End of Semester Recap

TextbooksPerhaps one of the best parts of being a second year MBA student is getting to pick my schedule. Unlike first year, where all of the core business classes were chosen for me, as a second year student I get to decide which electives I want to take. Not only has this been a relief (since most of the core classes were quantitative, and I am by no means a math whiz), it’s also been fun and rewarding to study topics that interest me through an MBA lens.

Unfortunately, by the end of the semester, there’s little time for anything else – including blogging. I haven’t been able to write on The Changebase for a couple of weeks precisely because I’ve been too busy wrapping up all of the projects, presentations, and papers that these electives have assigned!

But it’s been a great semester of learning, and since I’m often asked to talk about how what I study relates to my interest in CSR and sustainability, I thought I’d share a little recap.

I started out my semester with a one-week intensive course called Global Sustainability, which basically looked at issues like food and water scarcity, energy constraints, and global migration and the impacts they have on our planet. If you haven’t checked out my previous summary on this class, I recommend reading it.

The rest of my four month semester consisted of five other classes:

Government, Society and the New Entrepreneur focused on the topics of “economic globalization, environmental sustainability, international entrepreneurship, and the interplay between growth anglobalizationd prosperity”. Through in-depth studies of various countries (Japan, China, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Russia and Brazil), my classmates and I gained a broad overview of how globalization impacts trade, economic growth, education, environmental conservation, and entrepreneurship around the world.

Big Takeaway: While our world is more connected than ever, each country’s national interests are more divergent than ever. To solve an issue as big as climate change, for instance, world leaders must balance their responsibility to their own people with a shared responsibility to care for our global resources. Tough job for sure.

On the other end of the spectrum, Consumer Behavior focused on the attitudes, behaviors, social norms, and decision-making processes that consumers use and reference when they make purchases. For this course I worked with a team to develop a hypothetical new product (along with target consumer and marketing recommendations) for green cleaning producer Seventh Generation. Lots of primary data collection, and lots of consumer behavior theory.

Big Takeaway: The more I spoke with potential target consumers, the clearer it became that people really are wary of the “green” label. They’ve heard it so many times – and yet they still don’t really understand what it means nor do they trust its value. A clear warning sign for marketers…


My Corporate Governance seminar centered on the interplay between governance, accountability and ethics in the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Through in-depth, “governance gone wrong” case studies, we developed a framework for understanding how factors like board oversight, compensation structures, and organizational culture affect the level and type of governance at a company. This class was especially timely one year after the global financial crisis.

Big Takeaway: Much like CSR, there are varied opinions relating to the value that good governance brings to an organization. Is governance just about compliance and risk management, or does it actually add value? Are investors willing to pay more for good governance? I think (and hope) they are.

Entrepreneurial Management focused on the challenges and hurdles faced by early-stage entrepreneurs, including the identification of and access to capital, scaling growth to reach beyond the early adapter market, and building a successful team. Perhaps the most fun part of the class was serving as a consultant to a social entrepreneur who’s facing these kinds of issues right now as he builds a line of ethically-sourced footwear. Like consumer behavior, this involved lots of primary data collection and marketing recommendations.

Big Takeaway: As a social enterprise footwear company, the client I worked with wanted to “do good and do well.” Yet, the potential consumers we spoke with reminded us that it’s not just intention that matters – cause marketing campaigns need to be genuine, transparent, easy to understand, and perhaps most importantly, have an immediate and tangible impact on a meaningful cause. Not always an easy task!logo_gri

Finally, one project that I started this semester and will finish in early January is a CSR Reporting Directed Study. Back in October a Fortune 300 company contacted my school to inquire about putting a team of MBAs together to evaluate their current CSR reporting – and I jumped at the chance. In order to make recommendations, my team and I have spent the semester doing a deep-dive into the Global Reporting Initiative and the Carbon Disclosure Project. We’re now just starting the recommendation phase and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Big Takeaway: Sustainability reporting is more than just wrapping your arms around numbers (although it’s fair to say that getting a handle on a company’s data is hard enough!). In fact, two key themes that keep coming up are transparency in information sharing and stakeholder engagement – two crucial topics that are very hard to get right and very easy to get wrong.

So all in all it’s been an incredible four months, especially compared to my first year of business school when it was so hard to “see the forest” through all that data analysis!

In the end this really was a semester of putting all of the pieces together, which is a great feeling. And now on to winter break!

The Business Case for Doing Good

With only 3 weeks left in my internship at ABC, I'm starting to change direction a bit. The first 6-7 weeks really centered around time-sensitive deliverables like rolling out the employee product donation campaign and launching an internal corporate giving awareness program. As these efforts begin to wind down, I've been able to spend more time on one of my most exciting summer projects: building the case for branding corporate giving at ABC. As soon as I found out about this project I was excited to tackle it. I'm really interested in marketing and how brands convey certain messages, so thankfully this week I was able to get started. As I dove deeper into my research and read more about the power of brands in articulating a company's social agenda (and I must say, many thanks to Cone for providing some really terrific data), I started doing a lot of thinking not just about branding but about corporate giving and corporate social responsibility in general. My charge was (and still is) to build the case for branding. But somewhere along the way this week it turned into building the case for doing good.

