B Impact PSU

Background 

B Impact PSU is a free consulting service for companies engaged in the B Corp certification or recertification process. The program is a project of the Portland State University (PSU) chapter of Net Impact, and operates with the support of Impact Entrepreneurs, a PSU School of Business Administration initiative with a set of curricular and co-curricular offerings in social entrepreneurship.

B Corp is a certification that for-profit businesses can earn by virtue of their business practices. It is often said that B Corp is to business as LEED is to buildings, Organic is to milk and Fair Trade is to coffee. B Corp certification is administered by B Lab, a nonprofit organization based near Philadelphia. The certification process includes completing an extensive online questionnaire (called the B Impact Assessment), having the answers verified by B Lab staff, meeting certain legal requirements set by B Lab, and paying an annual certification fee. To qualify for certification, a company must achieve a score of 80 points (out of a possible 200) on the B Impact Assessment.

History

Starting in the early 2010’s, Portland State Net Impact students began working with area businesses interested in becoming B Corp certified, as part of Net Impact’s Projects for Good program. Many of the small and medium sized businesses which were interested in certification did not have the resources needed to complete the assessment. While only the company employees have the knowledge required to answer the assessment questions, students were able to provide critical support services, such as project management and research. Despite minimal support from Portland State, the students achieved a good degree of success. Portland State students helped with the certification or recertification of New Seasons grocery (the first grocer to ever become B Corp certified), Sokol Blosser winery, and Looptworks, a company that repurposes waste materials into manufactured items, among others.

In the spring of 2015, Jacen Greene, PSU Net Impact’s faculty advisor, approached the Net Impact leadership team to see if there was interest in building out a program for connecting students to companies engaged in the B Corp certification process. Portland was one of the regional hubs where B Corps had taken hold, with more than 50 companies already certified, and interest in certification among Portland’s progressive business community was snowballing. Jacen saw an opportunity for Portland State students to gain hands-on consulting experience while making a contribution to businesses whose values they admired, and for businesses to gain much-needed assistance in their quest for certification. Two PSU MBA candidates, Rich Schwartz and Emma Ingebretsen, ran with Jacen’s suggestion, and in fall 2015 they launched B Impact PSU.

In the pilot academic year of 2015-2016, more than 30 Portland State students worked with 10 Portland area businesses. Three of the companies that were part of the program went on to become certified B Corps, while two others were close to reaching the 80 points necessary to qualify for certification. Overall, seven of the ten projects were considered “successful,” achieving most or all of the original project goals. The three failed projects were taken as lessons learned, and led to changes and enhancements for the 2016-2017 program.

Program Mechanics

Program Coordination

Coordination of the B Impact PSU program occurs at three levels: faculty advisor, B Impact Fellow, and student coordinators.

High level oversight of the program comes from the faculty advisor. Responsibilities of the faculty advisor include:

·         Working with the local business community to create strategic partnerships and sponsorship opportunities 

·         Attending program training, launch, and celebration events 

·         Reviewing progress of each of the projects through monthly status reports

·         Checking in with all clients at project halfway point

·         Reviewing post-project feedback forms and recommending program improvements

·         Handling any issues which cannot be addressed by the student coordinators


The faculty advisor also hires and oversees the work of the B Impact Fellow, described below.

Most of the day to day operation of the program falls to the two student coordinators. The student coordinators volunteer for the role in the spring, are approved by the faculty advisor, and serve in their roles for the entire academic year. Typically, one student coordinator takes responsibility for issues that are more client and community facing, while the second coordinator handles issues that are more student and team facing. Student coordinators have been second year MBA candidates with a background in sustainability and some knowledge of the B Corp certification process. Ideally, student coordinators will have been student consultants the prior year, and thus will be familiar with both the certification process and the B Impact program.

