Net Impact Experience: 2011 Conference Reflection

December 6, 2011

What do you feel when you are in a room with 2,000 people talking about sustainability as business rather than a movement? Inspiration, possibility, and excitement. I wanted to have a conversation with as many of those 2,000 people as I possibly could. Fortunately for me, I was able to attend the pre-conference leadership meeting which gave me some networking guidance. In the leadership session, I learned how to map my career passions in a mosaic, ask a detailed question of the people I wanted to learn from, and make the most of my conference experience by taking away more than just business cards. I thus navigated the conference events and discussions with an intent toward social entrepreneurship but kept an open eye and ear to the sustainability buzz around me.

I attended panel discussions on Investing in Social Enterprise in Emerging Markets, Feeding the World by 2050, and Innovation in Social Entrepreneurship. The most impactful discussion I attended was no doubt the live simulation of Social Entrepreneurship in Africa. The session was hosted by Think Impact, a global social enterprise that provides an immersion program to train social entrepreneurs in Africa, and the intention was to present the framework and challenges of social enterprise in Africa, but more importantly to engage participants in the process of navigating difficult markets and exploring potential for social development. Participant groups were given different characters from a rural village in South Africa and were charged the task of creating an asset map of the character’s skills, capabilities, and unspoken connections with assets in the village. With this information, participants were encouraged to brainstorm and create methods for social innovation to alleviate poverty with community asset based development. Intriguing, frustrating, and a great challenge to work with a group of people from all over the world.

Throughout the conference and discussions with other MBA students, I picked up on a few themes humming through the buzz of Net Impacters; innovation, a focus on emerging markets, and whether or not CSR is good enough. Multiple events and speakers emphasized these themes, particularly social innovation. Hannah Jones, VP of Sustainably Business and Innovation for Nike, most memorably said in her keynote speech, “Obsess innovation, obsess innovation.” She inspired us to think, do, fail fast, and do again until we succeed. Innovate. Don’t wait to put your idea in to action, do it now. The panel discussion of organizations like Pioneer seeds, WWF, and Smithfield Foods on how to feed the world by 2050 encouraged the innovation of new agricultural techniques and methods of educating farmers in disadvantaged countries. The discussion of the Acumen Fund, Agora Partnerships, and d.Light solar on investing in social enterprise encouraged innovating small scale social business ideas in places like India, Africa, and Latin America where new ideas are needed and money is waiting to be invested. The CSR discussions encouraged innovating from within organizations to advance our corporations in the right direction. If there existed a perfect place to be to share your new idea, your out of the box thinking, or your innovative sustainability solution, this was conference was the place.

Three students attended the conference from Antioch. We each navigated the events in our own way, bringing back our experiences to each other in evening discussions at a few of Portland’s many breweries. Through each of our experiences, and through re-telling those experiences at an informal story sharing Net Impact event, we agreed that one thing was for sure, we were prepared to talk about sustainability. Our education at Antioch has provided us with different skills for thinking about the triple bottom line, different lenses to view our experiences through, and an open mindedness that enabled us to simply learn all that we could in Portland. We were prepared to ask the right questions, work with new teams, bring our experience to the table, and skillfully navigate a crash course in networking.With that said, I’m looking forward to next year!

Rosie Gallant