Business school professors and leaders are finding an enthusiastic audience for the movement to reshape the global economy into one built on stakeholder capitalism. College students, who are among the generation most likely to be affected by changes to the economy as the workers, consumers, and community members of the future, are seizing new opportunities to build their knowledge and experience by learning about and working with Certified B Corporations through an expanding network known as B Academics. B Academics connects the growing community of B Corps pursuing a more inclusive and regenerative economy with students looking to work for, learn from, or do business with purpose-minded companies.
Jessica Yinka Thomas is the cofounder, President and Board Chair of B Academics. The group is a global network of educators, researchers, students and practitioners working to advance the state of academic study into not just B Corps, but also benefit corporations and business as a force for good by sharing best practices, identifying opportunities for collaborative research and engaging with the B Corp movement.
Professor Thomas is Director of the Business Sustainability Collaborative and Assistant Professor of Practice at the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University and oversees the university’s B Corp Clinic, where students get real-world experience working with companies pursuing B Corp Certification or otherwise striving to strengthen their social and environmental impact. Thomas says the collaborations energize her and her students, while also benefiting the company and the movement toward stakeholder capitalism.
“I have never seen anything that really captures the imagination and inspires students like B Corps,” Thomas says. “It’s a combination of a very clear and ambitious vision for the movement, and a comprehensive and clear framework for explaining what it means to have a strong impact across your business stakeholders. … Something just clicks with the students. They say, ‘I get this. I want to work at a B Corp. I want to buy from B Corps. I want to learn more about what it means to be a B Corp.’”
Professor Thomas and I recently talked about the organization’s history and plans for growth as part of my research on stakeholder capitalism. She shared more about the B Academics’ new membership program, plans to build a research platform, host events, and expand knowledge and awareness of B Corps among academics, practitioners and students of all ages.
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Christopher Marquis: As a cofounder of B Academics, how did you come up with the idea? How did the group get its start and gain traction?
Jessica Yinka Thomas: I learned about B Corps around 2009, when I was running a sustainable business accelerator at the Center for Sustainable Enterprise at University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. We were looking for an impact measurement tool for the companies going through the accelerator, and I came across the B Impact Assessment (BIA). We ended up using the BIA in the program and collaborating with B Lab to provide feedback on version 2 of the assessment. I continued studying and teaching about B Corps when I moved to the Poole College of Management at NC State University.
Two people who were critical in the early days were the other cofounders Rosanna Garcia and Joel Gehman. Rosanna and I met at NC State and discovered a shared interest in B Corps and really started to think about how we could build a community. Along with Joel who is at the University of Alberta in Canada, and Craig Dalen, who led the B Corps on Campus initiative at B Lab, we planned the first B Academics roundtable in conjunction with the 2016 B Corps Champions Retreat. Since then we have been, from a grassroots level, building what is now a global network of educators and researchers who have this shared vision of studying business as a force for good and teaching the next generation of business leaders, entrepreneurs, and workers how to embed impact into business, address social and economic inequities, while building bottom line business value.
For the first few years it was a very informal network. We hosted regular webinars, an annual B Academics Roundtable and started to build out a founding leadership team. In 2019, we became a 501(c)3 nonprofit and have really started to formalize the organization. B Academics is independent from B Lab, the nonprofit that leads the global B Corp movement. The academics, practitioners and students in B Academics are important stakeholders in the B Economy. We are working to change the education system so that we are better preparing our future purposeful business leaders, conscious consumers, impact investors, progressive policy makers and engaged community members to create a more just, equitable and sustainable economy. We’re also conducting research that can inform B Corps, benefit corporations and the broader business as a force for good movement.
Marquis: How many universities are involved now, and how much has the network grown?
Thomas: We had about thirty people attend that first B Academics Roundtable in 2016 and now we have a mailing list of close to 2,000 people from at least 52 countries, representing more than 600 academic institutions or organizations who have expressed interest in engaging with B Academics. There is a core group of 12 board members at different academic institutions around the world who are deeply engaged in our work. The reason so many of us came together to create B Academics, was to help us institutionalize and scale our research, teaching, and engagement efforts and build a collaborative community. The January 2021 membership launch represents an important milestone in the development of our organization. It helps us to identify and engage with those faculty, students and practitioners who want to be more deeply engaged with our work and provide them with more targeted resources.
