Recap of the 2017 Sustainable Business and Social Impact Conference

Danny Suits

This post was written by Danny Suits, a second-year Duke MBA student and co-chair of the Net Impact Club SBSI team, in February 2017. The 2017 Sustainable Business and Social Impact (SBSI) conference focused on how business can tackle global challenges by exploring innovative models and collaborative partnerships that are already working to solve these challenges and discussing how these solutions can be scaled across industries and geographies. 

Danny Suits
SBSI co-chairs Melissa Hodges and Danny Suits with SBSI17 keynote Teju Ravilochan.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

That’s John F. Kennedy speaking in 1962 about the United States’ newly born space agency.  Interestingly, I think it captures the spirit of the Sustainable Business and Social Impact conference that Duke’s Fuqua School of Business recently hosted quite well.

Fuqua’s Net Impact Club, along with our partners CASE & EDGE, designed this conference to encourage discussion about a few of the great, global challenges that persist in 2017.  JFK spoke about going to the moon and we talked about tackling a few of our most pressing current challenges in driving social and environmental impact. I can proudly say, as an observer, that I saw light bulbs flicked on for a great many attendees and people were excited about what they were hearing.

We covered a lot of ground discussing how to overcome a variety of challenges.  The morning opened up with Teju Ravilochan telling us the story of how he is accelerating and scaling social impact entrepreneurs. Jean Case talked about the great potential that investing in the environment and underserved communities can have.  Auditoriums were standing room only at our breakout sessions.

Across nine unique panels, CEOs, company founders, managing partners and presidents from over 30 organizations talked about everything from how we can effectively finance environmental conservation, to corporate activism and the role that corporations can play in driving positive social impact, to addressing the challenge of managing increasingly scarce natural resources, and many more.  Incredible insights but I think my personal favorite moment of the day came during our TED-style “SBSI Talks”.

Dr. John Francis strummed his banjo as he sauntered to the stage.  I’m personally a big fan of the banjo; it’s a unique twang that’s plucked from those strings and John played that instrument wonderfully.  He then told an incredible story about his journey; about how he took a 17-year vow of silence, a 20-year hiatus from all motorized vehicles, and walked across the United States in an effort to understand his place in bringing about impactful social and environmental changes.  Oh, and he also earned a Masters and Doctoral Degree.  From different schools.  While not riding in vehicles.  And not speaking.

John made a point to not compare his own introspective journey with our own. But I think attending this conference inspired people to embrace their own thoughtfulness and convictions and to take steps to understand the complexity of driving environmental and social impact though business.  That’s one of the big reasons this conference attracted over 600 registrants; trying to understand how we can drive positive change and overcome some of the great challenges we identified, whether that’s through activism, business, non-profit, or public service.

In sum, JFK posited, “why the moon?”  Because it’s an inspiring challenge that is worthy of our efforts.  Our challenge is trying to figure out how to grow sustainably and responsibly as businesses and as people.  This is, arguably, a challenge of equal complexity and merit, and the 12th annual SBSI Conference was a forum where we convened to discuss progress and next steps.

Watch the SBSI Talks:

Monty Montoya, CEO of SightLife/SightLife Surgical, brings the audience to tears as he shares the personal story of why he wants to see the elimination of corneal blindness by 2040 and brings hope and progress as he chronicles SightLife’s journey towards that goal through partnerships and launching a for-profit arm to attract growth capital and innovate:

How can artists bring solutions to global challenges? Laura Callanan, Founding Partner of Upstart Co-Lab, demonstrates ways that artists are challenging conventional ways of fostering community development, building sustainable cities, encouraging responsible consumption, and more. Upstart Co-Lab is building ways to connect artists with social entrepreneurs and impact investors to fund their work and bring creative solutions to the table:

Walking on stage with his banjo, you know that John Francis, Founder of PlanetWalk, won’t be your typical conference talk. Join John as he shares how he took a 17-year vow of silence, a 20-year hiatus from all motorized vehicles, and walked across the United States in an effort to understand his place in bringing about impactful social and environmental change.

More on SBSI17:

Being Unreasonable: What the Unreasonable Institute Can Teach MBAs

Building a Movement: Jean Case & Her Vision at SBSI17

Citizens At The Center: A Citizen-Led Renaissance Is Taking Shape In Durham

In Corporate Activism, Authenticity is Key

Investing in the Environment: From Niche to Mainstream

The Long Game of Diversity and Inclusion

About Danny Suits:

Danny Suits was the Co-Director of the 2017, 12th Annual SBSI Conference.  He was born in Southern California and prior to Duke he worked in international development as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana. 

He chose Duke for its dual MEM/MBA program and was attracted to the strong interdisciplinary focus that the Fuqua School of Business and the Nicholas School of the Environment affords to students seeking to drive environmental sustainability through innovative business processes. 

Danny is a member of the Net Impact Cabinet, a CASE i3 Associate, and is a member of the Fuqua United Soccer Club.