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Earlier this year, a group of entrepreneurs, lawyers, executives, green activists and MBA students gathered at the University of San Francisco to talk about balancing environmental and social concerns with making money. Lively debate and networking sessions were complemented by drinks and organic snacks. The meeting was just one of hundreds of sessions organised every year by the local chapters of Net Impact, a network of more than 11,000 MBA students and professionals.

When it was founded in 1993, under the name Students for Responsible Business, the organisation’s founders – among them Mark Albion, the social entrepreneur and author of Making a Life, Making a Living – wanted to create a support system for students who were keen for their values to be reflectedto reflect their values in their business careers.

“This was at a time when, in business schools, social issues weren’t really a hot topic of discussion,” says Liz Maw, Net Impact’s executive director. “People were feeling pretty isolated, so they were happy to meet others who shared their values,
and they decided to stay connected.”

The Net Impact message – that it is possible to use business and business strategies to effect positive social, environmental and ethical change – is music to the ears of those promoting corporate responsibility and sustainability.

“What the future generation of business leaders do with respect to corporate responsibility will be arguably the most determining factor in the success of the corporate responsibility movement – and that begins at business school level,” says Aron Cramer, president and chief executive of Business for Social Responsibility, a US non-profit advisory group whose membership includes many many leading multinationals.

What Mr Cramer and others find encouraging about Net Impact’s work is the support it provides to young business executives at what can be a formative point in their careers – the two-year MBA programme.

“Business schools are a time of great change for people,” says Judith Samuelson, a former Net Impact board member who is executive director of the Business and Society Programme at the Aspen Institute, a non-profit organisation dedicated to fostering leadership.

“Business education influences the way people think about the purpose of business and the result is they often end up thinking more about the shareholder and less about the consumers and communities. Net Impact provides something of an antidote to that.”

As well as supplying this antidote,Net ImpactThe organisation has a number of ways in which it supports socially-consciousaware MBA students and graduates. FirstlyPrincipally, it provides a network of people thatwho are interested in in issues relating toof corporate responsibility and sustainability. Through this network, members can make contacts with other professionals thatwho may be able to help them with their careers or can assist them in furthering their ideas.

The annual conference is another networking opportunity, as well as the chance to find out more about a wide variety of topics. This year’s event in November – hosted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business – will bring together about 1,200 participants from the US and elsewhere. At the same timeIn addition, each of the more than 100 local chapter – of which there are more than 100 – holds regular events such as debates, field trips to companies and case competitions in which teams compete to solve a business problem.

“These events bring people from all over the country,” says Ms Maw. “But one thing we’re trying to figure out is how we can help to do more locally – particularly because, for people from the international chapters, it’s sometimes hard to travel in to the US.”

Members can also use their business skills in a more practical way through the Net Impact Service Corps, a programme that gives them the opportunity to apply their business skills and knowledgeto local, non-profit organisations through pro-bono consulting projects and volunteering programmesof pro bono consulting projects and volunteering programmes towith local, non-profit

Through its website, Net Impact delivers a weekly collection of news stories on subjects relating to corporate responsibility and sustainability, while Finally, a range of tool kits istool kits available to members, supplyingsupply executives with information issues such ason workplace diversity orand energy efficiency, presenting ideas on how to implement change and offering case studies and templates that can be used in presentations.

However, what members find most valuable, says Ms Maw, is the network itself. “We repeatedly ask people what they find valuable about the organisation and the networking always comes out on top,” she says. “It’s both the virtual networking and the in-person networking that happens at the conference or at the local chapter events.”

And the network is as valuable for MBA students as it is for graduates and young professionals working inside companies. The idea, says Mr Cramer, is that “people coming out of business schools can continue to apply their principles as they move into the business world”. Whether they are trying to effect change in the private sector or applying their business skills to their work at non-profit organisations, Professionals are an increasingly prominent part of Net Impact’s membership, . And it and it was partly in recognition of this that in 1999 the organisation decided to change its name to Net Impact. The expanding role of non-student members is alsowhich is reflected in the rise of Net Impact’s city-based chapters. Ms Maw hopes that much of the organisation’s growth in the coming years will come through expansion overseas but also through chapters that are rooted in urban centres rather than on university campuses.

“We have 15 city chapters out of 102 and the aim is to increase that proportion,” she says. “Historically, Net Impact has grown in a very grass roots way and we haven’t done a lot of proactive chapter building, but we’re now thinking about how to do that more.”

A recent mail out to professionals on the organisation’s database is one way Net Impact has been doing so. As a result of that initiative, three city-based chapters are set to launch in May.

Ms Samuelson believes that Net Impact’s role in serving those who have left business school is as important as it is in supporting MBA students. “A lot of change is facilitated when someone has both the commitment and can translate that into taking action because they feel supported by their peers,” she says.

And sShe believes this support is necessary not only to promote sustainable business practices but also when it comes to dealing with the ethical dilemmas that executives may encounter in their work. “We’ve seen way too many instances where people stay silent,” she says. And you don’t want, like Sharon Watkins, to have to go it alone. “So Networks like this are critical in giving people courage to act on their values and commitments.”

The participation of working professionals also helps address the challenge of maintainingmaintain a sense of continuity in an organisation that, were it purely student-based, would experience a complete turnover in its membership every two years every two years as MBAs participants graduate.

However, the bulk of the membership remains campus-based. “Our core is still at the business schools and the most involved members tend to be students,” says Ms Maw. “We are about emerging business leaders and the MBA is a huge part of this, so I don’t see us getting away from that focus.”

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