Student-facing responsibilities of the student coordinators include:

  • Marketing the program and recruiting student participants
  • Leading training sessions
  • Creating student teams
  • Working with student teams to address issues that have been escalated
  • Reviewing monthly team status reports and checking in with teams as needed

Client-facing responsibilities of the student coordinators include:

  • Marketing the program externally and recruiting business clients
  • Screening businesses into or out of the program
  • Introducing client businesses to their teams
  • Checking in with clients after reviewing the monthly team reports

General program-coordination responsibilities of the student coordinators include:

  • Sharing monthly status reports with Faculty Advisor
  • Requesting overdue status reports from Student Project Coordinators
  • Coordinating and hosting launch and celebration events
  • Sharing program successes with B Lab and local B Corp community
  • Recommending process and program improvements

In the summer of 2016, the faculty advisor secured funding from law firm Miller Nash Graham & Dunn to support a short-term, part-time fellowship position. In its first year, the fellow primarily focused on two areas. First, the fellow was responsible for transitioning B Impact PSU from a pilot program to an established program. The fellow wrote documentation, created program forms, and fine-tuned policies and procedures. Second, the fellow took on some of the responsibilities of the student coordinators, particularly around program marketing in the local business and B Corp communities, client recruitment, and launching the fall cohort of projects.

Students & Teams

Consultants are recruited from throughout the Portland State community, although most of the students have been enrolled in the School of Business Administration (and more specifically, in the MBA program). To date, only graduate students have been allowed to participate. The primary reason for this restriction is that the student teams are self-directed with minimal direct oversight or training by the program coordinators. To be successful, students must be self-motivated and self-directed, and much of the value they bring to the projects is drawn from life and work experience. Program coordinators believe that graduate students are much more likely to have these qualities than undergraduates.

The students are organized into teams of three, with one student self-selecting as the Team Coordinator. In addition to their regular consulting responsibilities, Team Coordinators also serve as the primary point of communication between the student team and the client business, as well as the student team and the B Impact student coordinators.

All students are required to attend a 90 minute orientation and training session prior to their first meeting with the client. Before the orientation session, students are asked to familiarize themselves with B Corp and the certification process by watching an hour-long webinar. At the orientation session, students learn about the B Corp movement in Portland, the mechanics of the consulting projects, and the expectations of student consultants. Students then spend the balance of the training session reviewing questions from the Quick Impact Assessment for a fictitious company.

In addition to the B Lab webinar and training session, students are encouraged to learn more about B Corp by watching additional webinars, reading The B Corp Handbook, and reviewing content at B Lab’s website.

Business Clients

Portland State is fortunate to be located in a city that has a growing and very active B Corp community. Portland hosted the 2015 Champions Retreat (an annual gathering of employees from B Corps) and until recently had the third-highest number of certified B Corps of any city in the world. As a result, there is relatively high awareness about B Corp certification in the local business community, and there is a growing number of businesses interested in becoming certified. The program seeks a group of client businesses who are interested in becoming a certified B Corp and can benefit from the resources provided by a student team.

B Impact PSU receives support for business recruitment from two primary sources. First, it works closely with B Lab staff who identify and refer businesses interested in certification. The second source of recruitment is Portland’s local B Corp community. Many of these businesses have friends and colleagues who work for companies that may be interested in becoming B Corps as well.

Once the coordinators make initial contact with a business, they ask them to complete a brief online questionnaire in which they indicate their interest in B Corp, their current status in the certification process (not yet started the assessment, need help completing the assessment, need help scoring more points, or going through recertification), and their goals for the project.

After the business completes the questionnaire, program coordinators follow up with a phone interview. The purpose of the interview is to see how well the business and its needs would fit into the program. In particular, coordinators are trying to ascertain what exactly the students would be working on should the business be accepted into the program, and whether the business is willing and able to commit resources to the assessment process. (The program learned the hard way during the pilot year that if a business does not commit resources, the project cannot be successful.) Coordinators also take this opportunity to give more detailed information about the program structure, and to set expectations with the business. In particular, they emphasize that while the students are an excellent resource that can help the business meet its certification goals, they are not experts.

To date, B Impact PSU has worked with a wide variety of business clients, from multiple industries (both service and manufacturing), of various sizes (from sole proprietors up to more than 100 employees), and that have been in business for different amounts of time (from one year to decades). Because of this variety in demographics, as well as differences in business needs, the tasks associated with each project have been specific to that engagement. Also of note is that most of the selected businesses have been located in the Portland metro area, although there have been a couple of remote clients. The benefit of a local business is that students can meet with the client in person, and the business provides the students with a connection to the local business community.

