Reflections on the 2019 Net Impact Conference
Written by Thais Esteves, MBA ’21 candidate
“It is all about the journey and connecting to others” is just a cliché, some may say. Even though I try, sometimes it is a hard principle to embed in day-to-day life. In today’s world, in which we are hyperconnected to numerous sources of information all the time, connections are easier and harder at the same time. Even though the number of connections you make and information you access each day is probably much higher now than it was before the incredible invention of the internet and smartphones, real connections and insights are still a precious gem, and yet they are so important. Through my experience at the 2019 Net Impact Conference these lessons were emphasized by many inspiring leaders, speakers and participants.
The first morning’s “Courageous Kindness” breakfast with Nipun Metha (a U.C. Berkeley bear just like me), established the overall sentiment of the conference. Metha encouraged us to foster an environment filled with “givers”, as a giving culture can generate more synergies and better results. Prioritizing giving in times of stress, long work hours, and tight deadlines is sometimes tough. In my experience, even people who care about others sometimes end up prioritizing “getting things done” over answering a colleague’s request when pressure is high. By challenging us to care as much for the process as for the results, Metha emphasized the potential of achieving even better results when making sure everyone is involved and connected throughout the process.
This message of caring about the process and making sure to connect with others was reinforced throughout the conference. In the keynote following our breakfast, Veronika Scott, a young leader who created the Empowerment Plan out of a design thinking class – a system of empowering homeless people to manufacture coats specifically to protect other homeless people from the cold – shared how going to housing shelters and talking to homeless people made her realize that it was not just about the coat (the result she was trying to achieve with the class), but rather the process of making it. This insight came to her because she took the time to listen and connect with homeless people. One day one of them said to her: “I don’t need a coat, I need a job” and she recognized the opportunity to not only provide coats, but to involve the clients in manufacturing them. This insight enabled her to give jobs to homeless people who have been able to leave the shelter and pursue a more comfortable life.
The power of connections to create positive impact was emphasized again by Jessica Norwood, a financial activist and founder of the Runaway Project, a suite of strategies that empower African-Americans who may not otherwise be provided with funding for their ideas to access “Family and Friends” funding for early investments through a platform that connects them to investors. Seth Goldman, the co-founder of Honest Tea and Executive Chair of Beyond Meat, shared how understanding the need to reach consumers who wanted to eat authentic tasting burgers influenced them to create Beyond Meat as the solution to incentivize people to reduce meat consumption. Dave Chen, Chairman of Equilibrium (sustainably driven real asset portfolios), stated that you need both small and radical, and big and “boring” solutions to scale the social sector’s positive impact. He emphasized how keeping a humble attitude leads to examining problems from different perspectives and coming up with innovative solutions.
Shannon Watts from Moms Demand Action provided a different but encouraging perspective on how caring about the process can lead to better results. Quoting “build a plane as you fly”, she explained how difficult it was for her to put her perfectionist self to the side to take action and start an activist movement without any prior knowledge on the topic. Focusing entirely on the process and on her passion for having an impact, she created a grassroots movement that is now present in every state in the U.S. and is a part of Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country with more than 5 million supporters.
Lastly, Iqbal Quadir – founder of Grameenphone in Bangladesh, which aims to provide universal access to phones, shared how he came up with this idea of making a phone for the poorest people in Bangladesh back in 1993, even though every expert he spoke to told him that his idea did not make market sense. He explained how instead of listening to the experts and conducting a market assessment (which he could not afford at the time), he decided to talk to the people. One day, his assistant asked him to take a letter to the mail, but not stamp it. Despite knowing this would require a larger fee for getting the mail delivered, she explained that it was the only way she could ensure the message would get to her family, as sometimes mail gets lost and without a stamp the mail service would record the message and her sister could go to the mail office and pay a larger fee to read a recorded version of the letter. This gave him the insight of how underprivileged people don’t always need a cheaper service, but they do need a different service to fit their needs. This insight was only possible because he was paying attention to the people and connections with those around him. Now Grameenphone is a $8B dollar company and the leading Telecom provider in Bangladesh.
This spirit of focusing on process and connections was present in all the sessions and contacts I made, from learning more about the new era of capitalism to understanding the challenges of unlocking the potential of clean energy by connecting those who can afford it through tax credits to those who can’t with Michelle Moore, CEO of Groundswell. Another example is Lindsay Lorusso, CEO of NUDNIK, who uses textile that would otherwise pollute the planet to create a line of unisex, contemporary and colorful kids wear through principles of circular economy. The conference impressed upon me the importance of focusing on connections, not only on results.
To sum up, I want to leave you with a quote from Iqbal that really inspired me: “Think about learning, not teaching. Think inclusively, not exclusively”. Coming back to the real world and to our day-to-day jobs and lives, a lot of us are easily drowned in tasks, deliverables and targets – I know I am. The Net Impact Conference reminded me of the importance of the journey, the process, and the connections we make. Making sure to learn from others with a humble attitude is a mindset that can lead to real and inspiring change in the world. I hope we all can embed this attitude in our lives and move our world in a better, more positive direction.