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 alumni Jason Kibbey and Jeff Denby to speak with FTMBA candidate and CRB Student Advisory Board member Abby O’Reilly. They talked about how Haas and the CRB propelled them into their own sustainable apparel company and where there is still room to create future impact.
Abby O’Reilly: I’d love to hear from you, Jeff and Jason, about your experience coming into business school. What made you decide to come to Haas and what were you looking for in that experience?
Jason Kibbey: I wrote in my essays about wanting to mix my interest in business and my interest in environmental advocacy. I had done that in different parts of my life before coming to business school, and I wanted to figure out how to knit them together. That’s why I came to business school and strangely, that’s what I ended up doing. So, I came for that reason of figuring out how do you use business to solve and work on environmental and social challenges? And I still work doing that.
Jeff Denby: I was coming from the manufacturing, product development, sales, and marketing side of product-based businesses. Having been overseas and seeing the social and environmental effects of making things, I wanted to start a business that would allow me to make things differently, and better, and to address some of these issues. But I felt totally unprepared for a role that required a hardcore business skill set.
When I started looking at business schools 14 years ago, the concept of sustainability and business was really new. Haas was the one school that when I visited and interacted with students and faculty, I felt like there was a lot of energy behind social responsibility and sustainability and that my learning could be complementary to my value set.
AO: I had a very similar experience when visiting Berkeley and seeing the emphasis on sustainability and on the ability of business to not only make profit, but to do good in the world. It’s definitely a reason that I chose to come here, so it’s great to see that consistency over time.
JK: If you look at when we were there, it was really early for a lot of this. The idea of business with a triple bottom line was kind of niche and now it’s become pretty much the norm. If you look at what people are trying to create with the advent of benefit corporations, it’s become normal to look at shared value or the different needs of stakeholders. It was really early when we started and now I’m shocked to see how standard it’s become. It’s nice to see how Berkeley was such an early pioneer of these ideas and aligning the needs of business with the needs of stakeholders and the needs of society and the environment.
It’s exciting to also see students that are much further along in their understanding of responsible business principles than we were. When we were at Haas, it was looking at Clif Bar and Revolution Foods, and now it’s looking at Unilever. That’s a very different landscape than even 10 years ago.
JD: Kellie’s leadership model at the CRB can be credited for a lot of that because there was never a sense that you had to give anything up in order to be an effective environmental or social business. She was always pushing the envelope with existing corporations. She was putting students into real-world scenarios through consulting projects or internships and training people from the beginning to truly believe that, like her book, “Doing Well By Doing Good” is really possible. Before then, the general thinking was that this was somehow a movement that was concessionary to profit, but the fact that Kellie’s work was so driven by business fundamentals, principles strategy, and consumers helped to make that transition.
AO: Given this history, and the evolution that you’ve seen in the last 10 years, where do you see this movement going forward? Do you see this continuation of shared value of responsible business becoming even more prevalent? There’s also been some pushback against this idea of shared value being almost too simplistic of a solution and that we’re not adequately acknowledging the trade-offs that have to exist. A book that recently came out, “Winners Take All,” is saying there’s a responsibility from the government that’s being ignored because business is taking on this additional value.
How do you see business continuing to evolve? What role do you see Haas playing in that evolution?
JK: This one I could get all fired up about. It would be really nice if governments around the world were functional and could create good policies, but it would also be nice if fairies flew around and gave us lots of gold. It’s not happening today.
The trend right now is for increasingly dysfunctional government. And that’s happening while the world is burning. So, if the United States is incapable of policy, the European commission is incapable of policy, European governments are incapable of policy, large institutions are not moving ahead, other parts of society, cities, states, and namely, business have to step in to fill the void.
If you look at the apparel and footwear industry, it has as much carbon emissions as a medium to large sized country. It’s responsible for about eight percent of global emissions. If we look at the IPCC report that just came out, our industry needs to clean itself up dramatically in the next five to ten years. I don’t think we’re in a place where we can debate anymore about who should do what. I think we’re in an imperative situation where we actually have to fundamentally rethink our practices immediately and constantly. I think we’re in a much deeper crisis right now than shared value can get us out of. If you look at the recent advancements on things like science-based targets, businesses are starting to recognize that they actually need to change their practices to be in line with what the planet needs.
