Net Impact Trip to NYC: Lessons on Social Impact and Empowerment

Aaron Lai
Aaron Lai

Aaron (Po-Hsun) Lai is a Global MBA student at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Previously, Aaron worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young Advisory. He has extensive experience in fields such as accounting, auditing, internal control, compliance, and risk management. Aaron is currently the Outreach Director of the Carey Consulting Club as well as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Carey Business School. Aaron grew up in South Africa and later spent his life living in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. Outside of his professional life, Aaron is a fervent soccer fan and avid reader of fantasy novels. Aaron may be reached at

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Last month, as the Fall I semester began to wrap up, the Net Impact Club at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School arranged a two-day career trek to New York City. Our mission? To understand how companies in the industry are driving positive social and environmental changes. This was an exciting opportunity for students to reflect on actual practices in the business world that align with Carey’s core mission of “teaching business with humanity in mind.”

Day 1: How Companies Drive Social Impact

Early in the morning, as I was sitting in the carriage of my train heading towards New York City, I reflected on the day’s schedule. I was reminded of how, years ago, when I started my first job, the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and social impact was still a novel term; the world was still trying to recover from the 2008 financial crisis, the IIRC had just drafted its first version of the Integrated Reporting Framework, and the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School had just been established as a response to a call for a more socially conscious business education. This time around, I wondered whether things had changed at all, whether the term—social impact—had finally evolved from just being a catchphrase, and what initiatives were being implemented in the for-profit sector.

Upon arriving at our first stop, we were greeted by Kate Maloney, Senior Manager at KPMG’s Development Exempt Organizations division. Kate passionately introduced us to the exciting services offered by KPMG that are driving international development, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility. KPMG has developed a comprehensive service portfolio for development exempt organizations that included services such as strategy, global health, sustainability & climate, and infrastructure advisory. These services also advance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), on which KPMG has invested heavily. Kate elaborated on how development exempt organizations often face inconsistent tax regulations around the world. With KPMG’s broad talent network around the globe, her team is able to help clients maneuver through the often onerous, if not obscure, statutory requirements.

Through our discussions, it was clear that Kate’s team was doing some amazing work in driving social and environmental changes in the industry, and I wondered how these initiatives were being reported, as when the Integrated Reporting Framework was first released in 2013, a major concern for all stakeholders was the ambiguity of a clear reporting standard. Particularly, how social impact initiatives, often qualitative in nature, could be benchmarked. Kate responded that indeed it was very hard to quantify qualitative factors, and that one of the key values of KPMG’s services was providing that expertise in providing a methodology in addressing the ambiguity. Kate suggested those interested in KPMG’s methodology look up “True Value,” KPMG’s own version of the Integrated Reporting Framework.

She also noted that in the CSR, sustainability sector, a lot is still changing at a fast pace; students interested in the sector should take note of some of the terminology in the sector, such as ESG and Corporate Citizenship, as well as follow key proponents such as the CECP in order to follow the developing trends.

Next in line of our tight trek schedule was Bloomberg, where we were greeted by Erin Barnes, Manager at Bloomberg’s Sustainable Business Programs. We were introduced to the acclaimed Bloomberg Terminal, which provides integrated real-time market data, research, analytics, and communication tools for decision-makers. The most interesting part for me, however, was the presentation of Bloomberg Terminal’s ESG indices, most recently updated in 2016. The ESG indices collect environmental, social, and governance data for sustainable investing. The ESG indices provide a great example on how non-financial data can be disclosed for decision-makers and ties back to the vision of the Integrated Reporting Framework—aligning capital allocation and corporate behavior to wider goals of financial stability and sustainable development through the cycle of integrated reporting and thinking. When asked the question whether ESG indicators correlated to financial performance, Erin was reserved to state that there was a direct relationship and noted that further data would have to be collected. However, encouragingly, a recent study by Russel Investments indicated that ESG indices may be early performance indicators. As the ESG indices are continuously revised to become more comprehensive, it will be interesting to see how the indices will encourage impact investing and social accountability.

Day 2: Empowerment as a Keystone for Success

On Day 2, we took a change of pace by visiting Investopedia. Although Investopedia has been around since 1999, it was clear from our visit that the company still maintained a startup spirit free from the encumbrance of being a large corporation. We were welcomed by David Siegel, CEO at Investopedia, who possessed a beaming personality that is hard to forget. David was passionate about how Investopedia was empowering people by providing free and easy to access to financial information and education. I still remember back when I was working, I would often resort to Investopedia as a free source for financial terminology that I was unfamiliar with. I was delighted to learn that the company has steadily grown throughout the years and that its website has more than 20 million unique visitors each month. Despite so, Investopedia’s ambitions didn’t just end there. Recently, the company launched Investopedia Academy, an online platform that provides financial courses such as financial modeling and Excel for finance. With the proliferation of MOOC in recent years, it will be interesting to see how Investopedia Academy differentiates itself in the market. However, there are already some encouraging signs. David mentioned that Investopedia Academy was working closely with financial institutions to use certifications provided by Investopedia Academy as a tool to help these financial institutions distinguish candidates for recruitment and advancement.

At our last stop for our two-day NYC trek, we visited Microsoft, where we were greeted by Antuan Santana, Community Manager at Microsoft. Antuan spoke of the reinvention that Microsoft had undergone in the past few years. During the early 2000s, it was evident Microsoft had lost its way. Consumers viewed Microsoft as a behemoth that provided products and services in almost every technological aspect. Internally, Microsoft believed it was turning out innovative products and services, but externally that belief was not being shared by consumers. The disconnect drove Microsoft to ask: “What can we do that is unique and impactful?” After some hard introspection, Microsoft developed a new mission statement: “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more,” and a new tagline: “Empowering Us All.” Instead of just venturing in every new technological possibility, Microsoft focused on being the company that facilitated people in solving the most pressing problems in our world. A great example is the story of Sarah Churman. You may be familiar with Sarah from a 2011 viral video in which she activates a hearing implant and hears for the very first time. Microsoft’s technology played a pivotal role in enabling her to receive an Esteem Hearing implant and experience the laughter of her children. By focusing on impact, Microsoft found itself again and what it stood for.

As our 2-day trek came to an end, walking down the buzzing streets of New York City, I reflected on what I learned. People often think of social impact as the undertaking of philanthropists or nonprofit organizations. However, achieving greater positive impact on society and the environment should not simply be the responsibility of the nonprofit sector. In fact, I argue the for-profit sector should play a bigger role in the puzzle. The four companies mentioned above all provide their impact on society and the environment in their own way. As a student at Carey Business School, I often ask myself what “teaching business with humanity in mind” really means. Through this 2-day trek, I think I found my answer.

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