What happens when a Cameroonian medical student, a Finnish social entrepreneur, an American public health professional, an Italian architect, and a Kenyan actor turned medical student, get together in a room?  A lot of Post-it notes a vibrant pitch presentation, and eventually… trust…

As much as our society prizes diverse and interdisciplinary teams, we rarely talk about how to make these teams successful. There’s an implicit assumption that once you have a diverse team, great ideas and solutions will follow. While that’s not entirely off-base, it also takes vulnerability, selflessness and trust to reach a point where great ideas are fostered.

Last month I represented the University of Michigan in the Hult Prize Regional Finals in San Francisco. Our challenge was to develop a sustainable and scaleable social business to address non-communicable disease in urban slums, with a goal of reaching 25 million slum dwellers by 2019.

We were a team of five:

  • Jonathan Awori, a Kenyan acting professor turned medical student
  • Callistus Ditah, a Cameroonian founder of an educational nonprofit and medical student
  • Joshua Bogus, a global public health professional with field experience in Rwanda, Cambodia, and Ghana
  • Gregorio Avanzini, an Italian architect and Fulbright Fellow
  • Marianna Kerppola, a Finnish social entrepreneur with corporate experience at Google and Nationwide Insurance

Despite our disparate backgrounds, we came together over our shared passion to address non-communicable disease.  Having lost loved ones to these diseases, our passion was nurtured by our personal experiences. In my own case I lost my mother, a biomedical executive, to adrenal cancer last summer and I hope to continue her life’s work  in curing disease.

As we learned to work together,  I was reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, where each man (or woman) is touching a different part of the elephant and disagreeing about what sort of object it is. Time and again, our group needed to remember that our elephant—our solution for noncommunicable disease in urban slums—was indeed an elephant, even if each of us was approaching it from our unique perspectives.  We needed to trust that our unique perspectives—as a doctor, an architect, a healthcare  professional, an actor or a social entrepreneur—would lead to a better solution when merged together.

I proposed using design thinking methods—an inherently ambiguous process using systems mapping, visualizations, journey mapping, and brainstorming—to develop our solution.  I recommended design thinking as our approach because as a creative, social entrepreneur, I knew this collaborative, idea-oriented process was necessary to develop a unique solution to the challenge.   At the time, I did not fully realize the degree of trust required for successful implementation of this approach.

A week before the presentation, a team member questioned whether I should present in our final presentation. As a seasoned public speaker, I initially felt slighted by this skepticism, then I began to doubt my own abilities, further degrading his trust that I could present effectively. Days before the presentation, I finally broke down  to express how overburdened I felt. The competition was held on my first birthday after my mother passed, and I felt distrusted by my team, making for an emotionally difficult week. When I expressed my frustrations, I found that my other teammates shared their own challenges and concerns. Counterintuitively, sharing my vulnerabilities with the team in my already vulnerable state actually helped create trust and strengthened the team dynamic.

Our team had developed a holistic, community-based solution that addressed diabetes and hypertension across the disease spectrum through microinsurance, door-to-door diagnostics, group visitations, street theater,  and mHealth. We named our business Jukwaa, the Swahili word for marketplace, envisioning the transformation of  slums through a marketplace of health ideas.

In the end, we did not win the Hult Prize Regional Competition in San Francisco.  But we did successfully  forge a strong, trust-oriented team. Through my varied entrepreneurial endeavors, I’ve learned that pitch success can ebb and flow, but business success hinges on a team founded on trust.

Marianna is passionate about developing technology to enable businesses and consumers to make informed decisions about social and environmental issues transparently. She developed this passion through her undergraduate coursework at University of Chicago, where she saw that all too often poor social and environmental decisions were made due to inadequate information on the issue at hand. Prior to joining Erb, Marianna worked for Google, where she advised large advertisers on their digital marketing strategies. She also worked for Nationwide Insurance in corporate finance, investments, strategy and risk management. In her free time, Marianna writes, a blog about her mother’s fight against adrenal cancer.  Follow Marianna @mkerppola.

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By Stacy Wennstrom

Five 2013 Dow Fellows from across the University of Michigan have partnered with the City of Ann Arbor to create financial incentives for landlords and renters to increase energy efficiency. This pilot project seeks to overcome disadvantages that members of the residential rental market (landlords as well as renters) face when seeking to finance energy efficiency projects in their units. Funded by Dow,  the Fellows are graduate students Cassarah Brown (Ford and Engineering); Alicia Chin (Ross); Amy Eischen (Ross); Efrie Friedlander (Taubman); and Emily Taylor (Erb Institute: SNRE and Ross).