You look at the buzzwords and see how they’re amping up the commitment. When we were at Haas, it was “sustainable.” Before that, “responsible.” Responsible versus irresponsible is a pretty low bar. Now, “circular” has become mainstream. “Circular” is on the verge of becoming old school and kind of passé as we move towards “regenerative.” There’ll be something that will dethrone “regenerative” too, but if you look at all of these it’s essentially an expression of where we need to be versus where we are today.
We need to be far beyond regenerative. We need to actually fix these problems at massive scales to undo some of the harm that we’ve done. If we don’t, our society is not going to be in a good spot, nor is our planet, nor is the state of business.
JD: Everything you say is exactly right. We cannot rely on government given the current levels of dysfunction. What’s interesting is how we have shifted our expectation to business leaders and large corporations to solve the problems that governments are incapable of solving. That book “Winner Takes All” is a really fascinating look at how we are reshaping the world in the eyes of the wealthiest people. Part of the CRB’s progressive work should be about inclusivity, should be about the wealth gap, should be about gender equality in business.
That kind of work needs to happen at the academic level. Just as the CRB pushed students to think beyond responsible and sustainable, we need to continue to challenge students to think about business differently. The corporate structure that exists today was established to serve one single constituency: the white male. If we think we’re going to solve the problems that were created through that corporate structure using exactly the same structures, tools, and set of leaders, then we’re crazy. That’s a huge opportunity for future leaders. Regenerative business strategies are really important, but we also need to consider who is going to do it and for whom.
AO: We’ve been having a lot of conversations around including more diverse voices and hearing from perspectives that normally aren’t elevated to the business school level. Looking forward at what the CRB is doing, we’re definitely looking to plan events and develop programming around those conversations.
Both of you have looked at this intersection of sustainability and business using slightly different approaches. Where do you see the biggest levers for impact? What drove you to choose the different opportunities to create change that you did?
JD: Life is just a series of strange opportunities that you jump to take advantage of based on your natural skill set. I don’t know why I continually ended up in entrepreneurship. It seems like I always ran into places where I was frustrated with the status quo and never felt comfortable or satisfied being a cog inside of a corporation. We have friends that have gone that way and have done incredible work inside major corporations, but I’ve always wanted to be more experimental. Entrepreneurship is a really uncomfortable place and a lot of people don’t like being uncomfortable. I have a comfort with discomfort that has continued to drive me to start new stuff.
JK: What you said about knowing what you’re drawn to and where you thrive and succeed has more of a bearing on what we do. I got excited about the SAC’s work and was excited to be the first executive director, now CEO, because I saw the potential for impact. I also recognize that I’ve stayed there because I do well in large group settings trying to get lots of people on the same page. If I can tie that personal skill towards this group, it could actually help bring about change, which is what motivates me. It’s more about figuring out where you can be the most effective lever than it is about which lever is the best. For me over the last few years it has been coalition-building. In the future, it might be back in entrepreneurship.
JD: It has to do with becoming comfortable with your own capabilities in leadership. I never really thought of myself as a natural leader, but that is a skill set that keeps emerging. You can’t start a company, get people to give you money, and get people behind the mission without having some level of authentic leadership. A lot of people want to be led and it’s difficult for a lot of people to want to stand up and do it. Starting PACT right out of business school, I don’t think we really knew at all what we were doing.
JK: Not at all. That naïveté combined with optimism allowed us to make a company in a supply chain that, even by today’s standards, was really progressive. It allowed us to reimagine what a responsible clothing company could be.
Sometimes we don’t recognize that naïveté is a blessing because it allows you to imagine and create something that shouldn’t have been created using traditional rules. If you create something that still manages to be different and unique, it can actually prove other things are possible. It can change the whole way you think about the possibilities beyond your company and even a whole industry.
AO: Where there specific things that Haas or the Center for Responsible Business contributed to your ability or your drive to start PACT right after school?
JD: A lot of the encouragement to do so really came from faculty and also the students. We told everybody in our class about what we were trying to do. A lot of entrepreneurs keep their cards close to their chest and we were like, “We’re going to design underwear!” We had our classmates do a whole project in a pricing class that neither Jason nor I took. That kind of support from faculty and definitely from fellow students made the idea of actually going and doing this possible.
JK: You don’t have to choose between sustainability or profits. That fundamental idea changed the way that I thought about the possibility of PACT and business in general. I came into Haas with more of an activist mindset, but I’d also worked for Bain & Company. I’d seen the other side too and thought you’re either going to be good and poor, or rich and terrible. I changed my thinking because of Kellie McElhaney and her class that said, “no, there is another path.”
