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Alumni Spotlight: Rob Kaplan on Finding (and Sticking to) a Career with Impact

Rob Kaplan

As part of the CRB’s 15th Anniversary celebrations, we will be releasing 15 Stories of Impact that profile the people, programs, and partnerships that make Berkeley Haas a leader in responsible business. We invited Berkeley Haas alum and CRB Senior Advisory Board member Rob Kaplan to sit down with CRB Student Advisory Board member Rebecca Rowe. Their conversation explored the influence of the CRB’s activities during his career journey and how he’s continued to draw on those lessons.

Kaplan is the founder and CEO of Circulate Capital, an international, impact-focused investment management firm dedicated to financing innovation, companies, and infrastructure that prevent the flow of plastic waste into the world’s ocean while advancing the circular economy. He is co-founder and was previously managing director of Closed Loop Partners, an impact investment firm based in the United States finances and scales innovative solutions to optimize supply chains and turn waste into value. He also served as director of sustainability for Walmart and led corporate responsibility and brand strategy for wine and spirits maker Brown-Forman. Rowe is a full-time MBA student at Haas planning to graduate in May 2019. This past summer, she was part of the sustainable business and innovation group at Nike. Though years apart, Kaplan and Rowe prove that the values behind the CRB are cemented into our students’ work.

Rebecca Rowe: Why did you decide to get an MBA? What about Haas attracted you to the school?

Rob Kaplan: I was in public policy and advocacy before business school. I started my career looking at how to engage public policy as a tool for achieving social impact. I consulted in DC for a number of years and then I moved to California and worked for a non-profit organization as a communications director in California-based out of Oakland. Over the course of those four or five years in public policy work, I got really frustrated with the lack of progress. I became interested in the role that business had to play in achieving the outcomes we were looking for.

“I realized that to be effective in the work I wanted to do, I needed to better understand the role that business had to play.”

I saw this environmental advocacy organization that I was working with trying to engage with the business community and the two groups really just speaking different languages and not being able to make real progress even though they were fundamentally aligned. At the same time, I experienced political decision-making from mostly the conservative side of policy. Basically, undoing a lot of, what I thought at the time was environmental progress. I saw that happen at the federal level through the EPA and then also in California. I realized that to be really effective in the work I wanted to do, I needed to better understand the role that business had to play.

When I was at this organization in California, if we wanted to engage business leaders we would hire a Republican consulting firm to do it for us. It was very clear to me that there was something wrong with the advocates in the issues that I was working on if we couldn’t figure out a way to engage with them directly.

I wrote my application to Haas based on the idea of corporate responsibility and my interest in entering that space. It was all sort of predicated on this idea that I’m passionate about making the case for the causes I believe in. That’s sort of been my mantra.

RR: Yeah, I came in with very clear expectations of what I wanted to do. That was sustainability in the corporate world. But a lot of my friends right now, they had clear career aspirations when they started and then that completely changed when they were in school. I’m wondering if you experienced that at all when you were at Haas?

RK: I am one of the unusual people who stuck with it. I saw the same thing, that most of my friends and classmates came in with one idea and threw it out the window by the end. I didn’t. I was laser-focused on it. I was true to that North Star, that mantra I was talking about.

A lot of the skills and interest that I was building did align in my internship process when I had the chance to put it into practice. When I was looking for my internship, I had an offer from Brown-Forman to do corporate responsibility but that same exact week I got a job offer from Wells Fargo and their Small Business Marketing Group in San Francisco. One school of thought is that you start with a mainstream marketing or business job and that’s the right way to transition. You build up your credentials by having that experience. But why wait if I want to do a corporate responsibility job, I should go do that now. So that’s what I did. I did encounter that choice a number of times. I keep making the same one.

RR: I’m actually thinking about this right now. I was in sustainability at Nike this summer, and have been thinking about whether it would be beneficial to pursue a full-time opportunity to gain harder skills in marketing or a role with a more clear business function before going back into a sustainability position. However, I also know that there’s always flexibility in the future to some extent. I’m thinking right now of what the right move is after business school. Part of it is because there are so many options, it starts to become really confusing and it’s easy to lose that North Star. Especially when so many of your classmates are doing so many different things.

There are a lot of people currently at Haas who are in similar shoes, who have a background in teaching or in non-profit and are really trying to transition to the professional services sector or to the private sector. Do you have any high-level advice for people on what opportunities to take advantage of or what to think about in terms of making that transition?

“One piece of advice I often give is to not take yourself so seriously or think that you will never change throughout the rest of your life. It’s not the end, it’s a beginning. I think that’s why everyone puts so much pressure on themselves. It’s important try and maintain perspective.”

RK: One piece of advice I often give folks is to not take yourself so seriously or think that this is a point that you will never recover from or change throughout the rest of your life. I’ve seen it in all of my classmates, they keep changing. I’ve changed careers every few years or changed jobs. It’s not the end, it’s a beginning. I think that’s why everyone puts so much pressure on themselves. It’s important try and maintain perspective.

Most of what you do at business school doesn’t really make a huge impact on your career transition goals. At the time it feels like it does, but in retrospect, I didn’t feel like it did. I wish I had taken more advantage of being part of Berkeley, the university. I had a couple of opportunities to take classes outside of Haas and I distinctly remember deciding not to. In each case, I sort of chickened out. Because there’s way too much reading or it wasn’t related to my career path, which I was super focused on. I should have used that opportunity to open up a little bit more, open wider rather than use it as an opportunity to only focus in.

