Net Impact Conference 2015 – Hope & Passion Make the Seeds Grow

Net Impact Conference 2015 – Hope & Passion Make the Seeds Grow

I recently attended the 2015 Net Impact Conference in Seattle, Washington. As I flew home to sunny and dry L.A., I reflected upon the purpose of the conference and the relative, shall we say, impact it had on my outlook towards social impact positions and their role in socially responsible businesses.

Net Impact Conference 2015

The Net Impact Conference is largely meant for masters and MBA students pursuing a career in “social good” — to learn from CEOs, chief sustainability officers, policy gurus and the like, about sustainable standards and practices at the corporate level — the growth of social entrepreneurism and social impact jobs, and their visions for the future of all of the above. Students are also given the opportunity to network with over two thousand like-minded, passionate individuals looking to foster rewarding and meaningful relationships. I include myself in this group.

After two and a half days chock full of keynotes, panels, networking salons and workshops, I came to acknowledge something: our current leaders in the world of socially responsible and environmentally revolutionary companies seem guarded, and just a touch jaded. I was taken aback by how the CEOs of some of the largest and most revered organizations in the world of responsible practice seemed unenthused by the words they were clearly reciting off of a piece of paper. What happened to the passion and sparkle they surely once had surrounding purpose and impact? What change or insight were they really trying to affect with their monotoned voices, meticulously chosen words, and anti-controversial (safe answers) to students’ raw curiosity?

After asking nearly everyone I met what their favorite session was over the two and a half days, the answer was almost a clear blowout: “The Green Bronx Machine, of course!”, they would say with a glow in their eyes. The Green Bronx Machine is a grassroots movement lead by Stephen Ritz. He is not a CEO. He is not a government official, nor a sustainability icon. He is an elementary school teacher with 30 years of experience under his belt, working in one of the most disadvantaged communities in the United States: The Bronx. With his big, foam, cheese-looking cowboy hat and his booming, energized voice, Stephen took us on an incredibly uplifting journey in just 30 minutes, after which, my heart was beating so fast I felt like I had just run a marathon.

Stephen Ritz, founder of Green Bronx Machine, with some of his students

Stephen Ritz, founder of Green Bronx Machine, with some of his students

Beginning a few years back through his efforts within his elementary school classroom, Mr. Ritz started a movement —- transforming the community around him into a healthier, more successful, educated, and employable one almost single handily. He started by growing plants in his classroom, teaching his students how to care for a seed, and how that care and responsibility yields a yield. With his students he invented technology that allows certain vegetation to grow vertically on walls and without any natural sunlight. From there he created a business where students have installed green walls and roofs all over New York City and beyond.

I could go on and on about The Green Bronx Machine, but what I’m more interested in discussing is why Mr. Ritz had such an impact on nearly everyone who heard him speak. Personally, I find his grassroots efforts incredibly inspiring; he has worked in the field every day since the beginning of his initiative in the complete absence of corporate sponsors or significant funding -— thriving purely off of the crops that the efforts of him and his students have yielded both literally and metaphorically. He has not been dealt any favors, nor does he benefit from the limitless resources of the aforementioned CEOs. And yet, his results speak volumes. He has grown an incredible community from nothing, and has never lost hope nor passion along the way.

It is from Ritz’s relentless sense of hope and passion that a real difference is made. Like essential nutrients in the soil, hope and passion cannot be neglected or ignored because they are at the very heart of the sustainability/social impact movement — the true drivers of change. It is from hope that we become convinced the future will be a better and more prosperous place, and from passion that we continue to persevere when hope is hampered by the challenges of the day-to-day. Hope and passion keeps us focused. Hope and passion inspires. Hope and passion allows the seeds of change to grow. Take them away and real change will never take root.

To all my fellow Net Impact Conference Attendees, I encourage you all to add your thoughts and comments about your experiences at the conference. Do my thoughts mirror your own?

And for those of you who missed Stephen Ritz, please check out his TED Talk: A Teacher Growing Green in the South Bronx, to fully understand this entry.