Net Impact at Twenty: The Business of a Better World
An early Board member reflects on how far we've come
The first Net Impact Conference, 1993: Jim Schorr (l), former Board Chair, and former classmate Steve Sibulkin. Photo by Rose Klein, early Net Impacter.
Jim Schorr founded the Net Impact chapter at Kellogg and led a group of four classmates to Net Impact’s founding conference in 1993. He subsequently served on Net Impact’s Board of Directors from 2001-2011 and as Board Chair from 2008-11. He currently teaches social entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley and Vanderbilt.
In August 1992, I arrived at Northwestern University’s MBA program as an idealistic young guy still trying to figure out what to do with his life. During my orientation week activities at Kellogg, a woman I’d never heard of, Anita Roddick, spoke to an assembly of the 1st years about a topic I’d never really considered before that day: the social responsibilities of businesses.
Anita had started a company, The Body Shop, to bring to life her vision for a new type of business that would focus not just on creating value for its owners and customers, but for communities, employees, suppliers, and other important stakeholders as well. She spoke passionately about the idea that businesses should be accountable for a triple bottom line – people, planet, profits – and of her efforts with The Body Shop to create a new business model to prove the viability of her vision.
Nearly everyone in the auditorium would have rather been somewhere else. This was the era of “greed is good,” and the notion that businesses should have responsibilities beyond making profits for their owners was tantamount to heresy in the MBA school world. The effects of Milton Friedman’s landmark "The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits" still lingered. Talk of social enterprise was met with suspicion that what you really meant was socialist enterprise.
I was instantly hooked. Not only did Anita’s ideas resonate with me as right and true, but her vision for business as a tool for making the world a better place injected a sense of purpose into my thoughts about a career in business. Other sources of inspiration arrived in the months that followed: Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, Professor Lavengood’s Business Ethics class, Will Rosenzweig’s The Republic of Tea. But perhaps more so than any other day in my life, that day shaped the direction of the path I’ve since followed. Mark Twain famously said that the two most important days in people’s lives are the day they are born and the day they figure out why. This was that “lightbulb moment” for me, and I will be forever grateful to Anita for the inspiration she provided that day.
A year later, I heard about a fledgling student movement that was organizing in Washington DC for the founding conference of something called Students for Responsible Business. Could it be true? Might there be other students that, like me, had been inspired by these ideas? In October 1993, a small group of misfit MBA students came together at Georgetown to advance this idea of a student movement committed to using the power of business to change the world. If that sounds a bit lofty even now, try to imagine how ridiculous it was back then! Catalyzed by the energy and enthusiasm of the students and Social Venture Network mentors who were a part of that gathering, Students for Responsible Business – as Net Impact was originally known – was born.
Reflecting back on those days on the occasion of Net Impact’s twentieth conference this year, it’s pretty remarkable just how far this all has come over the past two decades...
Then, the question about CSR was still whether businesses had obligations beyond the interests of their shareholders. Today, the question in the private, public, and social sectors is no longer whether, but how business can play a role in addressing humanity’s most important unfulfilled needs.
Then, the proponents of these ideas were fringe characters, and they were readily dismissed as eccentrics. Today, the most influential people in the world – including Fortune 500 CEOs, U.S. presidents, and Nobel laureates – have embraced the idea of a broader role and purpose for business’ and elevated it to the mainstream.
Then, the idea of social obligations was founded in moral and civic responsibility. Successful companies “gave back” in ways that were largely unrelated to their business, and conventional wisdom suggested that paying attention to social and environmental concerns would necessarily come at shareholders’ expense. Today, CSR is being appropriately reimagined as an area ripe with opportunity for creating shared value, sustainability has become a key source of business innovation, and a new breed of hybrid organizations with nonprofit motives and business methods – social enterprises – are addressing critical unmet needs in every corner of the globe.
And back then, our “student movement” filled a few classrooms on Georgetown’s campus and Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen, clad in a tie-dye, delivered the keynote speech. Today, Net Impact has more than 300 chapters on six continents, where thousands of students and professionals are inspired and equipped to make a difference through the work they do, and the annual conference convenes more than 2,500 people, and has featured speakers such as GE CEO Jeff Immelt and Nobel Laureate Al Gore.
These observations illustrate how far this idea of business’ role in society has come in recent years: From a question of whether to a question of how. From fringe characters like Anita and Ben to mainstream world leaders as its proponents. From responsibilities to give back to opportunities to create shared value. And from a small band of misfits to a genuine movement today.
While we’ve come a long way, we still have a very long way to go. That notion brings to mind the parable that notes that building the world’s great cathedrals often required the labors of several generations, and reminds us of the opportunity we all have to dedicate our careers to something larger than ourselves...perhaps something so large and important that we might not even see it completed in our lifetimes. The current Net Impact generation can take heart in knowing that while a solid foundation has now been laid, our progress so far just makes the future that much more ripe with opportunity.
In the first class I taught at Berkeley in 2007, one of my students used a great quote in his email signature. It inspires me, so I’ll share it here in closing...not that Net Impacters need to be reminded!
“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget this errand.”
Thanks and congrats to Net Impact for 20 years of not letting us forget this errand.
— Jim Schorr