Net Impact 2015: Presidians Learn the Power of Big Business

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By Clint Cleveland (C20)

Published 1.12.16

The Net Impact conference is an opportunity for nearly 2,400 students and professionals to meet and discuss new directions and best practices for positive social and environmental impact. Presidio Graduate School was well represented at Net Impact 2015; a good thing at an event with over a dozen sessions going on at once. The biggest challenge was deciding where to go next. A group of us could generally be found on the Convention Center's sky bridge, carefully perusing the schedule of events and pausing occasionally to admire the view down Pike street to Puget Sound. It took the pressure off a bit to know that nearly thirty of us were in attendance and there would likely be someone to report back on the talk or workshop we missed.

Presidians tend to be entrepreneurial, with a special affection for the young and disruptive start-ups that spring up in our midst. A recurring lesson of Net Impact 2015 was the power of big business and large foundations to make positive change in the world. Because most of us are either launching new careers or transitioning to work in sustainability, it was very interesting to hear the personal reflections and career turning-points of the keynote speakers, from corporate leaders to the heads of large foundations.

Jerry Stritzke, CEO of REI, talked about their decision to close all stores on black Friday to give employees more time with their families. As he spoke about the rationale behind that decision – the notion that REI's employees should be spending time outdoors with their families rather than pushing product – he also revealed how terrifying it was for a retail executive to make that kind of commitment. Cliff Burrows, Starbucks group president for US, the Americas and Teavana, made the point that corporations can't wait for or blame governments when change doesn't come fast enough. To that end, he said, Starbucks has built 700 LEED certified stores and has attained 99% ethically sourced coffee worldwide.

It's easy to write off large corporations' sustainability efforts as nothing more than savvy marketing, but hearing the principals speak about their decisions, and the challenges they face in implementing them, gives a clearer view of their level of commitment to changing the way they do business from the inside out.

Chelsea Clinton also provided a nice blend of her personal history and her current work with the Clinton Foundation. On the personal side, we learned that her chosen form of rebellion was to work in the private sector because her parents had done so much in government. She also revealed the helpful tip that if you ever want to engage her in conversation, just bring up the subject of diarrhea. Just be sure it's in the context of global public health. Because diarrhea is the second biggest killer of children, both the Clinton and Gates foundations are working hard to educate families around the world on how dangerous, but also how treatable, the condition is.

On the whole, Net Impact left me feeling optimistic and inspired. I would encourage students at academic level to attend. More than most other conferences I've been to, Net Impact seemed oriented specifically toward students and those just entering the job market. It felt accessible to undergrads, graduate students, or those newly exploring sustainable business. By the same token, the talks and workshops tended to stay at a superficial level. Inspiring and informative, yes, but not a place where you'll be talking about hard data or learning a new method for life cycle analysis.

For Presidians, who spend our time finding solutions to the thorniest and most persistent problems, Net Impact is an opportunity to see fresh ideas and, most important, remind ourselves that there's a whole community of like-minded people out there doing good work.

Clint Cleveland (C20)

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