Finding Inspiration, Breaking Boundaries At Net Impact 2014

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The 2014 Net Impact conference held in Minneapolis at the beginning of November included a number of memorable keynotes, panel discussions, interactive workshops, and a case competition. The common thread was for the 2,500+ attendees to think about breaking boundaries, and the following is just a short list of ones I found to be especially inspiring from among the hundreds who presented:

  • Inner City Advisors, helping the forgotten demographics build their dreams into businesses.
  • Buffalo by Bike, delivering sustainably raised and ethically harvested bison meat by bicycle.
  • GirlTrek, renewing the pledge for African American women to live active lifestyles.
  • Village Capital, Sunrise Banks, Calvert Social Investment Foundation, and many others, investing where banks and other venture capitalists see risk.
  • Finnegan’s Brewery, pouring 100% of their profits into putting fresh, local foods into food pantries.
  • Dan Pallotta (watch his TED Talk here) calling out to change how we value non-profits as a society.
  • Temple Grandin, noted autistic author, professor, and animal welfare consultant. By far the most entertaining keynote at the conference, Ms. Grandin shared her opinion that breaking boundaries these days means defining clear objectives and not telling someone how to get there. Too much “abstractification,” she said, which is her term for those who have never been on the ground to experience what it is they’re declaring expertise in or advocating policy for.
  • Farmers reinventing what it means to sustainably feed the world.
  • Even Unilever, the 2nd largest consumer packaged goods company in the world, redefining that industry based on a collective consciousness based on changing our ways if we hope to remain sustainable as a species.

It’s difficult to describe the inspiration felt listening to the dozens of presenters I packed into three days; if I could have attended three sessions in each time slot, I would have. Suffice it to say that I had goose bumps a lot and even teared up a couple of times. (Keep in mind that I've become quite the sap since becoming a parent and as I rapidly approach age 40, but still, there were some touching stories.)

I participated in one workshop where we worked on our personal mission statements. I’m typically uncomfortable sharing personal ideals, strengths, weaknesses, and the like with strangers. In this and a couple of other workshops, I broke down my own barrier to sharing what I want to offer the world post-MBA.

The most rewarding experience of the conference came from helping a local social entrepreneur map out his short and long-term needs to build his business. In a 2-hour session, we interviewed him, and four teams competed to deliver the next steps for his growth plan. I realized he had no branding, no identity, and no recognition, despite his deep passion for what he was doing. While our team won a copy of a book written by his mentor when he chose our team’s plan as what he really needed, that wasn't the reward. The emails I've exchanged with him since the conference talking about our connection with sustainability, passion for the land that feeds us all, and his excitement about taking those next steps toward drafting his own mission statement and becoming a recognizable brand to his customers is a much greater reward.

What the conference added up to, though, is that we have to break down our preconceptions of so many things in life — from how you measure success to what you value — and that only when we do so will we begin to address the problems we face as a ballooning global population. Social entrepreneurs are often at the heart of breaking those boundaries, whether we call ourselves entrepreneurs or not.

I’m currently working with Gordon McCurdy to start a Net Impact chapter in the EMBA program and will be holding a kick-off meeting in January. MBA chapters typically work on service projects pro bono in the local community, invite speakers in for discussions on current impact issues relevant to those interested in making a difference, and work with other regional student and professional chapters on projects (IU Kelley Bloomington has both undergrad and MBA chapters). A broadcast communication is forthcoming about a specific date. I’ll be talking about my project experience in the impact space and more about the conference, and we’ll be looking for chapter leaders to run with the idea and make the Kelley EMBA Net Impact chapter a top contributor to the Indianapolis community.