Projects

B Impact PSU runs two cohorts of projects each academic year, beginning in fall and spring. The projects last about 15 weeks, from the kickoff meeting to the final celebration, which means about 10-12 weeks of actual project work. Students commit to working up to 2-3 hours per week, up to a total of 25 hours over the course of the project.

Each cohort of projects begins with a kickoff event, which builds enthusiasm for the program and provides an opportunity for the students and business representatives to get to know one another. The fall 2016 event was hosted by the Portland law firm Miller Nash Graham & Dunn, and it was attended by many of the interested students, representatives from five of the six client businesses, members of the Portland B Corp community, and administrative staff from the university. Each of the business reps had two minutes to tell the attendees about their company, their reasons for participating in the program, and their specific needs. Students then spent the balance of the evening talking to the business representatives, getting a sense of which projects they would most like to work on. After the event, students filled out a survey ranking the businesses by their level of interest. The student coordinators used this information to build the consulting teams.

The actual work associated with the projects varies widely per engagement, dependent upon the business’s specific needs and where they are in the certification process. Some of the tasks that students work on include:

  • Helping the business start and complete the B Impact Assessment
  • Project management of the tasks associated with completing the assessment
  • Coordinating with subject matter experts within the company to answer domain-specific questions
  • Researching current practices of the business or others in their value chain (e.g. suppliers)
  • Drafting documents describing the business’s practices
  • Mapping a path to reach 80 points
  • Providing technical assistance, such as setting up greenhouse gas emissions tracking tools

Students meet with their clients on an as-needed basis. Projects that consist primarily of tasks that require client input tend to meet more frequently (perhaps every other week), while those that have tasks that students can work independently meet less frequently. Regardless, teams are required to check in with their clients at least every other week, providing information on progress made, plans for the next phase, and any barriers the students have encountered.

Consulting teams are also required to check in with student program coordinators on a regular basis. This allows the program coordinators (and faculty advisor) to see progress being made and to help remove barriers should any arise. The first checkpoint occurs immediately following the team’s initial client meeting, where students and clients draft a project agreement document. Subsequent check ins happen at least once a month for the duration of the project. Additionally, the faculty advisor contacts the client business representative at the project midway point, and will assist with course corrections if any are necessary.

Program Timeline

Here is the calendar that was used for the fall 2016 cohort:

Mid August

Begin business recruitment process

Late September

Begin student recruitment process

September 26

Classes begin

October 7

Student Training

October 12

Kickoff Event

October 14

Student Training

October 21

Team/Client Introductions

November 4

Target date for first client meeting

December 2

First team check in

December 16

Faculty check in with clients

December 30

Second team check in

January 20

Final team check in

January 25

Celebration Event

February 1

Project Summary, Student and Client Satisfaction Surveys Due

 

A similar schedule will be used for the spring 2017 projects, which will begin in late February.

Conclusion

Around the world, people in the academic community are actively engaged in changing the way that companies do business. As B Lab states at their website

While B Lab has been focused on recognizing and supporting companies who use their business as a force for good, professors, students, and administrators at campuses across the continent and around the world have recognized that in order to change the way we do business, we need to change the way we teach business. These leaders have manifested the movement of people using business as a force for good in diverse and creative ways.

 

The Portland State community has built B Impact PSU with limited resources, and the response has been tremendous. The program is by far the most popular that Portland State’s Net Impact chapter has ever run. Students appreciate the opportunity to gain valuable consulting experience, learn about the B Corp movement, and make connections in Portland’s progressive business community, all while making a contribution to a company which shares their values. And in the business community, companies appreciate the assistance students provide measuring what matters and helping these companies forward their sustainability and social impact goals, whether or not that includes actually certifying as a B Corp.

As the B Corp movement gains momentum, there is an opportunity for programs like B Impact PSU to be successful at colleges and universities across the country. If you are interested in learning more about B Impact PSU, or in starting up a similar program at your university, contact the program coordinators: bimpact@pdx.edu.

- Rich Schwartz, PSU MBA 2016