10 representatives from 7 companies at 5 different locations in 4 different cities in… 29 hours.
If that sounds a bit crazy that’s because it was a bit crazy. What can I say? When brainstorming my goals as Net Impact President after my election last spring, one of the three I wrote down was… think big.
So I promptly tried to organize an international trek to Peru for a week over winter break to consult social entrepreneurs and promote voluntourism for my classmates. That then became a four-day trek to Seattle over winter break. Which eventually morphed into overnight in Oakland on a random two days in January.
Lesson #1: Think Big.
If you are a regular reader and know a bit about my passions and trajectory with my MBA at UC Davis Graduate School of Management, you know I am a big fan of design thinking. One of my favorite parts about it is that it encourages you to, as Ideo puts it, “encourage wild ideas” in your brainstorming. Without this philosophy, I never would have eventually whittled my impact down to the focus of (a) too often when our small class travels the nearly two hours from Davis to the Bay, time allows only a low payoff for both us and our potential employers of usually only one company visited, and a whole day, for us, drained and (b) the Net Impact club purposely represents a broad swath of social impact business from big corporations to small start-ups to non-profits, and it would best represent the interests of club members to see that representation first-hand to truly learn about the breadth of this sector.
Part #1: The First Annual (I hope) Social Entrepreneurship Enablement Design Sprint… or, SEEDS, in Davis.
Lesson #2: Work with people who share your propensity to “leave things better than you found them”.
Lesson #3: There are a lot of those people in social impact. Not surprisingly.
I met Natalie Zandt at an event thrown by One World Training and Investments called the Innovations in Corporate Social Impact Summit. She was exhibiting as an entrepreneur for potential investors, and she checked off three boxes. Her start-up, MeterLeader, was in the energy sector, one that frequently attracts UC Davis MBAs, she was amenable to my idea to have a bunch of MBA students she had never previously met brainstorm resolutions to her young business’s problems, and last but certainly not least, she “got it” that she and I would be working together to create an infrastructure that I hoped would be solid enough to earn a “2nd Annual” under another leader collaborating with another entrepreneur next year.
So on January 27, from 11 am – 4 pm, she presented her pitch deck to us at our campus in Davis, and we brainstormed innovative ideas for a “Business Model Canvas 2.0”.
The words I used to motivate the room were to be “Creative, Brazen, and Useful.” I reminded everyone that the word creative simply means to bring something into existence that wasn’t previously there. We all create, at every moment of our lives. Every spontaneous action. Too often this is seen as a mysterious talent only owned by very few – in fact, it is the most open-sourced of human experiences. Brazen – bold and without shame. Design thinking is about many, many ideas, and I looked around the room at one point and noted, with all of our post-it notes and felt-tipped pens, just how much color we were surrounded by.
Useful. Our second half of the day, we “diverged” into small groups to solve three “How Might We” statements we came up with for the theme of “gaining traction” for MeterLeader. Natalie and I realized she needed not just big MBA ideas, but actionable takeaways for this to best serve her. I am excited to see where it leads – both for her and for our continued support of her work as individuals and as a school.
Part #2: Dinner with alumnus Keith Weissglass of Give2Asia in Oakland
Next, a slightly smaller group of us drove down to meet Keith in Oakland for dinner. As planning developed, I purposely kept some things flexible and open. It just so happened I had met with Keith for some guidance and advice the week before, and when I found out more about his current work, it was clearly a perfect fit for a heavy population of native-Asian or Asian-American students who had decided to join for this event. The timing could not be more inspirational – Keith had spent his weekend enabling donations to support institutions fighting the coronavirus. He also had the exact right personality, a mix of forthrightness and mentorship-able, to give frank advice on how students should prepare and engage during our company visits the next day.
Lesson #4: In planning something so intricate, ask nicely for people to remain flexible. They usually will.
Part #3: Airbnb in Oakland.
Lesson #5: When planning something big, finding time to just bond with the people you are experiencing it with is so invaluable. I am grateful.
Part #4: Clif Bar office visit in Emeryville.
We met a few students who had decided not to stay in the Bay Area overnight in the morning at Clif Bar. What an AMAZING office – truly dedicated to the types of employees attracted to this work – dogs everywhere, a climbing wall, a gym where teams had weekly workout sessions, a full office parade for employees’ children in Halloween coming from the company daycare down the street. And they backed it up with a sincerely happy employee and UC Davis Graduate School of Management alumnus, not just because of the benefits, but the support she felt in being able to innovatively approach her brand management work.
Lesson #6: Asking that your club table at a career fair to recruit student members pays off because you get extra time to chat with people representing firms there, and many months later they (wonderful and supportive alumnus Emily Rancer) become your host!
Part #5: Lunch at Impact Hub Oakland.
The energy shift that happened when we landed at Impact Hub really underlined the sense of diversity in the social impact field. Coming from silicon-valley style laid back vibe of Clif Bar, with employees supported to do fulfilling work with amazing benefits and strong salaries, to the intense energy of small firms in the impact investing space, working within limited resources to support dozens of entrepreneurs and constantly taking meetings to build up the sector and create collaborative networks, was clear from the first moment. Each of our guests spoke at a rush, prompting a clarity that as soon as they were done selflessly giving their time to us, there would be another meeting immediately following just like it, wringing the most impact possible they could make out of every moment of every day, fighting for a better world.
Lesson #6: The Social Impact field is all about showing up for each other. I had shown up for One World Investments as a volunteer, and the incredible Angie Mertens, in return, showed up by asking her equally incredible colleagues, Kristin Hull and Laughlin Silvestri at Nia Impact Capital and Jessica Eastling at Better Ventures to join us, who showed up because of all the times she had enabled their work and because they wanted to invest in the future of their field in general with us.
Part #6: Office Visit to Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies in San Francisco.
Speaking of energy shifts, I grinned when we arrived at this social impact consultancy and were greeted, of course, by a PowerPoint. Culture differences in this sector, at this point, were crystalizing so clearly, and the organized and focused passion of Third Plateau felt truly like a final representation of impact work. Even the small walk-up office off a bustling downtown block of San Francisco felt right, and the energy of the city greeted us appropriately as we met one last time on the sidewalk to celebrate our 29 hours together.
Our conversation on our walk back to the BART was almost entirely on the incredible breadth of what we saw. The general consensus was we could all see ourselves at any of these places, but we all also recognized ourselves specifically one of these places.
Lesson #7 (see what I did there? 7 companies, 7 lessons!): I’ve learned a lot, in recent years, about balancing doing things for others that also create openings for exploration and growth for myself. I used to lean on the former, and the result would often be allowing myself to drift into a sense of unfairness, blaming others that they weren’t returning the favor for me. Whether this was true or not was debatable, but even worse, it made me resentful, and the only person it damaged was… me.
I think there is a deeper lesson about social impact and business and the Bay Area and the 21st century implicit in this. I came to get my MBA up here because I had an unfounded and unsubstantiated sense that impact and making money, in the Bay, were not as clearly separated as they had felt in my small non-profit past. I think, at least if you are looking at it with a “glass half full mentality”, that this sector has successfully linked those concepts in a way that gets at my own personal growth: creating scale for yourself and your work can create scales for others. Circling back to the beginning of this article, in putting together this trek I created an experience for myself to practice facilitating a design sprint, a crucial skillset I aim to perfect, and showcasing my strength in building networks and opportunities for companies and potential employees, while simultaneously aiding 15 of my classmates to take steps in their professional journies.
In other words… whether corporate or non-profit, large or small, you rise together.
I look forward to supporting the “2nd Annual” as an alum next year.