Nearly 2,500 students, educators and business leaders from around the world gathered at Cornell this weekend for the 17th annual Net Impact Conference, “Advancing Sustainable Global Enterprise: Changemakers, Innovators, and Problem Solvers.”
With the help of the Johnson School of Management’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, Net Impact — a worldwide network of students and professionals dedicated to socially responsible business practice — presented over 300 speakers who discussed topics surrounding the theme of sustainable global enterprise, including energy, corporate social responsibility, and social entrepreneurship and innovation. This year’s conference saw the largest attendance since it began in 1993.
The keynotes, panel discussions, workshops, cocktail receptions, networking opportunities that spanned Friday and Saturday boasted various representatives from prominent businesses, including General Electric, Coca-Cola Enterprises, Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, HSBC, Xerox and Project HEALTH.
“I was very pleased as we surpassed our original goal of 1,800 to 2,000 [participants] and had just under 2,500 in the end, 40 percent of which were professionals — a significant change from historical [Net Impact] conferences which usually have 10 percent professional attendance,” Dr. Mark Milstein, Director of the Johnson School’s Center for Sustainable Enterprise, stated in an e-mail.
The conference opened in front of an audience of over 1,500 with an informal “fireside chat” — entitled “Driving Innovation and Economic Renewal in a Global Context” — between Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric Company, and President David Skorton.
Addressing questions posed by Skorton and members of the audience, Immelt discussed the potential of wind energy in the near future.
“Wind is the renewable technology whose reliability will be highest and cost will be the lowest between now and 2020, when it really counts,” Immelt said. “I think [wind energy is] one of the can’t-miss technologies out there right now.” He went on to address the pivotal roles that nuclear power and coal with sequestration will play in the years to come as potential base load electricity technologies.
He also spoke of G.E.’s initiative in moving toward clean energy standards, touted clean energy as an inevitable facet of the future and highlighted the significance of innovation in the clean energy arena. Immelt cited G.E. and Walmart as highly competitive companies that have made large strides toward sustainable enterprise, demonstrating that sustainability can indeed exist alongside corporate success.
“[Sustainable enterprise] is not an economic destroyer. I think it’s a creative way to drive growth,” Immelt said. “The value that G.E. has in this conference is only one: It is the merger of capitalism and sustainability.”
Following the keynote speech, participants dispersed from Barton Hall and headed to one of the many lectures and panel discussions scattered around Cornell’s campus. Over the course of two days, about 130 events took place.
One of the underlying themes of the conference — corporate social responsibility — was examined from four world regions’ perspectives in a panel discussion titled “International Approaches to Sustainability.” How and why U.S. firms exercise corporate social responsibility was compared to the interpretation, motives and execution of CSR in Asian, Latin American, Australian and Scandinavian companies.
At another event, author and Pulitzer Prize winner Sheryl WuDunn ’81 engaged in an active discussion with about 60 people on gender inequality in the world. In order to reverse the marginalization of women, longer term solutions such as microfinance — with which a small loan can help women to jump start their own small businesses — or education can help to increase the economic value of women. Women can thus be empowered as they become part of the labor force and start to bring bread to the table, according to WuDunn.
“Women are not the problem — they are the solution,” WuDunn said.
In another speaker showcase, John F. Brock, Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises — the largest bottler of Coca-Cola products in the United States — emphasized the integral role that corporate responsibility and sustainability holds in the company’s overall business strategy.
He also presented a set of goals and targets that Coca-Cola Enterprises hopes to achieve by 2020. These goals, collectively called “Commitment 2020,” include reducing the company’s 2007 carbon footprint by 15 percent, developing more sustainable packaging and recycling and establishing more water-sustainable operations.
Brock took questions from environmental journalist Olivia Zaleski and members of the audience. In response to a question regarding other companies that have not yet taken steps toward sustainability, Brock explained that corporate responsibility and sustainability is not an issue that can remain neglected.
“I don’t think you can opt out indefinitely,” he said. “Sooner or later it’s going to be forced upon [those companies].”
The closing panel brought together three entrepreneurs and business leaders for a discussion called “Selling Up or Selling Out: Maintaining a Social Mission While Growing to Scale,” in which the panelists described their experiences of growing small, socially-conscious businesses into larger companies.
Seth Goldman, president and TeaEO of Honest Tea, co-founded the company out of “a few thermoses” in his home in 1998 and grew the brand as it became the bestselling organic bottled tea product in the country. However, the socially and environmentally-aimed Honest Tea drew some criticism in 2008 when The Coca-Cola Company purchased 40 percent of the company and began to distribute its products.
Goldman defended the decision to audience members, some of whom questioned whether Honest Tea was “selling out” to a large multinational corporation with a often-criticized record on labor and environmental practices.
He said that he felt he the company could only continue to achieve its mission if it took advantage of the wide distribution network Coca-Cola offers. At the same time, he said that he is not a representative or current employee of Coca-Cola and doesn’t try to explain or excuse their actions.
Lisa Lorimer, founder and former president of the Vermont Bread Company, also spoke about the need to reorganize her company before it was sold in 2005. She emphasized the importance of companies recognizing the role they play in the local economy and the need to provide workers a living wage. She said that oftentimes it is necessary to sacrifice jobs in the short-term in order to be able to provide and sustain “live-able” jobs in the long run.
Another panelist, Jeff Furman, who helped craft the first business plan of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and served for 20 years on their Board of Directors, said that the takeover of his company by Unilever, also a large multinational corporation, was a difficult decision and process.
Having prided themselves on a strong social mission, the leaders at Ben & Jerry’s were very concerned about what a corporate acquisition would mean for the future of the company, Furman said. Accordingly, Furman and a large team of lawyers tried to embed social responsibility into their deal with Unilever. Today, Furman and others retain some legal rights as members of the Board of Directors that allow them to continue to monitor and influence Unilever’s practices. He conceded, however, that it’s unclear of how this model of legally obligated social responsibility will work for the future of Ben & Jerry’s.
Karin Lee and Rob Lendvai, both first-year MBA students from New York University’s Stern School of Business, drew inspiration from the well-attended conference.
“Seeing so many people in one spot who are so passionate about making a difference — that’s inspiring,” Lee said. “[In business school] the bottom line doesn’t always include a social agenda. It’s good to know that there are other people who are interested in [sustainable enterprise].”
“It’s incredibly energizing to come from a small university to a place here, where you can [meet] thousands of people who share your values,” Karsten Barde, a first-year MBA student from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
Andres Satizabal, a first-year student at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said he appreciates the opportunities to network and to listen to some high-profile speakers. He also said, however, that the panels greatly diverge in quality. He recommended that the organizers could host fewer panels but monitor their quality more closely.
Holly Fowler, the president of the Net Impact Boston Professional Chapter and senior director of sustainability for Sodexo, said: “This conference is one of the most dynamic gatherings of sustainability-themed agents, and it is quite a testament to the diversity of the movement, because you have members of all ages, all backgrounds and all geographies coming together around probably the most important global issue of our time,” Fowler said.
For Hei-Yue Pang, a senior at Columbia University who started Columbia’s undergraduate Net Impact chapter, this weekend marked her first participation in a professional conference. Pang said she hoped some events could be more accommodating for undergraduates, but overall she found the conference a fruitful experience.
“I realize that business is a vital solution to [many] problems,” Pang said.