Sunday, November 6, 2011

2011 Net Impact Conference

"If we don't change our direction, we're going to end up where we're going."

With this Chinese proverb we began the 2011 Net Impact Conference in Portland, Oregon.  This annual conference aims to energize attendees to promote social and environmental good through business.  Over 2,600 participants from schools and industry met to discuss the latest ideas in clean tech, social entrepreneurship, impact investing, international development, and corporate responsibility.

Lord Michael Hastings addresses the Portland Ballroom

Business cannot succeed in a world that fails.  But business is not the enemy – it rather is the most powerful potential force for improving social cohesion and environmental stewardship.  Successful businesses improve the human condition.  Businesses can be profitable and meet the needs of the present without diminishing the ability of future generations to meet their needs.  This will happen when profits are aligned with the interests of society and the planet.

The conference showcased ways that businesses are achieving this alignment.  It kicked off last Thursday with a keynote address by Lord Michael Hastings, Global Head of Citizenship and Diversity at KPMG.  He stressed that the key to change is overcoming cynicism.  Friday started with Liz Maw, Executive Director of Net Impact, asking participants to "occupy Wall Street from the inside".  Sally Jewell, CEO of REI, emphasized that there is "no mission without margin" and talked about efforts of Walmart and others to develop a consumer-facing eco index.
FedEx, EDF, and Eaton talk about partnerships
Breakout sessions followed and I looked to branch out beyond all the renewable energy panels that I listened to at the 2010 conference.  One of the best I listened to featured leaders from FedEx and Environmental Defense Fund talking about how they partnered with Eaton to develop a fleet of hybrid electric vehicles that have trimmed FedEx's fuel costs and lowered greenhouse gas emissions.  I also listened to a panel of educators debate the merits of charter schools and the impediments to improving productivity in public education.  My day finished with a riveting group of cleantech VC's talking about the factors they consider when investing in green economy companies.

In the middle of all this was an expo featuring companies interested in hiring students who want to use their talents to promote social and environmental good.  Considering that I met Waste Management at the conference twelve months ago, I know from experience that the expo can connect students with great companies.  This year, I also spoke with representatives from Eaton, Sprint, PG&E, Gazelle, and Mercy Corps.

Saturday was a lighter day but still featured several good speakers.  A group of entrepreneurs delivered "speed keynotes" in the morning.  Jen Boulden asserted that "green business is not an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp" and told us that we needed to escape "paralysis by analysis" when starting our ventures.  Darell Hammond spoke about the urgency he felt to build playgrounds in urban areas.  Vail Horton presented his inspiring story of starting a business despite not having any working arms or legs.  I then attended a session presented by a pair of career consultants, who spoke about strategies for finding that dream job.  Seeing some rare Portland sunshine, I rented one of the free bicycles provided by the conference to explore a little of the city's riverfront and downtown.  The conference ended with a keynote by Hannah Jones, VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation at Nike, who presented a frank discussion of 12 years at a company that was once a "poster child for all that is wrong with supply chains".  She spoke how Nike has managed to innovate and change its approach, and closed with some advice: "Don't measure yourself by the competition – measure yourself by the potential."

Quick bicycle tour of downtown Portland
Much like last year, I came away from this year's conference with a much fuller picture of the challenges in joining people, planet, and profit, but also with a hopeful sense of the possibilities.  I enjoyed reconnecting with folks outside of my Darden network and meeting new faces with change on their minds.

The industrial revolution style of doing business simply won't work through the 21st century.  The strains it presents to our ecosystems and our social fabric are simply too great.  I'm impressed that 2,600 participants came together to discuss "sustainable business" in Portland, but I'm hoping that I reach a point in my business career where this becomes the de facto way of building an enterprise.  The urgency is great – if we stagnate with current business practices, if we don't change direction, then where we're going could be a dreadful place.  But I remain optimistic that we can innovate to sustain all 7 billion people on our planet.

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