JD: The CRB was not engaging with businesses that were set up as do-good businesses. There were so many projects and speakers that were just straight out of linear, traditional, “make things and sell them no matter how” industries. There was a little bit of rebel-teaching in there. All of that work was done by Kellie doggedly getting these companies to come into the school and be involved.
We were unwitting pawns in the scheme of getting businesses to think differently. If she had only surrounded us with a bunch of companies that were already on this path, then it would have been less effective than bringing in companies that were challenging the notions or not even thinking about it yet and allowing students to question their business models.
JK: I also partially owe my current job to Kellie. When I was going through the interview process to run the SAC, I was almost squeezed out of the final round. One of the lead consultants who was running the process for the executive search was talking to Kellie. She didn’t even know that I was applying and yet she said “You know who you need for the position? Jason Kibbey.” Then she wrote a note to the hiring committee. That put me into the final round and I got the job. I would have been bumped out had it not been for that serendipitous conversation.
JD: That’s a great story. It’s a testament to the way that Kellie, and now Robert Strand, empower students. They know them. They know who they are, what they are capable of, what they’ve done, and what it is they want to do. There’s a personal relationship with that extends far beyond the classroom and far beyond graduation. That creates a lifelong connection back to the CRB. You don’t get that everywhere.
A lot of times we spend our lives engaging in transactions with other people, but the most important engagement with other people is developing meaningful relationships. You don’t usually find people that care about what you’re doing 10 years after you’ve left school and still see you as a resource. That’s the big and important thing that comes out of the CRB.
JK: The CRB and broader Haas community had so many introductions for us when we were students. That fosters a permanent willingness to do anything for the CRB community when called upon. I always say yes to Berkeley, and I will always spend time with a Berkeley student.
At one point, I got a call from Patagonia asking if I thought the CRB would be interested in some sort of partnership and I immediately said yes. I didn’t even know Robert yet, but I called him and told him he couldn’t miss out on this opportunity. That’s the kind of commitment we have because of our experience as students.
The answer, always, to any call from Berkeley, whether it be from a student or from the CRB, is yes.
AO: Thank you both so much for your time today. It has been a pleasure to have this conversation with you.
JK: You’re welcome.
JD: Thank you!
Jeff Denby – Co-founder, Renewal Workshop
Jeff Denby is co-founder of the Renewal Workshop, a company offering industry-wide solutions to optimize the value of resources invested in apparel. The Renewal Workshop partners with apparel brands to refurbish their unsellable returns and excess inventory at its own state-of-the-art factory in Oregon, creating the category of renewed apparel. Previously as co-founder of PACT, an award-winning organic apparel basics brand with retail partners such as Whole Foods and Nordstrom, Denby built a brand that differentiated itself from other apparel brands by manufacturing its garments in a transparent supply chain, improving the lives of cotton farmers and garment workers around the world. Denby’s passion is to transform apparel production by pioneering new models for social impact within global supply chains. He holds an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley and lives in Oakland, California.
Jason Kibbey – CEO, Sustainable Apparel Coalition
Jason Kibbey is the CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an industry-wide group of leading apparel and footwear brands, retailers, manufacturers, non-governmental organizations, and academic experts working to reduce the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products around the world. He was the CEO and co-founder of PACT, an apparel company combining design, sustainability, and philanthropy. He served as Co-Founder and interim Executive Director of Freedom to Roam, a non-profit initiative that brings together people, organizations and businesses to enhance and protect wildlife corridors and landscape connectivity in North America. He developed Freedom to Roam while working on environmental campaigns for Patagonia. He started his career as an Associate Consultant at Bain & Company, where he worked on turnaround and product strategies for high-tech companies. Jason graduated from University of California (UC) Berkeley with a BS Environmental Economics and Policy and BA in Religious Studies. He received his MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
Abby O’Reilly – FTMBA Candidate ‘19 and CRB Student Advisory Board Member
Abby believes in the future of sustainable business, and she most recently worked with Nike’s Sustainable Business & Innovation team. Prior to Haas, she worked as a strategy consultant, leading teams and delivering solutions for executives at Fortune 100 companies, social enterprises, nonprofits, and foundations. Her work included sustainability strategy, inclusive business development, and financial and social impact measurement.