University of Alabama students explore potential of business as a force for good

It’s a popular concept among established companies and entrepreneurs across the country (including in Alabama): How to build a successful business that combines the motivation to make money with a mission to do good in the community.

One approach is for the business to become a legitimate benefit corporation or be certified as a “B Corp,” which adds a social or environmental mission to the company’s core focus while being profitable. State lawmakers approved this structure for Alabama businesses in 2020, and there has been growing interest in B Corps from corporations and those looking to start a corporation.

MBA students at the University of Alabama became interested in the B Corp model. Last semester, 11 Culverhouse Business School students took a class that matched them with Alabama businesses and startups that saw an opportunity to become a B Corp or strengthen their social mission . During the B Corp Academy, students worked with 10 businesses, providing them with advice and ideas to amplify positive impact in their communities. For participating companies that are considering B Corps certification, students help create a roadmap for next steps.

The Alabama Power Foundation staff, through its Strategic Initiatives Program, works with Alabama companies interested in the B Corp model to help teach the class.

UA MBA students pair with entrepreneurs to help them refine their focus on positive social impact. (Isabelle Rothchardle/Alabama News Center)

Mark Bernstiel, who leads the foundation’s impact investing efforts, including the B Corp program, describes the course as an “impact improvement project” for participating businesses and the students who work with them. Bernstiel is one of three experts supported by the foundation for the course.

“This is a mutually beneficial opportunity for both students and businesses,” Bernstiel said, while demonstrating the advantages of seeking corporate status of interest or seeking other ways to increase social impact.

Alabama businesses taking the course range from established ones, like Birmingham’s Bottega Restaurant, to start-ups, including NIA Benefit Corp., which hopes to fill the gap in access to burn care in many parts of the state through telemedicine . Birmingham-based Filter Coffee Parlor and GoCamp, a women-led peer-to-peer campervan rental company, also participated in several companies that participated in the recent Alabama Launchpad social impact competition hosted by the Alabama Economic Development Partnership , with support from the Alabama Power Foundation. Participants from the Alabama Launchpad include Monthly, Reboot Reforestation, Pearl’s Café, VB Ideas, Kaya, and Generational Systems, growing businesses focused on social issues: from providing affordable and sustainable lingerie to helping underprivileged students improve College entrance test scores, to employment opportunities for people with disabilities, sustainable forestry, expanded use of 3D printing, expanded access to mental health support.

Aiko Pickering of start-up Monthly said the experience with the students was “amazing”. (Michael Sznajderman/Alabama News Center)

“I had an amazing experience with all of the students,” said Monthly’s founder, Aiko Pickering. 8 Received a $25,000 prize as winner of the concept phase of the Alabama Launchpad competition.

“They got me thinking about things I never thought about — making sure I thought about social impact from the start,” said Pickering, who plans to seek B Corp status as her mobile company begins to take off. Women produce sustainable underwear.

She said the students provided valuable input when analyzing her business plan, such as considering the manufacturing process, including where to make her products, as part of her social impact strategy.

Wendy Lawless of Pearl’s Café in Birmingham says the interaction with UA students is valuable. At the heart of Pearl’s mission is the hiring of employees with disabilities, who are severely underemployed in Alabama.

Wendy Lawless of Pearl’s Cafe says UA’s students spark successful new ideas. (Michael Sznajderman/Alabama News Center)

“They really helped me think about my vision and how I would spread the word,” Lawless said, including potentially partnering with other nonprofits that serve people with disabilities.

MBA students Rosemary Neal and Angel Shadd participated in a live pitch competition at Launchpad in Alabama to see how some of their “clients” were doing. They work closely with Pickering in the classroom.

“It’s a unique experience,” Schad said of the class, which stands apart from many of the more numerical and theory-focused courses in the MBA program. “We’re really seeing added value in terms of social impact.”

While Pickering has a “very clear vision” for her business, Neal said she and Shad were able to help Pickering articulate that vision in a revised company mission statement. They helped Pickering refine elements of her business plan to better reflect her passionate focus on corporate social impact.

“It’s not about profits; it’s about people,” Neal said of Monthly, which Pickering initially considered launching as a nonprofit to help underprivileged women who couldn’t afford women’s products, but realized that by creating a An investor-backed for-profit company with a mission that can be more sustainable and have a strong social impact.

UA MBA students Rosemary Neal and Angel Shadd said the interaction with entrepreneurs was “refreshing.” (Michael Sznajderman/Alabama News Center)

It became clear that with Monthly, “it’s less about ROI[return on investment]and more about return on impact,” Neal said. She said the experience of working with Pickering was “refreshing.”

Lou Marino, Professor of Strategic Management, Department Chair, and James Nabors Teaching Excellence Faculty Fellow, Culverhouse School of Business School of Management, said: “It is vital that our students recognize their responsibility and privilege as leaders to have an impact on society and their The community is positive.”

Marino commended associate professor of management Jef Naidoo and B Corp Academy leader Derrell Thomas for teaching excellence. Marino also thanked the Alabama Power Foundation for its cooperation on the project.

“This innovative experiential learning program, led by Dr. Naidoo, enables our students to help drive the growth of the Alabama B Corp ecosystem while learning about this new governance structure,” said Marino.

Bernstiel said the foundation is always looking for opportunities to spread the word about the B Corp model. He can also provide information and resources for business owners and entrepreneurs who want to learn more about benefit companies.

Bernstiel said research has shown that women- and minority-owned companies are more likely to pursue B Corp status, which correlates with the foundation’s interest in helping expand the number of diverse businesses in Alabama.

To learn more about the Foundation’s Strategic Initiatives Program, Impact Investing and its work with B Corps, click here.

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