There are benefits for both property owners and renters to invest in energy efficiency, as $50 million is spent on utilities annually in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.  Property owners benefit from higher property values, higher rents, lower energy costs, and better tenant retention, while renters benefit from lower utility costs and greater comfort.

Ann Arbor is an ideal location for this type of project. The City is actively seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of which 22% come from the residential sector alone.  Also, 55.2% of the residential units in Ann Arbor are rentals, and 90% of these rentals have three units or fewer.  Rental units are not eligible for the Federal Residency Energy Efficiency Tax Credit or the Michigan Saves Home Energy Loan Program, and rental units with fewer than four units are ineligible for the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) assessments and funding.

Following the success of an earlier project with Zingerman’s (HEAL- Home Energy Affordability Loan) they are seeking to create a similar model at the city-wide level which, unlike the HEAL program, will include smaller rental units.  Their solution, the A2Energy Rental Fund, is a revolving loan fund that will provide property owners with low-interest capital to make energy efficiency improvements to their units. Continue reading

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From Wikimedia CommonsBy Gregory G. Bond, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Most of us in business leadership roles want to base our decisions on sound science.  But what if I was to tell you that the majority of published scientific findings – yes, even in peer-reviewed journals – are flat out wrong?

How are we to discern the minority of published studies that yield truly valid results –those that should justifiably cause us to take action– from the ones that present misleading results?

Why are the majority of published scientific findings likely to be wrong? 

Problems related to study design and execution can certainly contribute, but many of these flaws are detected and remedied in the peer-review process.

More troublesome, is the improper use of statistics.   To make matters worse there is a documented “publication bias” in favor of studies that report “significant” results: studies  that report statistical associations are more likely to be submitted for publication and have a higher likelihood of being published  (and published more quickly)  than those that do not. Continue reading

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Daniel2by Daniel Gonzalez-Kreisberg,  Erb ’14;  photos by the author

As I hiked through the towering ruins and verdant jungles of the ancient city of Tikal, it was difficult not to wonder what it must feel like to be a modern Maya; deeply aware of one’s ancestors´ triumphant excesses, which led to the rise and fall of one of the great cities of antiquity.  I’m sure Italians visiting the Roman Forum or Cambodians exploring Ankor Wat have similar moments, but to an American, the idea of past greatness possibly matching or even exceeding the present is pretty incoherent.  Everything in the US is always bigger and better, right?  Was there an American analogue to Tikal?

My own visits to ruined factories and train stations in Detroit was probably as close as I´d ever get.  Considering the former glories of the Packard plant while trying to avoid broken glass was pretty close. But if Detroit is my Tikal,  what lessons can I take back home from my visit to the Mayan city?

Surprisingly, rather than being tragic, Tikal today is a place of positivity.  Beyond  the obvious boost from tourist dollars, it remains a location of great beauty and spirituality for indigenous Mayan and visitors alike. Just as impressively, the site is at the center of a National Park, protection rainforest which, according to UNESCO contains over 2,000 plant,  333 bird,  54 mammal and  38 snake species –as well as  9 amphibian families and 6 turtle genera. Not the symbol of something lost that many fear Detroit has become, but rather a catalyst for the maintenance of a natural heritage that has proven all too fragile. Continue reading

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By Stacy Wennstrom

Two Erb Institute / World Environment Center (WEC) fellows, have co-authored a white paper based on their experience as facilitators at the May 2013 WEC roundtable on Resource Scarcity in Arlington, Virginia.  In this paper Emily Taylor  and Stephen Ahn identify the need for businesses to actively address future resource scarcity, as current business models are based on the assumption that resource availability will remain consistent.

The WEC roundtable brought together representatives from AECOM, Boeing, Coca-Cola, General Motors, IBM, Ingersoll Rand, Roche, and Walt Disney.  The presenters and participants surveyed world trends, they looked to the past to learn from the political and economic impacts of previous resource shortages, and they also took inspiration from the U.S.’s Grand Strategy of World War II and the Cold War.

The Trends

Taylor and Ahn provide insights on what the future may hold, looking to the Global Trends 2030 report presented by Richard Engel of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) and also the presentation of Jason Clay, the senior vice president of market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).   Future challenges for the business world include resource scarcity, as society is currently using 1.5 times the available resources and cannot continue at that rate without significant increases in productivity.  In addition, world trends indicate that climate change, shifts in national power, and the effect of technology on staffing (i.e., robotics replacing human labor) will provide additional economic challenges.

