BSR Vice President Kara Hurst has attended more than a half-dozen BSR Conferences over the years, and this is the first Conference that will take place under her leadership. She gave us her insider’s perspective on current plans for the event, including the back story on the “Innovate. Integrate. Inspire.” theme, which sessions she is looking forward to, and how the creator of the world’s first Islamic superheroes comic will help us think outside the box of corporate social responsibility (CSR).
As someone who has participated in many BSR Conferences over the years, can you briefly explain to those unfamiliar with the event what it is all about?
This year will be my ninth Conference, and I think there are two things that are really unique about our event: First, while it’s the largest gathering on CSR and sustainability in the United States, it’s a global audience, and it’s not just CSR experts talking to other CSR people. We draw a geographically diverse audience as well as a variety of disciplines and corporate functions beyond CSR. Our attendees come from business groups such as supply chain, sales and marketing, R&D, emerging markets, and risk management—which makes for better discussions and a richer experience. Second, it’s actually fun! We’ve been doing this for a long time now, addressing very difficult issues, but it’s always inspiring to bring our network together once a year to meet, exchange ideas, connect, engage, and learn.
The theme for this year’s Conference is “Innovate. Integrate. Inspire.” Why did you choose this theme, and what do you want to accomplish with the Conference this year?
We thought quite a bit about the theme this year. The key to having a successful sustainability agenda is not only to champion it inside your business yourself, but to inspire others to do the same. We saw an opportunity this year to bring in some innovative and creative thinkers that get us out of the CSR space and squarely into business innovation. How can we connect the two to help business make a bigger impact? I believe that if we think inspirationally and innovatively about our challenges, we can have a bigger impact.
This will be the first BSR Conference under your leadership. What changes can we expect?
Again, we want to broaden the horizon. We’ll launch a new series of "I3" sessions (named for the three “Is” of our theme) that will be shorter and will inject some out-of-the-box thinking into the debate. These sessions, which will precede each morning plenary session, will feature leaders from different aspects of society to inspire us with what they’ve done. One example is Naif A. Al-Mutawa, the creator of “The 99,” the first comic featuring Islamic superheroes. Of course, we will still hear from leading CEOs and other business influencers, but we’ll also have a conversation about thinking differently, looking at inventive, ingenious models elsewhere in society and applying them to business to stimulate creativity. CSR is still evolving—we have to invent new ways to address new problems, and we can’t just look inward. We need to look beyond our horizon for solutions and inspirations.
Where are you in setting the agenda? Can you share some highlights?
Planning is well underway, and we have some really great sessions on the agenda. I am looking forward to a session on how engaging women and girls in community programs can help shape economic development in a different way. We’ll explore what the impact of those investments can be and how business can benefit from them. Another session I look forward to features Harvard University Asia Center’s Peter Geithner and Cisco System’s Tae Yoo, who will discuss building partnerships in emerging economies and explore how strengthening civil society can pay off for business.
And, as usual, we’re planning a diverse agenda, with sessions on everything from biomimicry, ecosystem services, sustainable consumption, and conflict minerals. Other exciting speakers include Avon CEO Andrea Jung, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant, Walmart’s Matt Kistler, and Joanna Barsh, whose work on leadership pushes us to think differently about the impact we can have.
Recent crises, like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the string of suicides at an electronics factory in China, are on the minds of many business leaders. How will you address these issues at the Conference?
We are planning a session that will help us extract the lessons from the oil spill and similar crises involving business. We also are aware that events are changing rapidly, and we will incorporate the latest thoughts and ideas into the agenda to make all sessions timely and relevant.
For those who are planning to attend the Conference, what can they do now to get the most out of their experience in November?
There’s definitely Crowdvine, the social networking tool we debuted at last year’s Conference, which is already up and running for those who have registered for the BSR Conference 2010. It’s a big event, and Crowdvine will help you find out who else is coming so you can network with other participants, see how the agenda is shaping up, and start discussions around the topics you are interested in. You can meet BSR staff on the site as well. We want to get the conversations going now so that by the time you come into the room at the Conference, we can have a rich discussion. It also helps our speakers better understand what questions are top of mind for the audience.
Another recommendation I have for attendees: Pace yourself! There will be plenty of events that week: It will start with our pre-Conference trainings on Tuesday, and then the main Conference sessions, meetings, and receptions will take place Wednesday through Friday. To get the most of that exciting and full week, take your time.