Public Affairs, The California State University

Entrepreneurial Minds Creating Sustainable Solutions

By Erik Fallis

Panelists address the topic of building sustainable enterprises in the North Bay – left to right: North Bay Business Journal Editor Brad Bollinger (CSU Chico alumnus); Assemblymember Marc Levine (CSU Northridge alumnus who served as the California State Student Association chair); Sonoma State School of Business and Economics Dean William Silver; and Sonoma State's Hugh Codding Entrepreneur-in-Residence Mark Nelson

Panelists address the topic of building sustainable enterprises in the North Bay – left to right: North Bay Business Journal Editor Brad Bollinger (CSU Chico alumnus); Assemblymember Marc Levine (CSU Northridge alumnus who served as the California State Student Association chair); Sonoma State School of Business and Economics Dean William Silver; and Sonoma State’s Hugh Codding Entrepreneur-in-Residence Mark Nelson

Jeff Klein, the CEO of Working for Good, recalled a concept illustrated by the famed documentarian Carl Sagan. If you are to start an apple pie from scratch, reasoned Sagan, you have to go all the way back to the formation of elements in the stars, then further to the formation of the stars themselves and then even further to the Big Bang. Anything we make today builds on natural processes that stretch all the way back to the beginning of space and time.

Klein spoke at the 8th Annual Sustainable Enterprise Conference. Sonoma State University, Dominican University of California and the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy present the conference annually – hosted by Sonoma Mountain Village. The conference rises above the presumed conflict between natural and market systems, seeking instead to find solutions by joining the two.

Mark G. Nelson, Sonoma State’s Hugh Codding Entrepreneur-in-Residence, believes that the Sustainable Enterprise Conference plays an important part in broadening terms like “sustainability” and “entrepreneurial spirit” in Sonoma County – allowing a broader movement of people to work toward a common goal.

“Entrepreneurs are innovators that create value,” said Nelson. The value Nelson describes has many currencies: financial, social and environmental. This multiple objective approach constitutes a “triple bottom line” that Nelson believes to be at the heart of any business that intends long-term viability.

For a conference focused on enterprise, it was telling that two of the presenting organizations were universities. This underscores the role education plays in incubating new ideas and serving as a conduit for best practices. In fact, the Sustainable Enterprise Conference traces its origins to the entrepreneurs who visited Professor Robert Girling’s Sonoma State classroom as guest lecturers. This group of business leaders, Girling and faculty from Dominican University’s Green MBA program began having regular lunches that quickly turned into planning meetings for the first Sustainable Enterprise Conference in 2006.

Girling continues his active role in shaping the conference and building connections. William Silver, dean of the Sonoma State School of Business and Economics, recalls the day nearly five years ago when Girling “rescued me from three hours of signing papers and brought me to this conference to learn what enterprise in the region was really about.”

“I was amazed at the number of people who came up to me and were interested in having Sonoma State develop more sustainable entrepreneurship education offerings,” said Silver. “Technological innovation lets faculty experts support these entrepreneurs in their search for practical solutions that bring sustainability into their business plans.”

As an example of the support Sonoma State provides, those earning an Executive MBA at the university begin their program with a class on “Leading Sustainable Enterprises.”

Whether through businesses created by university students and alumni, or by serving as a focal point for the creative energy of a region, it is clear that higher education is helping reshape enterprise practices in Sonoma County. The Sustainable Enterprise Conference serves as a lasting example of the power that comes from bringing people together to share knowledge and foster new collaborations.