Industry thought leaders, sustainability-focused businesses, and students convened at the annual Net Impact Conference (NI17) in Atlanta this past October. More than 2,000 attendees from 36 states and 7 countries turned the Georgia World Congress Center into a sustainability hub where students and professionals shared energy and ideas for becoming forces for good in communities and the environment. Net Impact, a 501(c)3 celebrating its 25th anniversary, mobilizes new generations to use their skills and careers to drive transformational social and environmental change. Powered by over 300 chapters from around the globe, Net Impact helps students and professionals turn passion into purposeful careers. Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business MBA student Michelle Findlay commented on her Net Impact experience, stating, “The organizers and attendees share a kind of hopefulness and open-mindedness the world desperately needs.”
Leveraging the intersection of its location in Atlanta and its sustainability focus, the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business (“Center”) and the Net Impact Scheller College MBA Chapter collaborated with conference organizers to support and enhance the annual conference. Catherine Muriel, Chief Marketing Officer of Net Impact, thanked Scheller College for helping conference organizers from the West Coast connect with a broad base of Atlanta-area change agents. She called the Scheller College MBA Chapter a “stand-out partner of NI17,” and appreciated that the Center secured three full panels (complete with moderator and speakers) around the Center’s three areas of thematic focus: Circular Economy, Carbon-Conscious Business, and Social Performance.
“Collaboration in a Circular Economy,” developed and moderated by Faculty Director Beril Toktay, sparked animated dialogue on Ray C. Anderson’s legacy. She set the tone for the discussion by sharing Anderson’s futuristic vision of a circular economy in which organizations have “severed the umbilical cord to earth” for their raw materials. The panel included innovators who are reimagining how to extend the life of materials and reduce waste. Representatives from Recyclebank, Rubicon Technologies, and Walmart engaged in a lively conversation that touched upon issues such as the role of data and technology in the recycling and waste industries, recycling education and incentives for the public, and infrastructure that could make recycling more viable. The innovators on the panel agreed that collaboration across sectors is key to turning the tide on the “take, make, and dispose” mindset.
“Leading With the Triple Bottom Line: Creating Shared Value Through Business,” hosted by Managing Director Michael Oxman, showcased sustainability leaders from The Coca-Cola Corporation, Cox Enterprises, and Intel who addressed how their corporations approach challenges and solutions in terms of their social and environmental impact. A “triple bottom line” offers a revision to the traditional practice of measuring a company’s strength by its “bottom line”: The new standard takes into consideration a company’s earnings as well as its social performance and environmental impact. Panelists discussed how their companies care for communities, from providing technological education to women and girls in developing countries and setting ambitious goals for net neutrality, to offering a wider range of beverage options to customers. Bruce Karas, Vice President of Environment & Sustainability of the North America Coca-Cola Group, made the business case for the triple bottom line. “If a community is healthy,” he said, “the business is going to be healthy, too.”
"The Next Wave of Strategic Philanthropy and Impact Investing,” led by Center-Affiliated Faculty Member Sudheer Chava, focused on whether finance can be a force for good in the world. Speakers from General Motors, Gray Matters Capital, and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation discussed their philosophy and practice of impact investing. Erika Norwood, Executive Director of Gray Matters Capital, defined impact investing as “using capital for doing good and doing well in the world.” She explained, “It’s essentially investing at its core, but it’s done for the benefit of communities.” John Lanier, Executive Director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, spoke about the responsibility of leading a family foundation that supports initiatives in sustainable business. Every time Lanier makes a decision on behalf of the foundation, he thinks about what his grandfather, sustainable business visionary Ray Anderson, would think. “When done right,” he said, “business can be a force for good in the world.”
NI17 keynote speakers, including Paul Hawken, Executive Director of Project Drawdown, and Derreck Kayongo, CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, inspired attendees to channel passion into making an impact. Scheller College MBA students Paige Dumiak and Jason Alcedo both remarked on the keynote addresses being a highlight. Dumiak said the talks gave her “a renewed sense of urgency to take action.” Alcedo singled out the talk by Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose Officer for PwC, for bringing clarity to how he envisions the interplay between career skills and purpose. “What I took away from her talk,” he reflected, “is that in all our careers, impact comes second to having business or technical expertise.” Schuyler helped Alcedo understand that if his purpose is to help society, then his purpose is aided by having expertise or skills to leverage in order to create that positive impact. He said, “I left her talk more determined to pave a successful career in a technical area and to leverage that career to help others.”
While some conferences keep attendees on near-lockdown within the conference center, NI17 encouraged people to get out and explore the host city. Registrants received a menu of excursions, tours, and receptions that gave them the chance to experience Atlanta and better understand its history. Muriel said, “Atlanta served as a perfect backdrop to inspire attendees. The city is rich in its cultivation of change-makers and is developing for a sustainable future.” Attendees could select from a number of “only in Atlanta” excursions, such as having breakfast with the twin panda cubs at Zoo Atlanta and visiting murals created by Living Walls, an Atlanta nonprofit designed to inspire social change through public art. The first excursion to sell out (sorry, pandas!) was the Center-sponsored tour, “Tech for Good Accelerated,” which gave 55 guests insight into Tech Square innovation, specifically in regard to how technology will revolutionize sustainability and social impact. The tour was co-led by Scott Henderson, CEO of Sandbox ATL (Tech Square’s collaborative platform), and Alcedo, co-president of the Scheller College MBA Net Impact Chapter. Alcedo said the tour, like the rest of the conference, “broadened understanding of the business role in enacting societal change.”
After the conference ended and staff returned to the Bay Area, Muriel reported that the office was still buzzing with energy picked up in Atlanta. The organizers had the chance to relive the conference by reading through the comments submitted by attendees. Muriel said, “Every year, our visitors continue to talk about how inspired they are by the gathering of like-minded people who are taking their passions and turning them into world-changing action. They leave empowered, energized, and motivated.” One attendee remarked in a testimonial: “It was an honor and a privilege to meet a range of leaders from various sectors and industries—sharing ideas and learning new stories, perspectives, and skills sets. Most importantly, it was amazing to see the potential strength of the human spirit—so many [people who envision] what a different, better world can and ought to look like.”