Diana Hollmann

Net Impact 2009: A Wrap-Up

2 days, 2600 participants and over 350 speakers on more than 100 panels – those are some of the stats of this year’s Net Impact conference. One thing is for sure: It was an intense and inspiring conference!

Clean Technology at the Base of the Pyramid

One of the two keynotes on the second day focused on clean technology at the Base of the Pyramid and featured Stuart Hart from Cornell University. He argued that there is still not enough attention paid to the commercialization and distribution of clean technology products and services for low-income communities. Incremental sustainability strategies such as eco-efficiency and corporate social responsibility do not suffice. Rather new “blue ocean” strategies are required to adequately address social and environmental challenges with breakthrough innovation. Essentially, there needs to be a “great convergence”, as Stuart puts it, of the clean technology and the base of the pyramid world to make a “green leap” forward.

Both, Kevin McGovern from The Water Initiative (TWI) and Yogesh Cahnder Deveshwar from ITC Limited, added a practical perspective to the issue. Kevin described how he and his team work as ‘pro-bono capitalists’ aiming to “build an army of micro-entrepreneurs around the globe who solve the problems themselves.” TWI is a field project providing access to safe drinking water at the base of the pyramid. It has been set-up in the framework of the BoP Protocol and emphasizes the potential of a “deep dialog” between companies and communities to drive innovation processes.

Yogesh described the various initiatives ITC has implemented to create societal value. Each of them is integrated in the ITC business model and driven by business competitiveness and ITC’s core values. A prime example is eChoupal – an internet-based solution integrating rural famers into supply chains and increasing efficiency of the agricultural system.

Maintaining a Social Mission While Growing to Scale

To wrap up two days of Net Impact, Joe Sibilia, CEO of Meadowbrook Lane Capital and CSRWire.com, moderated an insightful and very entertaining keynote panel on “Selling Up or Selling Out: Maintaining a Social Mission While Growing to Scale”. Panelists Seth Goldman – Founder and TeaEO of Honest Tea, Lisa Lorimer – Founder of Vermont Bread Company, as well as Jeff Furman – Board Member of Ben & Jerry’s, shared their experience from initiating their respective enterprise in the garage, a barn or the kitchen, to scaling up and eventually collaborating with or selling to large corporations.

It was interesting to see how each panelist viewed the issue of how one should go to scale. Ben & Jerry’s was bought by Unilever, Vermont Bread Company consolidated to a national company, and Honest Tea is closely collaborating with Coke. Despite being on the verge of becoming fully incorporated by a large multinational, the panelists stressed the importance of sticking to core values. Jeff took a more practical stand point with a Coke pin on the one side of his fleece jacket and an organic pin on the other side; Coke has enabled Honest Tea to reach scale by sharing their distribution system. Jeff, on the other hand, didn’t seem as excited about the partnership with Unilever. When asked if he had considered the potential impact to Ben & Jerry’s brand in selling to Unilever, he responded: “We did! That’s why we didn’t want to do it!”

Wrapping Up

Joe Sibilia argued that we are witnessing a very “influential period” and that “there has been no other time in history when we were able to make such an impact as now” (of course not considering the period when cavemen learned to control fire or the invention of the wheel, etc.). The Net Impact conference certainly provided a great source of inspiration to work on sustainable business solutions and live the change! If you missed the conference, catch up and have a look at NextBillion’s coverage:

It will be interesting to see what progress will have been made and how discussions will be shaped next year. With the conference growing to new dimensions, a little more structure in the agenda would certainly help participants to stay on top of things.

The University of Michigan will take on the responsibility and opportunity to prepare the next Net Impact conference in 2010. See you in Ann Arbor!