RR: That’s great advice, especially because there is this focus on business and developing your hard skills whereas there’s also so much opportunity to go beyond that at the other schools, at the public policy school, the environmental school, or economics. The amount of resources available is truly amazing. It’s really hard sometimes to navigate through all of that. And you do feel like you’re at the center of the universe when you’re here.

Speaking of all the opportunities available at Haas, what drew you to the Center for Responsible Business?

RK: At the time it was run by Kellie McElhaney. She was a core reason why I came to Haas and the Center for Responsible Business. I just hung around Kellie all the time. I took all the classes I could from the CRB and ended up being a graduate student researcher on her book, Just Good Business, for a period of time. I can give Kellie most, if not all, the credit for getting my internship at Brown-Forman.

Net Impact hosted most of those events at the time. I was Co-President of Net Impact so that was a big part of my experience too, but the CRB had a heavier focus on classes than events. They had launched the Petersen Speaker Series, but that was more of a school-wide effort than an individualized experience. The career fair that Net Impact did was great. It makes it much more tangible when you get to get out there and talk to companies.

“At the end of the day, the pathway you should go down as an individual is what makes you happy and what you are excited about doing.”

RR: I want to shift to thinking about your experiences here. What are some of the insights that you are still able to leverage in your career right now that you learned at Haas?

RK: For me, I gained a lot in the interpersonal, networking side of the world. I started to realize that so much of the work that I do now is all about how to influence different people. Whether they’re people you work for, people you work with, or they’re customers, it’s all about influence. That sort of took shape in lots of different classes.

The Stakeholder Engagement class that Kevin Sweeney taught was particularly influential. And then there was Kellie’s Strategic CSR and project class. I used frameworks from that class directly for years. It’s a big part of how I speak and how I approach a company that I’m working with and convince them to engage different ways.

RR: As you look back on your career how has it evolved since you were at Walmart and how is it still evolving?

RK:  I spent about 10 years inside corporations like Brown-Forman and then Walmart working on corporate sustainability. I had always been particularly focused on systems change, especially at Walmart and some at Brown-Forman. One of the problems that I always struggled with was what kind of systems change can you really drive at a medium-sized company? Walmart afforded me the opportunity to drive systems change at a global scale. When this opportunity came along to create an impact investment fund that would be working on one particular system but could have incredible opportunity across a variety of value chains for both economic and environmental impact, I transitioned again from the corporate side to the investment side.

RR: And what was that transition like in real time?

RK: I wasn’t really ready to leave Walmart. I still had a lot of value to contribute there. I was doing pretty well, but this new opportunity presented itself and it was time. I realized I had been doing the same kind of work for about 10 years. Now I would be able to continue to do some of that work, but also expand into an entirely new space. It just felt like a huge opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. When you’re at Walmart, which is one of the world’s largest retailers, where can you go from there? You can’t really go bigger. I was attracted to the idea of going smaller.

RR: I’m curious about the big versus small because it’s something that we talk a lot about at the CRB. Working for big corporations, theoretically your scale of impact is larger, but at the same time, it’s really hard to effect significant change at a big company.

“Working within a corporation is more like moving a mountain a couple of inches. When you’re building a new company or you’re a start up, you have the opportunity to build that mountain from scratch.”

RK: I think that’s true. Working within a corporation is more like moving a mountain a couple of inches. When you’re building a new company or you’re a start up, you have the opportunity to build that mountain from scratch. You can create it in any way you want. It’s a place where you can really drive tremendous impact. But I also think the question about where you can have more impact is more of a philosophical question than a real one. There’s this unfair comparison because they really are completely different roles and activities. At the end of the day, the pathway you should go down as an individual is what makes you happy and what you are excited about doing.

RR: Are there any pressing challenges that come to mind that business school students can be thinking about in terms of their future career?

RK: With the Berkeley connection to startups in Silicon Valley there is a massive gap between what responsibility means for those companies and where they should be. I think they get let off the hook really more than they should. It’s really easy to complain about Coca-Cola, but it’s a lot harder to point the finger at Google. That’s just starting to turn with Facebook and the Russia and election stuff. That’s been a long time coming. With that idea that everything that’s come out of the Bay Area is innately good, no one thought about what would happen otherwise. I think there’s a huge impact opportunity there.

RR: The dialogue around the responsibility of Facebook, Google, and Amazon is coming into classes more and more often. A lot of it came after the Zuckerberg testimony to Congress that illuminated so many different gaps. Thinking about the opportunities for the CRB and how they can create impact in the next five to ten years, are there any initiatives that stand out that you would want to be included in?

RK: I think that there could be a really exciting class around that power and politics stuff we were talking about, the realities of how you influence change within an organization. But framing it more as the intersection with organizational behavior so it’s more about change management for a certain set of outcomes. It’s not just about rebranding sustainability inside a company. If you strive to influence the things done within an organization, that creates greater value.

RR: I really appreciate your time and all your perspectives. It’s going to be really helpful to everyone else here at Haas. Thank you so much.

RK: My pleasure, thank you.

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