This year's conference featured dialog, leadership, respect and collaboration.
By Laura Asiala
The first time I attended a Net Impact Conference, I did so at the invitation of CDC Development Solutions—now PYXERA Global—on the campus of the University of Michigan. Would I join a panel to discuss my company’s inaugural international corporate volunteer program? I had never heard of Net Impact, but the conference, which provided a terrific opportunity to promote the company’s commitment to CSR, was only a two-hour drive from my office in central Michigan. It was an easy “Yes!”
I was unprepared for the sheer mass of enthusiastic, youthful humanity flooding that campus, all surging forward in the same quest: to use their careers—and the power of business—to make the world a better place, for everyone. “These are my people!” I thought.
I was amazed at the conference’s strategic vision as well as its attention to each and every detail, assuring an excellent, aligned experience for attendees, speakers and sponsors.
I was on the three o’clock panel that Saturday afternoon. Walking in, I hoped there would be at least as many people in the room as on the panel, and it turned out, I had nothing to fear. The room was as packed as it had been for the starting sessions. Having an inkling of the leadership and organization required to pull off such a feat, I sent a note of congratulations to executive director, Liz Maw.
Three years later, the conference has outgrown a single campus, and I have had the privilege of joining the board of directors. If anything, the energy and enthusiasm at the San Jose Conference Center was even higher for Net Impact 2013. With all of the challenges we face – economically, environmentally, socially – it is exhilarating to be amongst some of the brightest (mostly – but not entirely – young) minds and to know that all things are possible. Not easy. Not immediate. But possible.
Change Starts with Dialogue
When Net Impact started 21 years ago, few would have guessed that it would serve as a platform for candid, but respectful, dialogue between Exxon Mobil and the Sierra Club. Both Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s Executive Director, and Ken Cohen, Vice President of Public & Government Affairs at Exxon Mobil Corporation are both committed to accessible energy—safely, affordably, inclusively, and in a way that protects our environment.
Of course they come from dramatically different points of view, but the willingness to dialogue – rather than accuse – is critical. Their search for common ground is sometimes elusive, but it’s there.
Michael Brune challenged the nearly 3,000 attendees: “We have the chance to do something that’s never been done: build a society that is 100-percent powered by clean energy.”
Ken Cohen reminded them of the reality: “More than 1.3 billion people have no electricity; 2.6 billion live without modern cooking fuel. We have responsibility to produce the energy that the world needs today, and to do that in a way that protects the environment.”
Change Starts with Leadership
At the front end of the conference was an equally compelling and insightful conversation with two mothers leading international organizations: Denise Morrison, President and CEO of Campbell’s Soup Company and Caryl Stern, the President and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.
Both women are committed to feeding people nutritious food, and using their gifts, resources and positions to fulfill a vision in which no one goes to bed hungry. They have different styles and different career paths, but a singular focus that demonstrates so clearly the power of playing to strength and starting wherever you find yourself to make the world a better place.
Change Starts with Collaboration
Throughout the conference, keynote and panel discussions continued to pair professionals from the private sector with professionals from the social or non-profit sector to compare and contrast opportunities to make a net impact from different perspectives.
I joined Kathy Cacciola (Aramark) to “debate” Chantal Below (Teach for America) and Allison Jones (Action without Borders) about the merits of for-profit versus not-for-profit careers as a means to make the biggest impact. I think we played our roles admirably, but we agreed on this key point: no one sector is big enough, or insightful enough, to go it alone.
Cross-sector collaboration is absolutely critical to address the world’s most critical problems, and that requires an understanding, appreciation and respect for the players in each, within the context of a complex global system.
As my fellow Net Impact colleague, Brandon Tidwell noted, “It’s popular to rage against the ‘titans of industry.’” But the reality is that our business, social and governmental systems are complex; demonization gets us nowhere.
The conference, and the membership, have made strides in diverse participation. Fifty-four percent of the speakers in this year’s conferenced were women, 25% were ethnic minorities. This diverse perspective in both gendered and cultural terms is critical, but diversifying perspectives with regards to experience, education, and vocation is just as crucial. There’s an opportunity for the conference to continue to grow in that diverse perspective—further developing respect and appreciation cross-discipline which grows into respect and collaboration cross-sector.
Change Starts with Us
At the end of this year’s Net Impact conference, one conclusion shone brightly above the rest. Each one of us has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to make a positive net impact in our lives. Moreover, every adult has the opportunity to do this in three key ways: with your vote, your time and your money.
Good governance starts with people who want good government and demand good political leadership, holding their elected representatives accountable not for the easy sound-bite or the knee-jerk reaction, but the willingness to understand issues critically and completely, and collaborate for mutual success. Between the ages of 22 and 62, we have, if we’re lucky, 40 seasons to make a sustainable difference in the work of our lives. Wherever you find yourself, start there (and if you need help, check out Net Impact at Work Toolkit).
Finally, as individuals, the most profound difference we might ever make is in the global marketplace, where every dollar we spend is a demonstrated commitment for a life lived sustainably—or not. If people buy solar power, Exxon will provide it; if people buy nutritious food, they can count on Campbell's; if people want electric cars, they should buy one! Global commerce has the power to enable a more sustainable world. As leaders, we must embrace the opportunity to be the change to make sure that happens.
About the Author:
Laura Asiala is the Senior Director, Client Relations & Public Affairs at PYXERA Global. Passionate about the power of business to solve-or help solve-the world’s most intransigent problems, she leads the efforts to attract more participation of businesses to contribute to the sustainable development, through their people and their work. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Net Impact, a community of more than 40,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace. She can be reached at @LauraAsialaCSR (Twitter) and LAsiala@PYXERAglobal.org.