Oct 032012

by Graham DeJong (MBA ’13)

Note: Each of the participants in the Spring 2012 SVC Smith Experience was asked to blog about a session that piqued their interest at this year’s Social Enterprise SymposiumThis is the last post in this series; mark your calendars for the 5th Annual Social Enterprise Symposium on Friday March 1, 2013! 

Today was a good day. Today I had the opportunity to interact with socially-minded professionals and students. Some were corporate fixtures, some were entrepreneurs. All of these bright and motivated people were in one place: the 4th Annual Social Enterprise Symposium at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Sponsored by the Center for Social Value Creation in the Robert H. Smith School of Business, the event included two keynote speakers, five break-out sessions, two “fishbowl” limited-attendance discussions, a networking reception, a sustainable campus tour, and even a stretch break. Though I attended various segments throughout the day, two noteworthy events were the Social Enterprise Business Pitch Competition and the “fish bowl” discussion with Keynote Speaker Letitia Webster, Director of Global Corporate Sustainability, VF Corporation.

Let me tell you about my surprise when two sisters, Sunmee Huh and her younger sister Dahlia, pitched their non-profit search engine business called Good 50. Sunmee is a freshman at UMD and Dahlia is a freshman in High School; they were incredibly poised! They created Good 50 in 2010 to help their grandfather. He was experiencing problems reading Google search results. The site allows users to toggle to a more readable font size and type while utilizing Google’s search engine. However, the business is socially minded with 50% of their revenue donated to charity. Very impressive ladies!

MyMaryland.net co-founders Natalia Cuadara-Saez and Ben Simon pitch their idea

I was equally impressed at the pitch competition by MyMaryland.Net. Ben Simon, Natalia Cuadra-Saez and Natalie Martino are the founders, and their vision for My Maryland is to provide a two-way platform for MD lawmakers and constituents to communicate with each other. Ben and Natalia stated the problem: currently email, phone and “snail” mail correspondence to elected officials often go unanswered. MyMaryland.net was created to generate more real-time dialogue between elected officials and the people they represent. Though the website is not live yet, the expectation of significant participation by state-level, local-level and most importantly, federal-level elected officials, has me believing that government can actually become more transparent through their social enterprise. So I wasn’t surprised when MyMaryland.Net won the pitch competition.

Speaking of real-time dialogue, I had the distinct opportunity to talk with Keynote Speaker, Letitia Webster, in a “fish bowl” setting with only two other UMD students for 45 minutes. It was quite an unusual setting for interacting with a Director of a $12 billion company. Thanks to the SES organizers, however, I and about 40 other students were given the opportunity to have a conversation with Ms. Webster and other distinguished panelists in a intimate setting. And Ms. Webster was very forthcoming.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), in her opinion, has come a long way. She should know. She started the CSR department for The North Face in the 1990s. Change agents exist in all levels of organizations, she exhorted, within various business units and across all job functions. The challenge in any large organization is to find these people and leverage what they are already doing. Not an easy task for a former Crested Butte ski instruction who now directs CSR for VF Corporation, a company that owns a slew of top brands including: Wrangler, Lee Jeans, Chic, Eastpak, JanSport, The North Face, Reef, Vans, Timberland, Nautica, Ella Moss and many more.

I thought Ms. Webster was refreshing: CSR is here to stay, she said. It’s not just a marketing ploy. Having said that, she went to say it’s very difficult for companies to add value quickly to their products when integrating CSR into the entire value chain. This fact frustrates her as well as customers and many of their employees. She confidently stated CSR and its role in business is now accepted in the corporate culture and gaining traction. Her job is to continue expanding the role of CSR in VF Corporation and across their brands. Some days her job is easy (like today!), and some days it is hard.

So when asked (from a fishbowl card): how would you explain CSR to your 8 year old nephew? She replied: that’s a really hard question. But gracefully, she did come up with an answer. And then the four of us all agreed that even an 8 year old knows that you should be nice to people and the planet.

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