One Graduate’s Summer
Adventure in Business
-Aileen Gardner ’12
Before taking my first course in Leadership, Ethics, and Organizational Sustainability (LEO) at SJU, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. That would quickly change in my senior year. Taking LEO courses and my involvement with the SJU Net Impact Chapter would change my entire way of thinking. While this gave me endless possibilities about where to start after graduation, choosing the right path is not always as black and white as one would hope. The question for me at that point was not whether I would follow my passions, but how? This is what I set out to discover when I spent the summer driving across the country, exploring the beautiful outdoors, and researching social responsibility and sustainability in business. Prior to my trip, my work experience was sprinkled with companies that had little or no concern for their impact on others or on the environment. Not only did I want to change this, but I wanted meet with people who were already doing so.
Over the course of 4 months I met with local business owners, non-profit leaders, B Corps, travelers, innovators, athletes, TED speakers, and strangers who would soon become friends. With every step into new territory came beautiful expressions of nature and someone new to inspire my journey.
In New Mexico and Arizona I learned most about the impact of local business and alternative energy. While the presence of solar, geothermal, and wind energy was very prevalent, the impact initiatives of businesses in the Southwest seemed to be lacking. Businesses appeared to maintain the bare minimum rather than harness the seemingly strong loyalty to local brands to make the greatest possible impact. In the first month of my travels this became a pattern that made me question the authenticity of it all. Do these businesses use Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability as marketing strategies? For image? As it turned out, that was the case for half of them. Taking a closer look at operations and talking to employees confirmed to me that there was not a greater sense of ethical responsibility present. Conversely, lack of knowledge rather than a lack of commitment appeared to be the problem for the other half of businesses with whom I spoke. There was an overwhelming feeling among them that both "doing good" and being profitable is not possible, as if the steps to becoming a triple bottom-line (economic, social, and environmental) business is some big secret reserved for places like San Francisco.
For that reason, the focus of my research shifted to B Corps—businesses independently certified as generating benefit to society and the environment. Rather than continue to research what businesses were not doing and why, I wanted to know what they were doing, how they were doing it and still, why? In the months that followed the bulk of my experiences occurred in the dense B Corp communities of Colorado, California and Oregon. Companies that I met with like New Belgium Brewing and Bamboo Sushi continually strive towards a shared goal of solving the world’s most important social and environmental problems, incorporating programs like sustainable food sourcing, waste reduction, alternative transportation, and community engagement into everyday operations. The ‘what’ and ‘how’ varied, but the one thing that remained constant and at the core of each company was the ‘why.’ Often the responses reflected the value of integrity, serving a greater purpose, and concern for all stakeholders. Granted, I know this whole community does not stem from the hallways of SJU, but it was remarkable to continuously see the real world application of my ethics education and the expression of well, magis, through business.
Based on what I have learned, I now believe that education is what will close the gap between established triple bottom-line businesses and those caught in the "we have to sacrifice profit to do good" mindset. Lack of awareness seemed to be what stopped many of the companies I engaged. I think that we can shrink that gap by continuing to make information and tools (like the B Impact Assessment) more widely known. Additionally, it was my business education and experience with The Arrupe Center programs that prompted me to go into the business world not willing to settle for anything less. So I believe that the bigger solution is rooted in the foundation given to future business leaders in their education.
What I have learned this summer is beyond my capacity to fully express here. Adventuring alone across this beautiful country was scary, exciting, eye opening, and the best risk I could have ever chosen to take. Whether I was volunteering with TEDx, climbing a mountain, interviewing executives, or making a mindful decision on where to purchase my coffee, I took every second as an opportunity to learn about the world and myself. I will be forever grateful for that final year at SJU. Without the LEO curriculum, and my professors and peers, this adventure would have never started.