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Social Innovation Symposium: How crisis drives world changing ideas 6 min read

Can you guys start by telling us your names, year at Stern and your role within SISA?

HR: Hannah-Rose Mann, Full-time MBA2, VP of Flagship Events for SISA 

LC: London Clark, Full-time MBA1, AVP of Flagship Events for SISA, incoming Co-President for the 2022-23 school year

This year’s conference team also included Maddie Montes de Oca, Hayley Mead, Julie Tzeng, Rowan Kurtz, Alessandra Nunez, Tyler Rice, and Juan Fernando Junca-Neira.

What is SISA?

LC: SISA stands for Social Impact and Sustainability Association. Our mission is to grow a community of past, present, and future Sternies who have the skills, network, and motivation to lead their organizations towards a more equitable, sustainable future. I think one common misconception that we really want to debunk is that SISA is just for individuals who want to recruit for specific social impact and sustainability jobs. That’s not true! If you’re even remotely curious about these topics and how you can embed socially and environmentally responsible practices into your careers, no matter what industry, then SISA is for you, too! 

What is the Social Innovation Symposium and how did you guys come up with the theme: “How crisis drives world changing ideas?” 

HR:  The Social Innovation Symposium is an annual conference hosted by Stern, as well as Wagner and Law.  It’s one of the very few conferences at NYU that is a collaboration between three different schools, which adds a fun perspective (and plenty of scheduling challenges). The goal is to bring together a diverse group of thought leaders to inspire new generations of change-makers. 

We really struggled at first with the theme for this year because it seemed impossible to ignore the pandemic, and yet we were all so sick of talking about it. With our final theme, Innovation for Impact: How Crisis Drives World-Changing Ideas, we were able to combine learnings from the pandemic with broader challenges. When your environment changes, resources are scarce, and normal ways of operating just won’t cut it, you have no choice but to innovate. We hoped to leave the audience with a renewed sense of optimism and energy.

Can you tell us about the keynote speakers?

HR:  Our keynote speakers this year were both Stern alums! 

Jorge Fontanez is the CEO of B Lab U.S. & Canada, part of a global network focused on realizing stakeholder capitalism and whose global mission is to create an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative future benefitting all people and the planet. B Lab is the organization that certifies companies as B Corporations. 

Esi Seng is the General Manager for Tom’s of Maine, a Certified B Corporation within the Colgate-Palmolive family. Under her leadership, Tom’s of Maine manufactured the first-of-its-kind recyclable tube toothpaste, which was recognized as one of The Best Inventions of 2020 by TIME Magazine.  Perhaps even more impressively, they made the technology open source for other companies and worked with municipal governments to ensure the tubes could actually be recycled. 


Esi and Jorge had a great discussion about listening to stakeholders, engaging the next generation of activists, and the role businesses can play in systems change. You can read more about Esi and Jorge (as well as all of our other speakers) here

Besides the keynote, what else happened at the Symposium?

LC: We also had a great series of panel discussions on more specific topics.  You can find more details here, but this year’s topics were:

  • Moonshots for Climate Innovation
  • Innovating for Informal Economies
  • Helping Teams Navigate through Crisis
  • The Influence of Social Media
  • Innovation in Digital Healthcare Solutions and Remote Provision
  • The Role of VC in Purpose-Driven Startups 

How did the event go?

HR:  It went really well!  Of course it’s disappointing to be on Zoom, rather than in person, but we had over 200 people register and all of our panels had great attendance.  In fact, one of the benefits of the virtual format is that we were able to have speakers join us from all over the world, including some from Kenya, Brazil, Argentina, and beyond. I’m so proud that the topics we chose and the speakers the team pulled together were interesting enough to draw people in on a Friday afternoon.

LC: I was blown away by the intellect of our speakers and the audience engagement. I was so excited to see individuals from within and outside the NYU community joining us and engaging with our panelists with really thought provoking questions. Actually, the day filled me with a lot of hope. It’s easy to get intimidated and overwhelmed by the global challenges facing our generation but I left the day feeling more confident that this community has the drive to tackle them.  

What were the most memorable moments?

HR: Near the end of the keynote, Esi was speaking about leadership and said something that really resonated with me.  I’m paraphrasing, but basically she said that leadership is all about accountability and vulnerability. You need to listen to all of your stakeholders to hold yourself accountable and listen to your heart to stay vulnerable. 

LC: Jorge and Esi spoke a lot about the need to ensure authenticity in the way you respond to crises, as well as when you are thinking about what social impact and sustainability really mean to your organization. It’s really not a one size fits all and it’s important that as leaders of our future organizations, we take the time to understand our stakeholders and where we can add value authentically. Not every issue is ours to speak on. 

What are the most important takeaways or what you hope people took away from the event?

HR:  I was quite surprised by some of the statistics that Jorge shared about B Corps being more likely to survive a crisis (like the ‘08 financial crisis or the pandemic).  Apparently, 52% of B corps hired more employees and 2/3 of all B corps saw increased revenue in 2020.  While I’ve long been a promoter of stakeholder capitalism, it’s nice to see numbers that support that position. 

I left the conference with a renewed sense of optimism. There are so many smart people working hard to make the world a better place, and they’re doing it through businesses. Sustainability and social impact are so often pitted against capitalism, and vice versa, but they don’t need to be. I wrote my Stern application essay about the integration of for-profit and for-good and this Symposium truly felt like that aspiration brought to life.  

LC:  One of the biggest takeaways I heard in both my panel on climate innovation and the panel on digital healthcare solutions was advice that they gave to students wanting to work on social, environmental and economic issue areas. We’re in such a unique moment of time where capitalism is starting to catch up to these important challenges. So if you’re interested… just apply yourself! Imagine the change we could make if MBA students applied their drive and knowledge to solving this problem the way we do other business challenges. In the case of climate change, it’s arguably the most important challenge of our lifetime and we have the skills to make a difference. In short, it was a call to action for us to use the power of business to create a more socially and environmentally sustainable world.

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