Sometimes at ABC we walk a delicate line in terms of the purpose of our corporate giving program: are we giving back because it makes us feel good? Because it's the right thing to do? Because our employees are asking for it? Or because it ultimately impacts our bottom line? Often it feels like the programs we're promoting (employee donations of product and time, especially) are meant as engagement tools or as a way to do something out of the goodness of our hearts, and not because there is a strategic business reason. Although I like to believe that people want to give back and that "doing the right thing" is everyone's responsibility, even I understand that any corporate philanthropy program must have some sort of impact on business outcomes in order to recieve the support and funding it needs to succeed long-term.

This week I was lucky to have a conversation with David Almy, partner at ADC Partners, a sustainability and cause marketing firm in San Francisco, CA. I had gotten in touch with Dave to pick his brain about the role of brands in corporate giving programs, and he was nice enough to share some terrific ideas with me (and raise some really thought-provoking questions). One of the things that stuck out most in my mind from our conversation was the idea that both "philanthropy" and "brand" are very nebulous terms that are difficult to measure and quantify.

But therein lies the rub, Dave said. In business, everything is about measurement and impact -  and any company (and especially any CFO) that's going to buy into a corporate giving program will need to understand how it all connects to the bottom line. Unfortunately, these days it's just not so easy to wrap your arms around the impact of your corporate giving program (Funny enough, in a perfect example of the stars aligning this week, I also happened to meet Farron Levy, President of True Impact - a Boston-based firm that's developed tools to help companies measure the ROI of their corporate citizenship programs! From what I hear about True Impact, Farron is really one of the leaders in this kind of measurement and surely one to watch).

For Dave's part, he suggested I look at the customer lifecycle and consider how these kind of programs can go beyond employee engagement and move into customer satisfaction and purchase loyalty (afterall, happy employees beget happy customers, right?). This idea alone has given me food for thought and I've spent the time since my conversation with Dave considering how I can weave this into my branding project.

One other important point to mention from my talk with Dave: I've been doing a lot of thinking about companies with CSR or philanthropy programs and looking at which ones had these kinds of social agendas written into their DNA "at birth" (Seventh Generation, for instance) versus those companies that have built their programs up over time (there are lots of them). I asked Dave about this and whether he thought integrating this kind of social responsibility into everyday business from the get-go had anything to do with the success of that company's program. Dave didn't seem to be so sure, and to answer my question he gave me two examples.

The first is Salesforce.com, whose founder Marc Benioff very clearly had a vision for how he wanted to give back to the community through donations of money, product and time. If you don't yet know about the 1% program and the Salesforce.com Foundation, this is one to read up on and a great example of this kind of thinking being embedded in an organization from the beginning.

On the other hand, Dave pointed to Clorox as an example of a newly "converted" company; that is, one that's seeing firsthand that involvement in CSR and sustainability can really have an impact on the bottom line (even if this kind of agenda wasn't built into the fabric of the company from the start). Although it has received some criticism fom staunch environmentalists, Clorox's Green Works line of household cleaners has done incredibly well, especially with young moms who want to do good things for their families but don't necessarily want to pay extra. Throw in Clorox's recent acquisition of Burt's Bees and their new Brita Filter for Good campaign and all of a sudden you've got a company who's quickly learned that doing good can be good for business.

This is a relevant debate for me a for a couple of reasons:

1) because I want to figure out how to help ABC "become" a Clorox

2) because eventually I want to create my own for-profit social venture (thus mixing business and giving back).

Although I'm not yet ready to go out on my own and start my own business, in an interesting twist I'm pleased to say that my mom Janice is. For 30 years my mom owned The Bead Shop, a Bay Area bead store with a global reach and a local community impact strategy. Through donations of gift certificates, products, and cash, my mom's business supported organizations in the Bay Area for decades. Unfortunately The Bead Shop closed its doors in August of 2008, and since then my mom has been crafting a new business strategy. And like Seventh Generation, my mom wants her business to have a social agenda from Day One. In fact, she's being very honest about her commitment to this kind of giving back, and I couldn't be more proud. I hope you'll take a moment to read about her ideas and support her work as she creates a new business at www.beadshop.com. Way to go, mom!

Overall it was a very thought-provoking and energizing week, with lots of questions and ideas racing around in my head. And I know I've thrown a lot at you in this post. But I hope it's made you think about what kind of social contract a business might have with its community. When you see companies with philanthropy or CSR programs, do you trust them more? What makes them seem genuine to you as opposed to just a marketing ploy? And does the presence of those programs make you want to spend your money with them over their competitors? I'm very curious to hear your thoughts!