By Sara Herald
This past week I attended the Net Impact Annual conference at the magnificent Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. The conference mission is lofty: “to inspire, educate, and equip individuals to use the power of business to create a more socially and environmentally sustainable world,” but what makes the organization stand out is the practicality demonstrated while trying to achieve that mission.
The balance the organization strikes between ideals and reality is most evident in the food provided at the conference. Much of the food was organic, but not all. Some of the items were local, such as apples from nearby farms, but much of it was not. All the packaging in the box lunches was compostable, but coffee and tea were served in disposable cups. Conference organizers recognize that attendees care about where their food comes from and the waste the conference generates, but convenience is essential. Just as consumer product goods manufacturers have recognized that a growing sector of consumers care about the environmental effects of the products they purchase, but only after functionality is accounted for. Few people are going to buy dish detergent that doesn’t work, as “green” as it may be, because dirty dishes don’t appeal to anyone. In that same vein, few people are going to attend a conference without food, or God forbid, coffee.
However, where the conference comes up short is in employer recruiting and professional development. The “Expo”, the exhibit and recruiting hall, felt like a career fair without the jobs. Eager undergrads and MBA students are the largest group of conference attendees by far, but many of the companies exhibiting don’t have available jobs that appeal to that sustainability-minded group. While KPMG was accepting resumes for its new sustainability services group, the other big consulting companies had to admit that they were only interested in generalists, and that anyone interested would have to go the website to learn how to apply. Furthermore, many of the companies indicated that any open positions would be filled immediately, even though the applicant pool they were speaking to wouldn’t be available until May. The Microsoft booth was one of the strangest: there were large banners with the Corporate Citizenship tagline, as well as an interactive display (that ironically looked like a large iPad) to learn about the company’s global CSR efforts, but the booth seemed to be entirely promotional, as no open positions were mentioned in any conversations I had or overheard with the company’s representatives.
While the tepid recruiting was certainly due in some part to the weak economy, I think it was also a reflection of many companies’ uncertainty around the whole sustainability/CSR movement. The firms at the conference “get it” in that they all have at least one full-time employee dedicated to overseeing those initiatives, but they don’t appear to know where to go from there. They are aware these issues are important to millennials and use them as a recruiting tool, but specific jobs in that arena remain few and far between. Most of us interested in CSR careers are going to have to start with jobs in other functions and work to transition into the desired positions, and I think Net Impact needs to recognize that when organizing the panels and exhibit hall. The organization already does a great job of reconciling utopia with reality logistically, now it just needs to apply those same principles to the other aspects of future conferences.
Sara Herald is a second-year MBA student at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business. She is the Vice President of Social Impact for the student government association and serves on the board of the Net Impact chapter. Sara graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University with a B.A. in Spanish and English.