Learning from the Past

Taylor and Ahn also examine the work of Patrick Doherty, deputy director of the National Security Studies Program and director of the Smart Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation (NAF). Doherty presented the case for the U.S. to treat resource scarcity with the same thoroughness that is reserved for war and other international disputes.  Doherty looked to the Grand Strategy of the U.S. during World War II and the Cold War to illustrate how foreign policy, economic policy, and governing institutions can come together to address challenges and argued that a similar alignment would be needed to address current issues of global ­unsustainability.

Planning for the Future

Taylor and Ahn identified three potential paths to address resource scarcity: government led solutions, private sector led solutions, and joint public-private sector led solutions.  The WEC roundtable participants did not agree on solutions, but drawing on successful examples from the past, Taylor and Ahn make the case for joint private-public sector initiatives.

The authors have written a blog about their WEC roundtable  experience  / the white paper is available here (pdf)

Stacy Wennstrom works with the Erb Institute events and communications teams.  Before joining Erb, she worked for a consulting firm, where she was responsible for editing, project coordination, and event planning.  Stacy holds a BA in English and History from Cedarville University and an MA in English from Central Michigan University.

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Within a few minutes of the plane landing this past December 8, we both had stuffy noses and irritated throats. My companion and I were in Shanghai to deliver presentations at the Mobility Conference hosted by UM-SMART and UM-SJTU Joint Institute. The smog was unreal. No one was hanging laundry out to dry. All the stores were sold out of medical masks because the smog had been that thick for about a week. In fact, the masks do nothing to help filter the particulate which is much smaller than the masks are able to block . Our guide confirmed this but went on to say that, however imperfect,  the masks were all that was available.

The only thing like it I’d ever seen before was when I was in Bombay in 2012, after  a dust storm from the Middle East blew across the ocean and reduced visibility within the city to a half mile, covering everything in dust.  On our second day in Shanghai, the visibility was even less than Bombay’s half mile. It was kind of like being in a videogame: the buildings and land close to you are visible, but get hazier as you look further away until you see just a grey, cloudy murk everywhere. You couldn’t even discern the sun’s outline. Air quality improved considerably by our third day, and the city looked completely different. The sky was blue, the sun was out, and the general mood of everyone seemed greatly improved and like springtime after a cold, dark winter.

As the smog cleared, I kept re-thinking my accepted knowledge about the contrasts between the Chinese and US economies. China’s lower wages certainly seem to provide an economic advantage over the U.S., but this week’s pollution apocalypse made me wonder if  the US’s less degraded environment could provide a powerful comparative advantage advantage on health, wellbeing, and other fronts. Scientific study after study is calculating the percentage points coming right off the top of GDP due to environment-related illnesses. One recent study calculates that air, water, and soil pollution in northern China is costing an average of 5.5 years in life expectancy.

Could the US benefit economically from this advantage?  If we can demonstrate a direct economic benefit resulting from this healthier environment, then we need to devote more of our resources and political capital to further enhancing the advantage, thus improving our own environment—and economic advantage—even more.

Having grown up in Kentucky, I lived in a culture that valued economic development over the environment and public health when the two are at odds. That was usually the case in the coal industry, and still is in many respects. The prevailing mentality is to bring manufacturing jobs back, even at risk of harming the environment. But I have seen first-hand what happens when that mindset dominates for too long. I may want jobs in my home state, but I want to be able to enjoy the clear blue sky even more.

The U.S. clearly has an advantage with its environmental quality over other economies, like China. The sooner we form a direct, obvious link between the advantage provided by our environment and its economic benefits, the sooner we can begin changing the mentality of those in places like my home state of Kentucky.

Jason Sekhon is a second year MBA/MS candidate at the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan.  Before joining Erb, he worked in the healthcare IT field at McKesson Corporation in Atlanta, GA where he found his niche as a “translator” between business and technical individuals. In 2012, Jason participated in the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps, working at Pfizer on environmental strategy and building efficiency projects. He is pursuing a career in strategy and environmental policy, particularly as they relate to the CleanTech industry and is keenly interested in the role incentives play in sustainability.

