Rob Katz

Hunter Lovins, Maria Otero, and Product RED: NetImpact 2006

Net ImpactSheri Willoughby is a Senior Manager in the Markets and Enterprise Program at WRI. She holds an MS in chemistry from University of California San Diego and a MBA from the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina.

Where do MBA students and alumni go to get inspired, informed, and meet others who want to change the world? To Net Impact. The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University hosted the 14th Annual Net Impact Conference over the weekend. 1200 b-school students and 200 professionals attended the 2-day conference entitled “Navigating Global Change.” As an alumnus of the University of North Carolina and a current member of the DC Net Impact Professional Chapter, I attended the conference for professionals, which had its own sessions at the Navy Pier and Fairmont Hotel in Chicago; students had most of their sessions at Kellogg in Evanston. I would have preferred to have the option to go to some of the student panels, especially the “Global Trends” track, but as it turned out, the professional panels were great, and selecting among the five tracks offered to the professionals (technology, corporate social responsibility, philanthropy, environment, social entrepreneurship) was difficult enough.Maria Otero of ACCION kicked off the conference with a keynote speech about the history of microfinance and the opportunity for financial services innovations to improve the quality of life for the poor and underserved. At World Resources Institute, we are starting to study the impact on poverty reduction of business activities for low-income markets such as microfinance. Maria said ACCION attempted to assess their impact in the 1980’s and were satisfied with the positive impact they were having on their borrowers. ACCION does not continue to invest in impact assessment because it is costly–instead, they document stories of individual borrowers who have improved their quality of life with the help of microfinance loans. Maria showed a video of Delia, a woman who overcame desperate poverty after her husband left her with three kids, and now runs a shop which has allowed her to earn money to send her daughters to secondary school–a privilege she never had. This anecdotal approach to showing impact makes me wonder how many microfinance borrowers do not have such success and end up remaining poor, and indebted. Maria said that better training of loan officers to assess what the borrower can afford to repay can prevent such situations. An assessment of impact might allow other beneficial practices to be identified to allow these strategies to truly help the poor.

After Maria’s speech, the UNC students and alumni met for drinks at the Navy Pier–there were probably about 30 or 40 of us. It is fantastic to see how interest in sustainable enterprise has grown year by year and learn how students hope to apply it to their careers–one woman wants to make change from within a big company as a brand manager, another guy wants to help companies reduce their environmental footprint as a consultant, yet another wants to apply his chemistry background to designing new sustainable technologies.

On Saturday, the professional summit started off with Bobbi Silten from the Gap discussing the company’s new philanthropy strategy and the (Product) RED initiative to fight AIDS in Africa. For the latter, a percentage of profits from sale of (RED) branded clothing will be donated to the Global Fund. I asked how Global Fund earned the confidence of the Gap and its partners to effectively use this significant infusion of money (i.e., how does a non-profit tap into a funding gravy train like that?!). Bobbie sited the involvement of Bono, as well as the fact that Bill Gates had made some multimillion dollar donation to the organization, as contributing to their confidence in the organization. The power of personalities!

I also attended a very interesting session on clean technology that got me re-inspired me to consider becoming a clean energy entrepreneur in the future. Another session on climate change and renewable energy helped the audience understand what their companies can do to reduce greenhouse emissions. The last session I attended discussed new models for investing in social entrepreneurs, GoodCap and Lemelson, who may not have the returns for traditional investors, yet cannot tap into charity funds as for-profit businesses.

After the conference, I decided to walk the mile back to the hotel to enjoy the brisk sunny Chicago day and ended up being accompanied by Hunter Lovins, the cowboy hat-wearing sustainability icon and co-author of “Natural Capitalism“, and Andrew, an entrepreneur and Tuck student. That was a nice bonus to a great day–I guess I can get a little star-struck at times too.

That night, before hitting the bars on Division Street, I was proud once again of UNC for winning #3 Net Impact Chapter of the year (along with Michigan #1 and Yale #2). UNC got #2 back in 2004 when I was there – of course we always feel like we deserve #1. It is exciting because the competition between chapters gets tougher every year due to many schools and students investing in making the world a better place with their business education. Thanks Northwestern for all your work in bringing the conference together, it was great to reconnect with friends, meet new folks, and I left very inspired by whom I met and what I learned.