Interviewed March 2007
Beth Richardson is a first year MBA student and the newly-elected president of UNC Kenan-Flagler's Net Impact Club for 2007-08. In her first year at Kenan-Flagler, Beth has been an active member of the sustainability community, acting as the first-year liaison for the SVCIC (Sustainable Venture Capital Investment Competition), a triple-bottom line spin-off of UNC's popular VCIC.
Even before she was officially a Kenan-Flagler student, Beth was making waves at UNC. Her start-up venture, Zebra Crossings, was the winner of the social entrepreneurship and people's choice categories in UNC's 2006 Carolina Challenge business plan competition. Zebra Crossings imports fair trade gifts and accessories from South Africa — connecting formerly unemployed artisans in developing countries with consumers in the U.S. who are interested in ethical consumption. Beth will spend this summer as a Carolina Entrepreneurial Fellow, devoting her summer to working on growing her business and launching a network in the Triangle area for fair trade organizations.
Beth's interest in international opportunities and the social sector began during her undergraduate education. After attending Georgetown University for one year, she took a year off to travel in Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Peru and then went on an outward bound trip to live in Prague for a semester in 1998. There Beth participated in a service learning program and got to see a country shifting from a communist to capitalistic society. This shift became evident to Beth as she volunteered for two organizations, both designed to manage the mentally disabled, but with very different goals. One was a communist era institution for the mentally disabled, the other was a new NGO set up by parents of mentally disabled children. While the former kept the disabled out of society, the latter set up assisted living programs, job training programs, and more. Beth saw how "choice and a market driven system in this case, made an enormous difference on a vexing social issue."
Returning to the U.S., Beth transferred to Duke to complete her BA in Comparative Area Studies (2001) and then promptly left the country again. This time, she was working in Cape Town South Africa for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, managing a USAID-funded small business development and job training center. While there, Beth found her passion for sustainability as she helped unemployed people create sewing cooperatives and launch their own businesses. She recalls that, "the transformation that these men and women underwent as result of starting their own business was amazing. Witnessing these transformations got me hooked on the idea of marrying business with the creation of social impact."
In 2003, Beth returned to the States to work for Ashoka: Innovators for the Public where she focused mainly on fundraising to support Ashoka's social entrepreneurs. A year later, she moved back to North Carolina to work for Self-Help where she learned, among other things, that "organizations can apply standard financial practices to create triple bottom line benefits." In each of her positions in the social sector, Beth further developed her views about how sustainable business can benefit society. However, she began to see that her international studies skills would be enhanced and she would be better able to help people if she gained some business skills such that an MBA would provide.
Beth came to UNC Kenan-Flagler, despite being a Blue Devil, because of the school's highly-ranked sustainability and entrepreneurship programs. What put Kenan-Flagler at the top of her list was the school's "robust Net Impact chapter, depth of sustainability-related course offerings, and culture that encourages teamwork and collaboration." Reflecting on her MBA experience thus far Beth says that her experiences outside of the classroom in terms of sustainability have been as valuable to her as her experiences in the classroom. Beth notes playfully that, since coming to UNC, she has come to terms with the UNC-Duke rivalry by defining herself as a "Tardevil," making her the Switzerland of ACC college basketball.
As she moves beyond business school, Beth plans to affect positive change by working with social sector organizations and businesses to create win-win solutions for the two sectors and the people they serve. In the near term, she will accomplish this as she scales up her social venture, Zebra Crossings, to improve the quality of life of the artisans in emerging economies and help integrate people currently excluded from the formal economy into a global market while creating options for consumers in the U.S. who want to purchase items that are sourced in a way that reflects their values.
Her advice to others who want to make a difference in the world: "No one can do everything or solve every problem, just start with a problem you care about or that is relevant to your company."
Sustainability Reading Recommendation:
The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid By: C.K. Prahalad
The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid proposes a new way for corporations to interact with people "living at the bottom of the pyramid" or in shantytowns around the world. Instead of viewing the people who live in shantytowns as non-consumers, Prahalad urges companies to engage these people as customers. Even though the global poor do not have a lot of assets, they are still making purchases and transactions every day and according to Prahalad, these people should be viewed as the next great market opportunity for companies. Prahalad uses some pretty convincing case studies convincing evidence about companies that are doing just that today to prove his point.
I loved this book because it turned around the dominant international development paradigm that views the poor as recipients of aid and because it highlights a business strategy that is both potentially beneficial to the world's poor and to the companies that engage with this population.
Nominee for Sustainability Superstar:
Grameen Bank. Not only was this organization one of the first organizations to pioneer micro lending, but Grameen is now initiating innovative projects in the areas of energy, telecommunications, and the internet.