In early February, the Duke MBA Net Impact Club hosted its annual Conference on Sustainable Business & Social Impact. The event drew scores of concerned and interested Fuqua students, and also attracted Nicholas School students, as well as numerous undergraduates. Indeed, this fact did not go unnoticed by Dean Blair Sheppard, who intimated that Duke is an ideal institution in which to solve many of the world’s contemporary sustainability dilemmas. He believes that the cross-disciplinary nature of the curricula of Duke’s numerous schools will provide the dialogue required to make meaningful progress in this respect.

The event’s opening keynote speaker was Hannah Jones, vice president of Sustainable Business & Innovation at Nike. Nike, she noted, popularized the then-unknown concept of Corporate Responsibility in the late 1990s, and has been regarded as a leader in the discipline ever since. After sharing some salient anecdotes about basketball shoes made out of scraps (cleverly labeled “Trash Talk”), the discussion turned somewhat more serious, and detailed some of the issues facing businesses that seek social responsibility today. She suggested that firms have often separated economic growth from sustainability, and that many have suffered from a myopic vision of social impact that has hindered their progress. She felt that if more companies adopted Nike’s model, that is, designing the processes of the future rather than retooling those of the past, they would have success, and the movement towards sustainability would gain more traction in the United States.

Following Ms. Jones’ discussion, the day turned more interactive, as students, faculty, and professionals broke off into targeted panels, featuring industry experts. I personally attended a seminar on methods for making microfinance viable in the United States, which featured a frank analysis of why microfinance has been relatively unsuccessful, and, from both panelists and students, what can be done to reverse this trend as businesses seek to foster a more sustainable business climate. The highly collaborative discourse inspired those in attendance, and its emphasis on making a difference socially while finding ways to prosper financially agreed with Fuqua’s distinct mission.

The later sessions, as well as the closing keynote address by Coca-Cola’s Brian Kelley, echoed these sentiments, and a quick study of the attendees showed that the event was universally regarded as an awakening of sorts: the hope, for the speakers, for Fuqua’s faculty, and for the students, is that as Fuqua’s second years graduate and move into roles in large corporations, they can take some of these virtues forward and effect monumental change in the way business is done.