Nearly 1,400 MBA students and professionals from around the world attended the 12th Annual Net Impact Conference, hosted by Columbia Business School on November 11–14, 2004.
The sold-out event, “Business Leaders Building a Better World,” was by far the largest Net Impact conference and the largest event held to date at the School. “I’m thrilled that Columbia is involved in increasing MBAs’ awareness of all the possibilities for combining social and environmental values with business skills,” said Liz Maw ’01 (pictured), who became executive director of Net Impact in 2004.
Participants heard from more than 200 speakers across 70 panels, on issues including international trade, microfinance, energy, education, corporate social responsibility, community development, social entrepreneurship and nonprofit management.
Orin C. Smith (pictured), president and CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company, set the tone for the conference in his opening keynote address, voicing concerns that had motivated many of the audience members to attend the conference: “Corporations are operating in a way that is not sustainable for future generations and we will go so far that we cannot correct it,” Smith warned. “The clock is ticking.”
Saturday morning’s CEO Roundtable offered a look at companies that are on the cutting edge of sustainability and corporate responsibility. Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation, Tom Chappell of Tom’s of Maine and Gary Erikson of Clif Bar discussed integrating their values into the culture, decision making and operations of their companies. Noting the pressure that public companies face to achieve quarterly earnings targets, all three CEOs said that leading privately owned companies allowed them greater flexibility to make values-based decisions and to pursue longer-term financial and social value.
The conference featured several highly interactive learning and networking sessions. Friday morning’s breakfast tea, hosted by Seth Goldman, president and CEO of Honest Tea, gave participants an opportunity to converse with him in an informal setting and learn about his experiences growing a social venture. Venture Labs allowed student entrepreneurs to present their ideas to peers and panels of experts and receive immediate feedback and advice on their business plans. Interest group dinners connected conference participants with similar interests. Offsite visits provided a firsthand perspective on affordable housing in Harlem; services for the formerly homeless at Common Ground Community; real estate development in Times Square; and redevelopment in lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center area. “We thought it was important to give the conference a real New York flavor and highlight some of the many social innovations taking place in the city,” said Carolyn Hack ’05, conference cochair.
About 100 MBA students, as well as numerous faculty and staff members, worked on the agenda and logistics of the conference. “The satisfaction of seeing the speakers coming to Columbia and being bowled over by the content and organization, as well as seeing the interest that panels sparked among participants, turned all that stress into great energy,” said Mario Lazzaroni ’05, the curriculum chair.
By the end of the conference there was a tangible sense of renewed optimism. Closing keynote speaker Julius Walls Jr., president and CEO of Greyston Bakery, left the audience with this sustaining message: “Do good and do well. It’s called a double bottom line. Our social mission is as important as our business mission. Our people are as important as the dollars we make.”
For more information, see the 2004 Net Impact Conference web site.