Net Impact CEO Liz Maw On The State Of Sustainability & Social Enterprise

Net Impact CEO Liz Maw

Net Impact CEO Liz Maw

When Net Impact CEO Liz Maw attended Columbia Business School in the early 2000s, the school’s Net Impact club had four or five people in it. The nonprofit’s goal—getting young professionals to use their careers to serve society and the environment—seemed sort of foreign at the time.

Maw’s peers had no idea how to react to her desire to change the world through business. “They didn’t really get it,” recalls Maw, who used her MBA to work for a couple of years in non-profit consulting with the Bridgespan Group. “They thought I was being nice or something.”

But in 2004, the year Maw took on her current role as head of the organization, Columbia made a massive leap: It hosted Net Impact’s annual conference. “It was a huge groundswell of change at that school,” she says. Nowadays, Columbia has its own social enterprise conference with a snazzy website and an attendance of roughly 700. And Columbia’s not alone in that regard: Every top business school in the country has put resources into the intersection of business and positive change—or at least paid lip service to the idea.

Maw’s job effectively makes her one of the faces of the student movement for business-led impact. Though she’s been out of school for a long time, Net Impact isn’t short on Millennial staffers, many of whom have recently graduated from Ivy Leagues and well-regarded California public schools (the organization is based in San Francisco); Maw has a relaxed, genial rapport with them, at one point noting that she and two other staffers own the same top. Nonetheless, her job involves a lot of high-level thinking about where the movement is going and how Net Impact can best push it along.

Now that social enterprise is such a hot topic, being a do-gooding MBA no longer makes you a weirdo. How should you navigate this brave new world? In a wide-ranging interview, Maw advises students on how to pick the right schools, how to turn any job into an impact job, and how to differentiate the companies that really care from the ones that just look cool.

You’ve been Net Impact’s CEO since 2004. In that time, how has the organization changed?

We’ve grown quite a bit. We have 300 chapters now, and when I started, we had around 80. Our budget has also grown. That, I think, is reflective of the increased interest in doing good with your career and in the intersection of business and sustainability. I’ve been so fortunate to be here during this time of dynamism in the field.

Ten years ago, the conversation was much more simplistic. It used to be that being a do-gooding MBA it was all about joining alternative companies like The Body Shop or Ben & Jerry’s. But in the past 10 years, more mainstream companies like Unilever and 3M have taken a public stand about incorporating values and sustainability into the core of their DNA. There are just a lot more opportunities now.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

My days are very varied. A lot of what I do is build external relationships. Sometimes that’s for fundraising purposes, and other times it’s more about making strategic partnerships or working with our board of directors. I spend quite a bit of time meeting with people and traveling to conferences. I focus on spreading our message and our story, so I work with my team on figuring out where we should be speaking and where we should be blogging.

I also do a lot of work on strategy: thinking about how we can be more effective, how we can grow, and how we can scale to the next level of impact. That part of my job involves a lot of problem-solving meetings. We try to look at the immediate fires that need to be put out while focusing at least six to 12 months ahead and thinking about what the opportunities are going forward.

What do you think the intersection of business and do-gooding is going to look like ten years from now?

There are a lot of folks playing with legal structures in a way that’s really interesting and further merging nonprofits and for-profits. People are starting new legal structures—like the whole benefit corporation concept in California—so a company can be for-profit but have a social mission as a very important part of its DNA. It used to be that nonprofits had the mission people and the non-money people, and for-profits had the opposite. But now you see a real merging of all skill sets and values in a way that I think is really exciting and transformative.

Since you became CEO, what do you think is the most valuable thing Net Impact has done for students?

This sounds soft, but it’s about the inspiration and the sense of possibility. Even today, when social enterprise and related topics are more discussed in business schools, you’re still a minority in the vast majority of business schools if you want your career to have a positive social or environmental impact. When students come to our annual conference, they see 2,500 people who all want to use their business skills to change the world, and that gives them a sense of possibility, a sense that they’re not outliers and that there is a real movement going on that will transform the way we all work. That’s very inspiring to students.

Now, of course, as an organization, we want to do more than inspire—we want to enable students to create change—so we’ve developed a number of tools via our chapters and our own website to help them take that next path in their professional development, whether that’s building new skills or finding a new job or creating a network. Those more tangible, tactical elements have been valuable, too.

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