Students Help Local Companies Boost Environmental, Social Impact

Is a for-profit company’s only goal to generate profit?

A growing number of Triangle-area businesses now also consider social and environmental impact as measures of success, and a cohort of local college students are helping quantify and amplify that impact.

NC State’s B Corp Clinic matches students as volunteer consultants for local companies seeking certification as a B Corporation. B Corps, as they’re commonly known, are certified by the nonprofit B Lab for best practices in environmental responsibility, social impact, accountability and transparency.  Nearly 2,000 companies in 50 countries are B Corp certified.

During the fall semester, 28 students helped six companies navigate the rigorous B Impact Assessment. Businesses that score at least 80 points on the assessment achieve B Corp certification.

“The certification is a tool to track business impact,” said Jessica Thomas, director of the Business Sustainability Collaborative at NC State’s Poole College of Management. “B Corp Clinic provides a resource for businesses in our community, as well as a learning opportunity for students.”

Companies participating in B Corp Clinic range in size from small startups to global corporations such as Red Hat, an open source technology company headquartered in downtown Raleigh. With 9,300 employees worldwide, Red Hat is striving to become one of the first large, multinational tech firms to become B Corp certified.

“There’s lack of precedent for an organization of this size and scope [to achieve certification],” said Ben Bradley, an NC State Jenkins MBA student.

Bradley and other students on the Red Hat team spent the semester learning the complexities of Red Hat while also working closely with B Lab on molding future standards and best practices for multinational companies. For example, when a company has 80 locations worldwide, should calculations for living wage be based on every location’s economy or the average of all locations?

Students reviewed Red Hat’s baseline score on the B Impact Assessment and worked with employees in four departments to evaluate possibilities of achieving additional points. Some members of the team will return to the project in the Spring semester when they begin implementing some of the recommendations created by the team.

“Setting the mold is challenging. It’s a big thing and it’s not going to be an overnight success. But the ball is rolling,” Bradley said.

In navigating the B Impact Assessment, students learn about sustainable business practices. The team of students working with Seal the Seasons, a local food company, created formal policies for sustainable packaging procurement, mechanisms for tracking employee volunteer hours and better governance processes.  They also verified points the company should receive for offering paid family leave, a living wage and stock options for employees, policies for choosing sustainable suppliers, energy use monitoring and waste reduction efforts.

For Durham-based compost collection and delivery company Tilthy Rich, students created a framework for an employee handbook and recommendations that could boost the business into certified status. Another student team used similar tactics to boost the score for Sweeps, a Raleigh-based company that connects college students with people needing home, moving or other help.

“It’s not just about score but about laying the foundation for the future of Sweeps,” said team leader Ajinkya Andhare, a Jenkins MBA student.

Students working with REAP, a Sanford-based development services consulting firm, created a step-by-step roadmap for the company’s path to certification. Additionally, the team focused on two categories of the assessment, helping nearly double the company’s initial score.

Before the B Corp Clinic, Durham-based Firsthand Foods had already built a strong B Impact initial score. The student team worked to validate and enhance the score, which was submitted to B Lab for official review in November.

“The reason I am in business is to demonstrate that you can do business this way and be successful. We believe in this movement of business as a tool for doing good,” said Tina Prevatte, co-CEO of Firsthand Foods.

Since B Corp Clinic began in 2015, the program has involved 72 students as volunteer consultants for 16 local businesses. Though the clinic is among about a dozen similar programs nationwide, NC State’s is the only to include students from multiple universities, including UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University and Davidson College.  Each team has a coach familiar with the B Corp certification, as well as a representative from the company.

Through the clinic, four companies have achieved B Corp certification, with more companies in review awaiting certification. As much as it matters to grow North Carolina’s B Corp community, Thomas said certification is not the clinic’s ultimate goal.

“The goal is the process,” she said. “We are using B Corp as a tool to drive social change and to transform the way we do business.”