brand management? Each functional area of the business has a critical role to play in impacting the company’s overall performance. We talked about this topic in our session on Value vs. Values and in a session on The Direction of CSR: Integration vs. Segmentation - and I firmly believe that this is what will drive us all to the next level of maturity in CSR and where the future new sustainability jobs will be. There will also be an incredible opportunity for MBAs who will work at small and mid-cap companies, who are increasingly faced with new sustainability requirements from the companies they supply to, from Walmart to McDonalds, from Intel to GE.

I know that for many, change in the field of CSR can at times feel slow and incremental. Trying to change culture and strategy for the long haul requires patience and the coordination of many different internal organizations and external stakeholders. When things go wrong, one of my favorite phrases has long been “death by a thousand cuts.” But this conference made me think of the reverse – when these students graduate and move out into the economy, they will change and improve thousands of businesses and help them to further integrate and embed CSR and sustainability into everyday business practices.

So, congratulations and kudos again to the Net Impact staff and students at the Ross School of Business and other volunteers who put on such a great and inspiring event. Already looking forward to next year in Portland.

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