By Carolyn Gray Andeson
Vicki Liao graduated from UCLA Anderson in 2011. “I came here wanting to earn my MBA as quickly as possible and get a good job in entertainment,” she says. The degree, combined with a field study project at an entertainment tech startup, certainly helped her accomplish this goal: After graduating, Liao went first to Disney and ESPN Media Networks as an account manager and she is now director of pay TV at Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Liao returned to Anderson recently for a talk in the High Impact Tea series organized by Impact@Anderson and students in Anderson’s Net Impact chapter. She’s glad she reengaged with the school: The self-described prodigal is becoming increasingly committed to corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability and stewardship.
The guest that night was Aspen Institute fellow Max Schorr, co-founder of GOOD, the Los Angeles-based media platform and publication known as the force behind numerous progressive initiatives, including Earth to Paris, PepsiCo’s Refresh campaign, the Sports Matter campaign with DICK’S Sporting Goods that broke employee engagement records and won GOOD a Clio, and the Starbucks community outreach project that enabled customers to direct $4 million from the Starbucks Foundation to fund 124 local and national nonprofit organizations.
GOOD is rather notoriously hard to peg in terms of what its actual “business” is. The quarterly magazine that launched in 2006 as an idealistic experiment in how journalism could change the world for the better is now a global media brand and social impact consultancy. Schorr and GOOD co-founders Ben Goldhirsh and Casey Caplowe, “elder” millennials who came of age before the Internet revolution, chose print in the midst of a major shift to digital. They began with a premise of “pragmatic idealism” that, as Schorr explained, “is not about a dream that can’t manifest.” They gave 100 percent of all subscriptions to 12 nonprofits — but they wanted GOOD to be more than just an advertising vehicle. GOOD’s early business models included values-led companies like Patagonia, benefit corporations like TOMS, and the “Prius pivot,” Toyota’s zeitgeisty solution to luxury cars.
At the time, Schorr said, “doing good” was still considered fairly uncool and lacked design aesthetics. Meanwhile, the corporate philanthropy model (think Microsoft and other major corporations whose foundations are spun off from their for-profit raison d’être) was losing appeal among increasingly entrepreneurial job-seekers who cared about working for companies with sustainability and social responsibility in their DNA. Schorr was such an entrepreneur, and he asked himself in college, “How can I make a living and how can I make a difference? In those days, it was either/or.”
Echoing Schorr, Liao is lately asking herself, “How do I combine business development, sales and media with the social impact and environmental sustainability space I’m passionate about?” She’s beginning to explore the possibilities by getting involved with local nonprofits and community initiatives. She volunteers with the Ron Finley Project, founded by the eponymous horticultural revolutionary of TED fame. Liao leverages her knowledge of L.A.’s entertainment landscape to help “gangsta gardener” Finley — who featured in and executive produced John Legend’s 2015 film Can You Dig This? — find screening and community discussion venues for the documentary.
But for the moment she’s applying these skills pro bono. Schorr noted that the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama confirmed a shift in the cultural winds filling GOOD’s sails but the “economics” of doing good are still challenging. He said, “The financial metrics — profits, stock prices — are easy; but how do you measure ‘good’?” GOOD hires the best people and observes “ruthlessly efficient” business practices to generate profits, according to Schorr. Pursuing “new levels of excellence” through strategic partnerships with corporations asking how they can meet a need in society has helped the platform evolve. “The metrics,” he said, “have to be customized to the problem itself.” Is it possible, then, for corporations to quantify the benefits of, say, responsible sourcing of energy and materials or a gender-balanced workplace?
Perhaps that’s where business leadership training comes in. Liao couldn’t be happier to find out that, as part of a new initiative called Impact@Anderson, the school has added a specialization in social impact to its degree programs. The goal is to seed and accelerate positive social, environmental and economic impact for society and nurture the next generation of leaders eager to apply both business acumen and a sense of purpose to their work. Anderson graduates have been hired in social impact roles with profitable mission-driven companies like Warby Parker, Thrive Market and Tesla.
Impact@Anderson director of social innovation initiatives Bhavna Sivanand (’14), who with finance professor and Impact@Anderson faculty director Bhagwan Chowdhry interviewed Schorr, says, “It’s imperative that businesses think about their net positive impact as much as possible. Consumers are increasingly connected through social media, and never before have they had so much power in communicating with corporations. This increased transparency prompts us to think about — and measure — the global footprint that each corporation has. What we are trying to do at Impact@Anderson is inculcate such a mindset of impact into the core competencies of future leaders.”
As for Liao? She’s changing her own perception of what constitutes successful business as companies and the MBAs leading them aspire to track and measure the profit margin of social responsibility and, like GOOD, cultivate public participation. As Schorr said, “You can’t fake authentic momentum.”