By Jake Strickler, Staff Writer
On November 5th, roughly 2,500 individuals came together at Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center for the fifteenth annual Net Impact Conference. The next few days were spent in discussion of some of the most important issues of our time, as well as of the hurdles and obstacles that mankind is likely to be confronting in the near future. Although the discussions skewed gloomy (along with the weather; it was Seattle, after all), the hope and energy brought to bear on the conference were inspiring and invigorating enough to send attendees back home with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.
Net Impact is an organization that was founded in 1993 to unite forward-thinking groups and individuals, opening channels of dialogue and facilitating the free flow of ideas between them, thereby turning loose the wisdom of the crowd on issues related to the external costs of globalized capitalism. As the group’s website phrases it, the organization is a “community of emerging leaders…committed to tackling the world’s toughest social and environmental problems.” Coming on the heels of the radicalism of the 1960s and ‘70s and in the wake of such perils as the acid rain crisis and Nike sweatshop scandals of the 1980s and ‘90s, Net Impact tapped into a new zeitgeist of corporate responsibility and reform. Concurrent with its establishment was the evolution of the concept of “triple-bottom-line” accounting. This mindset sees beyond the standard profit/loss measure of business success by incorporating social and environmental factors into the equation. In short, this means that if a multinational corporation produces enormous profit at the expense of environmental health and the welfare of laborers, it is not even close to being successful in a sustainable, holistic sense.
The organization has over 300 chapters, many located outside of the United States but with the majority concentrated inside its borders. The yearly conference serves as an opportunity for members of these various groups to congregate in a centralized location to teach and learn about new ideas and innovations, as well as to make connections with those sharing the same interests and obtain proverbial strength in numbers. Thunderbird’s chapter was represented in full force, with thirteen current students attending. Says Bianca Buliga (MAGAM ’17, US/Romania), “Net Impact was truly engaging – the amalgamation of inspirational speakers, mind-bending sessions, and the beauty of downtown Seattle made for a memorable experience.”
This year’s conference (tag-lined “Game on!”) revolved around a series of athletic metaphors, making an argument for taking the same approach to social and environmental reform as one would take to competitive sports. In this game, however, the stakes are existentially enormous, making one’s participation in it a necessity rather than an occupational choice. Attendees were encouraged to jump into the fray headfirst and work as hard as they can, leaving nothing on the field when the whistle is blown. Panels and workshops ranged in topic from climate change and water security to fair treatment of producers at every step of the supply chain, social cause financing, corporate social responsibility, and impact investing, but all were presented with this sort of robust enthusiasm and can-do attitude. Melissa Gaylord (MAGAM ’17, US), for example, was struck by the notion that “the opportunities and privileges that we have come with great responsibility,” and that this responsibility requires us to “get actively involved with finding a way to create noticeable and sustainable impact.”
A common thread running through a great majority of these sessions was the importance of pursuing work that is not just financially profitable, but that is also fulfilling and purposeful. For Alex Marino (MAGAM ’17, US), hearing panel participants speak “about how purposeful their work in social impact is and how enthusiastic and successful they’ve been in a wide variety of fields” was particularly inspiring. This approach left him with “a clearer understanding of social impact work.” Bianca found a sense of solidarity and shared vision at the conference. “Discussions with peers from Yale, Georgetown, and other prestigious universities,” she said, “left me feeling empowered in my own innovative capability and in the innovation happening in my generation.”
For those interested in pursuing careers within the worlds of corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability, Net Impact can be an incredibly valuable resource. And with the challenges presented by extreme global inequality and climate change looming ever larger on the horizon, it’s never too early to start learning about the causes and effects of these dynamics on the global marketplace that we students are all poised to enter before too long. Next year’s conference will be held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and my bet is that there will be a flock of T-Birds attending to enrich their understanding of the issues facing humanity at a global level. I’ll see you there.