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

Net Impact CEO Liz Maw with a few members of her team -- Photo by Ethan Baron

Net Impact CEO Liz Maw with a few members of her team — Photo by Ethan Baron

What do you think is the most valuable thing Net Impact has done generally in the field of social enterprise?

We’ve played a thought leadership role on the opinions and wants of young people. We help represent what they’re demanding from their current and future employers in a way that makes companies really listen. It’s been exciting to see that when we do research or bring other stories to light, companies want to know what Millennials want from their jobs, and we’re hoping our work will help companies evolve in ways that enable more people to bring their values to the workplace.

Which business schools are really innovating in this field?

A lot of schools have invested in centers on this topic, which I think really helps take things to the next level. Haas has a center for corporate responsibility, Cornell has a great center for sustainable enterprise, UNC has a center—there’s a group of schools that have centers, and they are able to do much more in terms of curricular change and extracurriculars than the other schools.

If I were a student looking at business schools, I would look at our Business as UNusual guide, and I would look at schools that have invested in centers and endowed faculty on the topic that I’m most interested in, whether that’s nonprofits or social enterprise or sustainability.

Do you think prestigious, well-established business schools are in a better position to innovate, or do you think newer ones have it easier in that regard?

It’s very hard to drive change in universities for several reasons, one of which is the way faculty are tenured. Even if the dean has really bought into change and the students want change, there’s no leverage to force faculty to change. I think that the newer programs like the Presidio Graduate School and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute—who didn’t have to deal with changing tenured faculty—were able to innovate a lot more quickly than some of the established programs like Harvard and Wharton. That said, some of those programs, like Stanford and Haas, have had huge commitments to social enterprise for a long time, so they don’t have to change that much in some ways.

One way to change a business school is to add tons of new electives on social entrepreneurship, impact investing, clean energy, and so on. But not everybody would take them, right? Change the core curriculum by adding in new cases and new themes that relate to ethics, social value, and all that kind of stuff—that, I think, is the dream, because you want everyone who comes through business school to think about business as a tool for good, not just a tool for profit. But that’s what’s really hard to change, because you have tenured faculty teaching the core curriculum, and they’ve often been doing this for a long time. I think the pace of change in the core curriculum is probably slower than any of us would like to see.

What do you think is propelling the increased interest in making a positive impact through business?

Well, let’s see if I can answer this question without generalizing about Millennials. I think we’re slowly becoming a more enlightened society, and folks are realizing that you can have your cake and eat it too—meaning, you can have an interesting job that pays a decent salary and bring your personal values to work. It used to be that you would work from nine to five and do your volunteering on the weekend or in the nighttime, but now, there’s more flexibility on the job, so there’s not this barrier between work and life. And part of that is having a job that reflects your personal values.

Climate change has also been a huge factor. There are many conservative businesspeople who now get that this is a real threat, not just to the planet but to their business needs. You can’t run some of these companies without water and without sustainable sources of energy. All kinds of companies are acknowledging the threat and figuring out how to create sustainable strategies.

Net Impact is based in San Francisco, and people often criticize Silicon Valley for being full of companies that say they’re changing the world but don’t actually do so (a common example is Facebook). Do you think the idea of being a business with a mission is in danger of becoming disingenuous?

We had a debate, actually, about how you define an impact job, and we did land on language that was about making a social or environmental impact versus a more broad, “I’m making the world a better place” impact. You could basically argue that anything makes the world a better place.

I guess Facebook is saying it’s changing the world through its core product, through helping people be more transparent and communicate with each other and all that. But that doesn’t mean the company is good for the environment or that it’s working on social justice issues, right? So you have to decide if connecting people is what you’re passionate about. If that’s the case, you should go work for Facebook. But if you’re passionate about these other issues, you can’t just give Facebook an environmental or social halo.

There has definitely been research on Apple showing that people just assume it’s a green company because they think it’s cool, which is not true. No one—employees, potential employees, consumers—should be that simple-minded about it. In my opinion, you should decide what you care about and what you’ll take a stand on, and not work for a company unless it meets those values.