One of the largest University of Oregon student contingents ever trekked to Seattle November 5-7 for the 2015 Net Impact Conference. About 30 students—a mix of graduate and undergraduate—joined 2,400 other students and professional leaders "to tackle the world’s toughest social and environmental problems."
Students from both the UO graduate and undergraduate chapters of Net Impact attended with Gold status, meaning each achieved above average marks for event activity, collaborative programming, and engagement. Along with sharing ideas about what works in sustainability, students had access to some of the top innovative companies in the field including KIND, REI, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others. Chelsea Clinton was also a speaker.
"One of the most compelling sessions was put on by consulting firm CollaborateUp," said Eric Parsons, a first-year Oregon MBA student.
In the workshop, groups of five were teamed with an expert from Google, Monsanto, or Starbucks and pitted against each other to find solutions for integrating science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM) into resolutions for feeding the planet.
"My team was composed of industry professionals, MBA students from all over the United States, and Mary Wagner, a senior vice president at Starbucks," Parsons said. "This workshop reminded me of the work we do at the Oregon MBA and reinforced my satisfaction with my choice and my cohort. Much like the Oregon MBA, my team had educational and cultural diversity that, paired with the expertise of Mary, aided in a strong presentation of our final solution."
In addition to workshops, this year’s event featured working sessions, keynotes, and an expo floor with about 50 different booths where for-profit, nonprofit, and educational organizations shared their sustainability stories while keeping an eye out for sharp recruits.
Though the conference has been held in various cities for more than two decades, one of the biggest shifts in recent years is the active participation of "traditional" companies looking to integrate more green practices.
"It just makes good business sense," said Sally Bell, the University of Oregon’s senior associate director for MBA professional development. "The traditional business community is on board."
Indeed, 213-year-old DuPont had a strong showing at the conference—as did Johnson & Johnson, which was founded in 1886.
"They were there to hire top talent," Bell added, noting that relative newcomer Amazon was also at the event "building its sustainability army."
"I only see it expanding," Bell said. "You are dealing with massive, multinational firms—ones that matter a great deal on the environmental scale."
Bell noted that UO students tend to have a leg up on all things green business practices due to our campus culture.
"Part of that is our being in the northwest, which is a sort of innovation lab," she said. "I find our students are much further along the path in terms of sustainable business. Some students at the conference were just learning the basics. I was really proud to see so many UO students having a very intentional plan. We encourage them all to go into the conference with a strategy tailored to their area of study, such as energy."
Next year, Bell anticipates the UO will have an even larger presence, taking more faculty members, encouraging alumni to be part of a panel, and perhaps tabling at the expo.
"This work impacts the college and the wider university," Bell said. "It will continue to grow its reach, and we are intending to grow our presence as well."