Shani Spivak, MBA Class of 2014

Paul Simon said it best (the song is “So Beautiful or So What”), probably because he made it rhyme with something.  If you want to find the true value of anything, look away from the price tag. Social enterprises have always clung to the hope that consumers understand this and will be willing to pay more for social value. Net Impact is an organization trying to tackle the work of engaging students and professionals in social impact so that this value becomes more evident. Every year they bring together social enterprises, nonprofits, students and corporate social responsibility (CSR) professionals for a Net Impact Conference. Because the conference was on the west coast this year in Silicon Valley, attending amounted to a long and expensive trip; but still, 15 Stern MBA students attended.

Many of the keynotes come from CSR roles or head the types of organizations that benefit the most from perceived social value. This year they included Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS shoes, Denise Morrison, President & CEO of the Campbell Soup Company and Caryl M. Stern, President & CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF.

While these big names weren’t accessible to general attendees they did give engaging talks and participated in passionate discussions, especially in the cases of Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething.org and Michael Brune, Executive Director of Sierra Club. The latter had an especially contentious debate with an Exxon Mobile executive that did more to highlight the disparity between opposing views on the topics of climate change and energy efficiency than reveal any common ground. The fact that Brune was speaking to a friendly audience aside, his points were more centered around facts and figures and he didn’t patronize the attendees, unlike the Exxon exec who touted more qualitative sentiments that had the feel of a sermon about how Exxon made the conference and by extension all modern life possible by providing power to light rooms and run HVAC systems. At best he may have gotten some pity points for looking old and frail next to the younger and more prepared Brune, but that didn’t help his cause much. Not that Exxon is scrounging for either pity or additional support; I doubt this was more than a blip on their radar.

This year’s conference also included two new and fitting tracks for the panels: Tech for Good and Sustainable Food. They also added more interactive workshops like the one Allie Hallowell and I attended called “Techpreneurs: Developing Market-Based IT Solutions to Poverty” featuring start-ups looking for crowd-sourced solutions to their BOP farming products’ challenges. I also noticed that more panelists were sticking around after sessions to answer questions and speak with attendees, which meant more networking and access for us, one of the biggest improvements from previous conferences.

All told the conference was worth the extra effort and I hope that we get at least as many people to brave the trip to Minneapolis next year for Net Impact 2014.

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