Diversity in Motion: A Year of Growth and Change | Net Impact

Diversity in Motion: A Year of Growth and Change

Dwight Smith with Net Impact HBCU chapter
Net Impact's Dwight Smith (far left) on a recent tour.

There’s never a bad time to talk diversity, but now seems especially relevant. During a month when we look back to acknowledge and respect the immense struggles and significant victories throughout black history – and look ahead to the work that still remains – we’re highlighting some of the progress we've made here at Net Impact.

Many in the business world have been making notable strides to foster more diverse environments. But we know there's more work to be done, and we're determined to do our part. We want to ensure that future leaders from diverse experiences can design their own impact careers – ones that allow them to integrate sustainability, corporate responsibility, and social entrepreneurship. The clear starting point for us is taking a look at our own network.

So last year, we set a goal to increase the diversity of our network and partnered with Symantec to establish undergraduate chapters at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and women’s colleges.* We know lots of other organizations are also working to increase and improve their diversity efforts, so I’m sharing my notes here about what’s working for us. 

1. Building trust

We approach this work with great respect for the legacy of HBCUs. These institutions were born in an era where young black boys and girls were denied even the most basic right to higher learning. They are beautifully tight-knit communities where the adage "It takes a village...” plays out in excellent fashion. As a result, faculty and staff can be wary of outside organizations and vet them to confirm that their intentions are in the students' best interests.

It’s up to us to build trust. It is also up to us to learn, to listen, and to acknowledge the histories and injustices that contribute to that very valid vetting approach. To do that, we're focusing on not only the value the Net Impact community brings to their students but also the vibrant and creative voices those students bring to our network.

2. Making the case

We make the case for the crucial role that the HBCU community can play in addressing the racial inequities and barriers that still exist in the business world today by bringing their institutions into our network. We believe that the impact sector and, more broadly, the business sector, can play a pivotal role in helping to eradicate the systemic and structural race inequity that exists in many of our institutions today – inequities that gave initial cause for the existence of HBCUs.

3. Finding the right audience

Many in the HBCU community aren't already familiar with our organization, so we take the time to show them the full potential of a Net Impact chapter on their campus. We've taken a step back to figure out where each chapter fits into its campus ecosystem, working within the existing constructs and hierarchies. Some chapters are housed within an academic department. Others are based in student life offices. Still other chapters exist as an extension of the student government association and serve as a convener for multiple campus groups working on similar issues. This flexibility is unique to the undergraduate campus environment, which is one reason we focus our outreach at that level.

Chapters serve as a vehicle for students to gain valuable exposure and education around career possibilities in the areas of social enterprise, entrepreneurship, corporate responsibility, and much more. Our growth strategy focuses on the undergraduate audience so that as students start thinking about their impact journey, we're there to help them explore and navigate successfully.

4. Tapping into the enthusiasm

All of our challenges have led us to amazing opportunities. When we sit down with administrators, we are having great conversations. More importantly, when we sit down with students, they are showing a lot of interest. The timing is right for these campuses – they’re eager to find ways to support students in both their academic lives as well as their future professional lives, and the students are always on the hunt for opportunities to turn their passion into action.

5. Getting beyond a project mentality

Last year, we launched 5 chapters, with 10 more in the pipeline. This year, with the continuation of Symantec’s grant, we plan to launch these 10 chapters, plus an additional 10. We’re starting to see some great success stories. The chapter at Spelman College (one of only a few HBCUs for women in existence today) showed enormous resiliency in getting their chapter off the ground despite the departure of their faculty advisor. The new chapter at Jackson State University has decided to focus on health and housing issues. This semester, they are working with Habitat for Humanity to build affordable housing in the communities around their school. It’s exciting to see these efforts begin to bear fruit.

We are determined to find ways to further integrate diversity into Net Impact’s culture and strategy. We’re not looking at this as a “project” – this is just the starting point for us, and we know there's much work left to be done. We’ll be looking at ways to ingrain a commitment to diversity and racial equity across our existing chapters, and continue to support and highlight new chapters in new communities. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we are learning as we go. Together, as a network, we have a chance to lead change in this area. We're looking forward to this important work, and we'd love to hear what's working for you, too. Please share a comment below and continue the conversation with us.

*We're looking forward to zooming in on our work with womens colleges in a later post. To some extent, all five points are applicable for us to consider when building a new relationship with any campus. For now, I'm highlighting these issues through the lens of our work with the HBCU community in honor of black history month.


Follow Dwight's adventures on Twitter to see the next phase of this journey unfold.