In a Nutshell: At a time when new ideas for creating positive change are so desperately needed, the nonprofit organization Net Impact is helping young people develop the skills and confidence to make a difference. By equipping students from colleges and universities and young professionals with leadership abilities, Net Impact is driving real change in social and environmental transformation. This next generation of leaders will be the ones to develop new products and services that serve the greater good and help ensure sustainable and socially responsible business development.
If you’re distressed at the state of the world lately, take heart. Remember that everything is cyclical, and that times of turmoil and discord often lead to great change.
Few will argue that change is needed in significant areas, but just what it will look like is up for debate. As for who will be responsible in bringing about this change, history shows us that it typically starts from those with the most at stake: our youth.
Real and lasting change comes from new ways of looking at problems, and young people tend to view situations with a fresh perspective. As comedienne Phyllis Diller once put it, “Nothing is impossible if you don’t know you can’t do it.” However, many young people face a crucial challenge in that they have limited resources and opportunities to have their ideas heard in any serious way.
For more than 25 years, the nonprofit organization Net Impact has worked to equip students and young professionals with the skills, experiences, and connections they need to enact change. The mission of Net Impact is to promote social and environmental impact worldwide by developing the leadership know-how of its members. The idea is that young people who learn these skills go on to achieve more in their careers and have a more positive impact on their communities.
Originally known as Students for Responsible Business, the group got its start in 1993 as an organization for MBA graduate students. In 1999, the name, Net Impact, was adopted, and the group is now more than 100,000 members strong, with more than 350 Chapters worldwide. Any college student or young professional is welcome, with more members lately coming from community colleges.
We recently had a conversation with three members of the Net Impact organization: Catherine Muriel, who is the Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Product & Expansion Officer, along with Richelle Robbins, a member of the Chapters team at Net Impact, and Sam Charner, who has been a Chapter leader within Net Impact. Muriel had this to say about students who come to the organization from community colleges:
“We find these students to be so interested and engaged because there are so many resources they would not otherwise have access to,” she said. “Some of our most committed members are those from community colleges who have risen to the challenge and are winning competitions and getting a lot of very positive exposure.”
This leveling of the playing field, so to speak, makes Net Impact an ideal organization for students who come from less-privileged backgrounds. Often, the difference between students who play leadership roles and those who don’t is simply having access to the opportunity to develop these skills.
Developing Skills that Can Lead to Real Change
College students and young adults are the ones with the most at stake when it comes to ensuring sustainable and socially responsible business development. They also tend to be the ones most capable of thinking outside the box and inventing new ways of doing things. However, young people often need help in developing both the ability and the confidence to deliver their messages.
Net Impact has been designed to help this next generation of leaders develop their abilities through mentorship programs, skill-building workshops, development programs, and local and regional events. By developing these valuable leadership competencies, young people learn to turn their passion and ideals into action and success.
Charner, who is Net Impact’s Senior Manager of Chapter Engagement and former Net Impact Chapter leader, explained his experience as a member.
“There were three factors that drew me in and made me want to become a Chapter leader within the organization,” Charner said. “The first was having access to the resources and knowledge available. The second was having a way to accomplish something tangible within the community. And the third was the social aspect, and being able to connect in a personal way to others who cared about similar things that I do.”
Net Impact is both a student organization and an organization for young professionals looking to make a difference in the business world. It values diversity and helps those students aspiring to be effective change agents. Robbins, who is a Chapter Expansion Associate for Net Impact, seconded Sam’s views on leadership development.
“We work on equipping members with those leadership skills, along with experience in how to become a project manager and a program manager, how to delegate work within teams, how to craft business emails in an effort to gain sponsorship for your Chapter,” she said. “All of these things are skills that equip them for leadership within the business world. It’s hands-on experiential learning about business and leadership.”
The Value of Building a Network
Building a network of effective resources and connections can mean the difference between simply having a good idea and actually getting your idea off the ground. It can also mean an extra advantage in finding and getting hired for that change-making job or business opportunity.
Net Impact gives its members the opportunity to build and develop a network — both among active members of the organization and among its many former members, who have gone on to develop successful businesses and careers.
One such former member is Seth Goldman, who founded the beverage company, Honest Tea. Goldman is still active in the organization and speaks regularly at the annual Net Impact conference. In building his highly successful company, Goldman used the principles he developed as a member of Net Impact, like creating sustainable sources for his product, building honest relationships with his customers and suppliers, and making use of the substantial network of contacts he built through Net Impact.
Other prominent Net Impact members include Tracy Liu, Corporate Citizenship at The Walt Disney Company; Evan Lutz, CEO and Co-Founder of Hungry Harvest; Kirsten Tobey, Co-Founder and Chief Impact Officer of Revolution Foods; and Mackenzie Cane, Associate Director of Business Partnerships at Sierra Club.
Developing a network of contacts can be a major draw for those interested in joining Net Impact. Attending events, meetings, and conferences allows members to build and develop a network that can mean the difference between success and failure in the business world.
Ability Plus Opportunity Tends to Translate to Success
Developing leadership talent and building a resource network are pivotal for building high-impact careers as change agents. To carry these resources to the next level, Net Impact provides resource materials and in-depth guides on topics like sustainable design, social entrepreneurship, clean tech and clean energy, and socially responsible investing, among others.
It also has a jobs board with postings for positions that can have an impact in fields like health care, social equality, environmental impact, and poverty reduction. This valuable resource, along with the Net Impact Job Search Tools and Tips section, gives members an opportunity to research and find change-making internships and careers. Robbins had this to say about Net Impact’s career resources:
“We encourage our members to take a look at all of our impact career and internship profiles,” she said. “We have different profiles that we feature based on what our members say is most important and is trending in the current market environment.”
No one can argue that change is needed in our society. Our rate of consumption and the depletion of our natural resources is unsustainable. Young people are inherently problem-solvers and innovators with a desire to make a positive impact.
While thinking differently is a start, they also need to learn how to effectively harness their passions and potential. Net Impact teaches the youth of today the skills and confidence they need to effect positive change in the world.