U of A Students Launch the People, Planet and Profit Project

Left to right, bottom row: Caroline Wilson, Lindsey Steiger-Muck, Alana Collins and Gurshagan Kandhola; Top row: Rogelio Garcia Contreras, Prathamesh Bandekar, Ralph Bray, Megan Reavis, Clay Schuler, Mark Howard and Meredith Adkins.
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Left to right, bottom row: Caroline Wilson, Lindsey Steiger-Muck, Alana Collins and Gurshagan Kandhola; Top row: Rogelio Garcia Contreras, Prathamesh Bandekar, Ralph Bray, Megan Reavis, Clay Schuler, Mark Howard and Meredith Adkins.

An interdisciplinary group of M.B.A. and doctoral-level graduate students in the University of Arkansas' Graduate Net Impact chapter have completed a student-run pilot social and environmental impact consultancy project with Markham & Fitz, a Bentonville-based craft sustainable chocolate maker.

The project is under the umbrella of Graduate Net Impact's People, Planet, and Profit Project, or P4 and is an Arkansas Global Changemakers initiative. This initiative aims to place pressing social issues into global context and bring communities together to enhance local solutions to global challenges.

The graduate students joined Net Impact and P4 to consult with values-driven and social businesses, new ventures and non-profit organizations that seek to enhance their societal impact using the B Impact Assessment (BIA), a social and environmental impact assessment model aligned with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals and developed by the global non-profit, B Lab. For-profit organizations that score high enough on the BIA are eligible to achieve the lofty goal of becoming certified B Corporations ("B Corps").

The B Corp certification is for businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. Becoming certified is a lengthy and rigorous process (taking on average, one to two years) that requires documentation of a business's positive impact on the environment, and their communities, customers and workers. The legal requirement entails proof that the business values its stakeholders in addition to shareholders, either through revising the operating agreement to state such, or incorporating as a Benefit Corporation, a distinct legal structure.

Some familiar brands who are certified B Corporations include: Athleta, Allbirds, Danone North America, Dr. Bronner's, New Belgium Brewing and Patagonia. Several large Walmart suppliers have acquired B Corps in recent years, such as Unilever, whose subsidiaries include Seventh Generation and Ben & Jerry's (both Certified B Corporations), and Campbell's, which owns Plum Organics. However, in Arkansas, Southern Bancorp Inc. is the only certified B Corp. Southern Bancorp is also a Benefit Corporation. Globally, there are over 4,000 B Corps across 70 countries and 150 industries, and over 100,000 companies manage their impact with the BIA (Source: B Corporation.net).

The students, faculty and staff who are part of P4 aspire to promote sustainability and catalyze a B Corps movement in Arkansas, starting with Northwest Arkansas. In addition to the many local business owners and social entrepreneurs who care about their impact on the region and the planet, the region is a mecca for consumer products, retail, and supply chain. This area thus has enormous potential to affect the social and environmental footprint of business, as exemplified by The Sustainability Consortium's work in measuring consumer product supply chain impacts and Walmart's climate action goals, for example.

The pilot P4 project was a consultancy with Markham & Fitz, a craft chocolate retailer headquartered in Bentonville and co-founded by current CEO Lauren Blanco. Sustainability and a commitment to a more just world are driving values for this social business, as evidenced through the company's ethical, transparent and sustainable sourcing of cacao and their efforts around sustainable packaging. P4 student consultants assisted Blanco to complete the full B Impact Assessment and then made recommendations on areas where social and environmental impact could be enhanced. Blanco is expected to certify Markham & Fitz as a B Corps in the next year. 

The experience has been incredibly meaningful to all involved in the pilot. Mark Howard, the student lead for the project, shared: "I became involved with P4 because I was looking to learn skills related to consulting, specifically social/environmental impact consulting. These are not skills I utilize in my Ph.D. research, so it was important to me to grow in this area to stay well-rounded, as I'm wanting to pursue leadership positions in industry. Furthermore, I am a firm believer that social and environmental impact considerations should play a more significant role in leadership and decision-making, so this opportunity is allowing me to work with small business and non-profit leaders who are like-minded and who are addressing these issues now. While I'm incredibly passionate about environmental sustainability, P4 has provided me an opportunity to refine my knowledge around sustainability broadly. Through P4, I have learned the crucial role interpersonal relationships have in building trust with partners and in enacting useful solutions to address client challenges, two important aspects of problem solving in any domain or at any professional or non-professional level."

Blanco commented: "The P4 cohort brought so much value to Markham & Fitz's initial undertaking of the B Corp certification process. The variety of expertise areas they bring to the consultancy is invaluable. The BIA assessment is rigorous. It wouldn't have been possible for me as a business owner to manage it alone. I am so glad they're offering this consultancy to the Northwest Arkansas community, as I believe the B Corp movement can really make an impact globally. Markham & Fitz is eager to participate and influence more businesses to join the B Corps movement in Arkansas. I encourage more business owners to consider how they can measure their own impact through BIA."

Next, the P4 team has set their sights on helping more companies on the journey to improved social and environmental impact. This spring, the group will work with several clients as part of the next iteration of the project, the P4 Impact Accelerator, a semester-based consultancy utilizing the BIA tool. The pilot team is now accepting applications for new consultants (no experience required) from University of Arkansas graduate students from any discipline. A limited number of undergraduate students may be considered as well. Local businesses are also encouraged to express their interest in the impact accelerator for future iterations. Members of the pilot project include:

  • Mark Howard, P4 Project lead, Graduate Net Impact director of ooperations – Ph.D. Fellow, Department of Computer Science and Computer Engineering
  • Gurshagan Kandhola, PhD, P4 consultant – Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering
  • Prathamesh Bandekar, P4 consultant – Ph.D. Fellow, Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering
  • Caroline Wilson, P4 consultant – M.B.A. candidate
  • Clay Schuler, P4 consultant – M.B.A. candidate
  • Megan Reavis, PhD, P4 consultant – Department of Biology
  • Ralph Bray, P4 graduate assistant – M.B.A. candidate
  • Alana Collins, president, Graduate Net Impact – M.B.A. candidate
  • Rogelio Garcia Contreras, advisor – Director of Social Innovation and faculty in the Department of Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Venture Innovation at Sam M. Walton College of Business and co-founder, Arkansas Global Changemakers Initiative (RGarciaContreras@walton.uark.edu)
  • Meredith Adkins, advisor – Director for Northwest Arkansas Industry and Community Engagement, Ph.D. candidate, Public Policy-Community Development Program, University of Arkansas (mmckee@uark.edu)
  • Lindsey Steiger-Muck, advisor – Corporate outreach manager, Sam M. Walton College of Business (lsteiger-muck@walton.uark.edu)

Additionally, P4 owes gratitude to the University of Arkansas' M.B.A. program for support to Jon Johnson of the SEVI Department, to the Southern Bancorp team for advice and inspiration, especially Kimberly Enoch and CEO Darrin Williams, to Jessica Thomas at North Carolina State for inspiring B Corps consulting teams at universities across the U.S. and for her workshop for the P4 team, to Catherine Corley at the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center, and to Heather Paulsen, a B Corps consultant, who coached the team throughout the pilot consultancy.

Local businesses interested in the initiative may contact the P4 advisors and students interested in joining P4 and Gradute Net Impact should contact Mark Howard at mah030@uark.edu and G-NI President Alana Collins at ACollins@walton.uark.edu.

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