Image credit: ScaarAT, Flickr]

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Reflections on a Theory of Change

Remarks at the 2013 Erb Institute Holiday Gathering

by Andrew Hoffman, Faculty Director, Erb Institute

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What is our theory of change? It is an important question, and one that I have been pondering over the past few months. We all have a theory of change. When we ask our partner to change dinner plans for the evening; when we approach our professor to change the grade for a class; when we go into a company and try to change its sustainability strategy, we are all working from a personal theory of change. That theory reflects how we see the world and how we engage with it. It defines who we are and how we accomplish our life’s work. And in many ways it defines what we will become. How we engage with the world, and ultimately how we enact that world, shapes who we will become. As Heraclitus said, “character is destiny.” So, in these remarks, I want to offer two reflections on the question of “what is our theory of change?”

The first reflection begins with a quote from E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web. He wrote, “Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day.” This represents a tension that I know I feel, and perhaps you do too. We are part of the world, and yet we are unsatisfied and want to change it. We live within the world and are the product of it, and yet we want to push it in new directions. This is a hard balance to strike. This is not a contest of us versus them. We are all in this together.

Yet people often think about environmental problems with an us-versus-them framework. One example is the use of the metaphor of alcohol or drug addiction. I have often heard it stated that we are addicted to fossil fuels. But I have trouble with that metaphor. Addiction is an illness that is an aberration from healthy living. We know what is healthy and we know what is not. We know this because some people are addicts and some people are not. Some people are doctors and know how to cure them, and what it looks like when the cure has worked. And there is a measure of judgment when calling someone an addict.

But on the issues of sustainability and climate change, we are all faced with the same challenge. In a sense, we are all addicts with the same malady, and there are no healthy people to gauge our behavior or doctors to cure us. So, the metaphor breaks down for me. Instead I think of the proper metaphor as one of a collective of people who are lost on a terrain they thought they knew but has now somehow changed. We may have had bad maps all along, but now we really don’t know where to go. Unlike addiction, we don’t know what it looks like when we are cured. So, in defining a theory of change, what we need are leaders who have a vision of the direction we might go, but all the while recognizing that they are part of the world that it is lost. Continue reading

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Crowdfunding for Sustainability Focused Startups

Tips for crowdfunding sustainability startups

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Recent business school graduates launching a startup typically go after “traditional” investment from angel investors, VCs,
business plan competitions, tech incubators, and, increasingly, social venture funds. But Rich Grousset and I learned that BizeeBox, our reusable take-out container service, needed more credibility before it could attract these types of investments.

Phel Meyer

That’s what led us to launch a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo in September. We were overwhelmed by the support we received, raising $30,195 from 392 contributors.

We were certainly not the first entrepreneurs to run a crowdfunding campaign for a sustainability-focused startup, but we do believe we were the first Erb Institute graduates to do so. There is much more to the story than the final dollar amount raised, and along the way we learned that the crowdfunding experience is hard work, more art than science, filled with opportunities, and presents many risks.

Why choose crowdfunding?

Rich Grousset

In contrast to the investor community, our friends, families, and colleagues have consistently told us that the reusable takeout container idea sounds very promising. Given this enthusiasm, we decided to pursue the crowdfunding option, in which we would seek small amounts of money (contributions) from a large number of people. We would then use this seed capital to build our credibility by successfully launching a small-scale pilot program.

How does one select a crowdfunding platform?

There is an overwhelming list of crowdfunding platforms to choose from. We picked Indiegogo because: Continue reading

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Being Entrepreneurial in Your Storytelling

Tips for Sustainability Advocates and Entrepreneurs

iStock_000015416157XSmall 2By: Lianne Lefsrud and Dev Jennings

As a sustainability advocate, you may be a budding entrepreneur like Erb’s Bizeeboxers in FastCompany.   Or you may be an intrapreneur, acting as the VP Sustainability for a Fortune 500 company. Oftentimes, your ideas are supersized. How can you clone yourself and your ideas? How can you make your motivation infectious? The answer is simple: STORIES!

Really, why stories?

Stories are a powerful means of capturing attention, establishing your credibility to give advice, and developing logical persuasion. Indeed, research in strategy and management has shown that those who use stories well tend to become team leads, small business innovators, and CEOs.
Good stories help garner resources for a firm via pitches, prospectuses, and capital negotiations. Stories can be especially valuable for small ventures with limited financial resources, as the ability to tell stories and to have others retell your stories can become a means of creating resources.

What is a story?

A story refers to a set of related statements where there is a protagonist (person who is the key subject), some plot involving the protagonist and others or natural objects in interrelated events, and an outcome. That outcome usually is based on the story, but normally has a broader meaning.

And how can you tell them better?

There are some general principles, based upon research, for storytelling in entrepreneurial and small business contexts, as you consider your purpose, audience, story structure, and delivery.

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