Net Impact: 5 Key Conference Take-Aways

The Net Impact Conference is a two-day event for students and professionals interested in ideas and businesses that have a positive effect on the social, environmental, and overall economic landscape of our world.

Last year's conference brought participants from large corporations and small non-profits to foundations and activist groups together in the country’s heart of innovation: Silicon Valley. Attendees visited places like Tesla and Google and listened to some of the world’s most pioneering actors advancing change in the business and nonprofit sectors.

This year, Net Impact brought us a special opportunity, hosting the conference in Minneapolis and choosing the University of St. Thomas chapter to be a conference partner. UST students helped Net Impact find local businesses and professionals to speak and support workshops at the conference as well as serving as conference volunteers.

The allure of the Hult Prize, which “encourages the world's brightest business minds to compete in teams to solve the planet's biggest challenges with innovative ideas for sustainable start-up enterprises,” also drew interest from our university community. In the end, St. Thomas graduates and undergraduates were in abundant attendance and our presence was recognized.

After attending the events from Thursday through Saturday, talking to students and professionals from around the world, visiting the expo booths of different companies, and listening to the speakers, there are five insights I took away from the conference.

1) The community is growing. The community of business leaders and students concerned about the impact of business is growing. The evidence of company involvement was apparent in the increase of sponsors and companies at the expo, though even more so when talking to students and professionals. Many of the students I talked to just recently heard about the mission behind Net Impact, and found inspiration in the organization and all the local companies. A company that has recently emerged to fulfill this growing need called Minnesota Social Impact Center, a company with the mission to connect students with impact companies around the Twin Cities.

2) The mindset of the country is evolving. The mindset of sustainable business has traditionally existed on the fringes of businesses, mostly as a marketing gimmick or a way to please activists separately from business. The new mindset of the country comprises leaders and professionals that see sustainability as the business model. Whether it’s for ethical reasons, whether people are starting to see the unsustainable way businesses operated in the past, or whether companies are starting to see the benefits of a sustainable, energy-efficient business model, companies are now operating from a different perspective.

The speakers and attendees at the conference made it clear how the paradigm has shifted: companies and consumers to now expect more than one bottom line from their favorite company.

3) Students and grassroots groups are changing the landscape of business from the bottom down. Most large organizations like sticking with what works and can be slow to change. Unfortunately for them, the demands of students, professionals, and community groups have changed how companies approach problems. Not only have they all developed programs to show how they make the world better and benefit the community, but the discussion itself has forced business leaders to think about the effects of their actions. At the conference, Target, 3M, and Unilever and others made sure that everyone knew how much their companies are committed to making a positive change in the world.

4) Our system's constraints allow for unique ideas to flourish. There are barriers to entry in many businesses. For example, the long-standing power grid makes it hard for a new company to enter the utility industry. One company, Minnesota Community Solar, wanted to bring solar power to Minnesota, but faced the problem of cost and being able to get the power to consumers. What they figured out was that they could have consumers subscribe to their solar energy and, through utilizing the current power grid of the big energy companies, have money taken off their normal energy bill accordingly. Thanks to them, people can now opt-in to receive solar energy without worry of costly, impractical installations and taxes.

5) Minnesota has a strong community working to make a difference. Whether it’s the big players like 3M and Target, or small entrepreneurs like Nicholas Heimer of Buffalo by Bike, there is a strong attitude to bring consumers products that are sustainable, local or in some way make the world a better place. As evidenced by Heimer's growing success, local restaurants and breweries are increasingly focused on bringing high-quality and local ingredients to their community.

With the combination of the players already going against the grain and the new mindset of the business world, Minnesota is primed to make large, positive changes in the changing global landscape. We should be happy to see the University of St. Thomas playing such an important role.

Andrew LeJeune is a JD/MBA student in the School of Law and Opus College of Business.