Led by Bel Barroso from Universidad de Málaga, chair of our communications committee, we’re building a resource platform, with over 400 paper abstracts, cases, videos, podcasts — just a range of different research and teaching tools that will be accessible to members. Often the research that academics publish is not easily digestible by non-academics, so we are in the process of developing a series of briefs that will translate some of the research of the faculty and our network in a way that highlights the lessons that industry can take away. Garima Sharma from Georgia State University, who chairs our research committee, and Veronica Devenin Vera from Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, who chairs our global engagement committee, are working to create an applied body of knowledge that we can share with other academics but also with those in industry who are part of our network.
Marquis: Share a little bit more about the student experience: How B Corps are incorporated into curricula and how do students react when they are first learning about the B Corp community?
Thomas: I’ve had the opportunity to work in academia for about 15 years now. And I have never seen anything that really captures the imagination and inspires students like B Corps. There’s something about having such a clear framework for impact that’s very accessible and understandable and at the same time very rigorous and comprehensive but not a one-size-fits-all. It can be understood by entrepreneurs and by business leaders at the same time, which makes it really accessible and attractive and engaging for students
The movement includes well-known brands, like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, and New Belgium. With these really well-known, highly regarded innovative companies at the vanguard, something just clicks with the students. They say, “I get this, I want to work at a B Corp. I want to buy from B Corps. I want to learn more about what it means to be to be a B Corp.”
When I first started teaching about B Corps around 10 years ago, I would ask “How many of you have seen this logo?” And you might get a hand or two. Now I would say it’s a majority of students I have the opportunity to interact with who are at least familiar with the concept of a B Corp.
We’ve seen quite a range of strategies where academic institutions are bringing that B Corp framework into the classroom. Calvin Chung, chair of our information sharing platform committee, teaches at Mary Baldwin University where they built their entire MBA program around the B Impact Assessment. Then there is the project-based B impact teams model schools can use to engage with companies. There are many examples of faculty bringing in B Corp leaders as speakers and embedding discussions of B Corps into courses from a range of different disciplines. For example, Summer Brown from DePaul University, our secretary, teaches about the legal context of B Corps and benefit corporations and Emily Landry from University of Tennessee, our B Local engagement chair, teaches from a social sciences perspective.
Maria Ballesteros Sola from Cal State Channel Islands, who leads our membership committee, has even been working with some local teachers to develop a curriculum designed around B Corps for middle school and high school students — so moving even earlier in the education pipelines. Now we have high school teachers in our B Academics network, which has introduced questions about whether we have an opportunity to engage educators from across the learning spectrum, from pre-K to higher ed to programs for retirees..
Marquis: Can you tell me a bit more about the B Corp Clinic at North Carolina State and the work students do there?
Thomas: We’ve been through many iterations of the B Corp Clinic since we launched the program in the Summer of 2015, all with a focus on connecting students with local and global companies to drive social and environmental impact using the B Impact Assessment as a roadmap. Over the last 11 semesters, we’ve worked on 68 projects with more than 60 companies, from start-ups to multinationals, from a range of industries and from around the world. Some are on the road to B Corp Certification and others are recertifying. We’ve worked with 15 companies that have become B Corp certified. Each project is customized to the company’s strategic priorities. Every semester the program adapts and changes based on what we learned from the student and company feedback.
There’s such a rich range of ways that we can work with companies and each project is unique based on the goals of the company and where they are on that pathway. One of the things that’s really exciting about the B Corp movement is a focus on continuous improvement. All of the companies we work with are focused on strengthening their governance, improving their impact on their employees, customers, and the communities in which they work and managing their environmental impact to different degrees.
We have coaches who are typically leaders from North Carolina B Corps who provide guidance and subject matter expertise to the teams. In the first four years of the program, we designed a co-curricular model where students applied to participate in the program. At that point we had students from dozens of different disciplines from business to engineering to environmental sciences, representing seven different academic institutions across the state, including public and private universities, community colleges and HBCUs. The Clinic is now part of a sustainable business strategy course that I teach in our Jenkins MBA program.
Our B Corp Clinic is an iteration on the B Impact Teams model developed by B Lab. The B Impact Teams program at each university looks a little different and you can adapt the model to meet the needs of the companies and the students you’re working with — undergraduate, grad students, business school students or those from different disciplines. For example, Kristin Joys from University of Florida, who chairs our teaching and curriculum innovation committee, is running the UF Business for Good Lab, based on our NC State B Corp Clinic model, as part of a course that is open to students from across the UF system. And there are other examples B Impact Team programs at University of New Hampshire, University of Georgia and other academic institutions around the world.