Monday, November 05, 2007

Nashville Net Impact, Part II

We skipped the key note on Saturday to meet with Jessica from Kiva. Fun to chat with an entrepreneur in the growth stage of a worthy venture. Despite her "fame" she is so down to earth and was happy to brainstorm with one of our GSSE student teams. Two thumbs up!

Next, Mitesh and I attended the IDEO session on sustainable new product development. We decided to split up (fortunately for him, I think). Anyway, after some introductory remarks about Design Thinking ("building") vs Critical Thinking ("breaking down"), Ted Howes and Steve Bishop got us to work. With instructions to brainstorm a more sustainable product, they handed out products. Our table got a box of Tampax.

In the first round, our ideas- less packaging, more tampons per box, recycled paper and fiber- were pretty conventional (well, there was the "roll your own" idea). The next step was interesting. We were given a series of photos from an unnamed person of what was important to them in their life. Ours was a hispanic woman, middle class, living in a city, likes crosswords and theatre. Now we had to design a sustainable Tampax for her. It generated a very different conversation among our table mates. We focused on packaging, materials and disposal. What would be important to "Margarita"? (note to GSSE students, I did not name her!)

Ted and Steve left us with the following thoughts about sustainability: 1) it's about behavior (the consumer), 2) it's about desireability, not sacrifice, 3) it's about finding a credible intersection between sustainability and brand (what we call authenticitiy at New Belgium), and 4) if it fails, it is a failure of product, not people. Two thumbs up.

Ted and I ended up at lunch in a broad ranging discussion with some students about OneWorld Health, retrofit technologies, biofuels, and the unintended consequences of well meaning "interventions"(anti-retroviral drugs in Botswana). We were late to lunch, and late to leave, so I missed much of the Lessons Learned from CSR panel featuring execs from Dow and Timberland. From what I could see, however, the students understood the challenges these companies faced in looking to fundamentally change their business approach, while staying in business.

The next event was the closing key note from Tensie Whelan, Executive Director of Rainforest Alliance. They too, seem to be in the midst of changing their approach, and working with large companies. Some interesting stories about sustainable forestry and Gibson guitars, and the savings Chiquita realized from more sustainable plantations. Two things grated on me though. First, they are only partway there- the change in approach is only partial. There still seems to be a "gotcha" mentality in her stories. A desire to take credit for actions others took. MBA's hardly need to be shown role models of this attribute.

Second, and I see this with a lot of non-profit leaders, there seems to still be a discomfort with the business community. Her tone wasn't quite patronizing, but it certainly seemed to me to be a level below where the audience could go. These NGO's still aren't engaging as equals in their sustainability mission- they are a bit "holier" and want you to know it. Jim Collins's advice comes to mind: focus on being "interested, not interesting." Tensie only gets sideways thumbs from this listener.

For those of you who were not able to attend, here is the event blogspace. One note of concern for the conference: Net Impact could make it better by recruiting more faculty and professionals to attend. It would be great for the students and faculty, to get the benefit of exposure to what is going on in other institutions and companies. Some of the real leaders in the field were conspicuously absent.

In closing, kudos to Net Impact and Owen School at Vanderbilt U. for a great conference. Definitely two thumbs up.

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