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Net Impact Sustainability Competition Helps Wisconsin MBA Students Change the Planet, One Project at a Time

By Clare Becker

April 28, 2021

Tim Bent Jr. takes Wisconsin MBA students through Grainger Hall’s attic
Tim Bent Jr. takes Wisconsin MBA students through Grainger Hall’s attic during the office hours he and Ian Aley (second from right) hold for student teams in the weeks leading up to the competition. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

If you care about going greener, here are some interesting facts: The average person uses roughly a gallon of water with every handwashing. Grainger Hall, home to the Wisconsin School of Business on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, clocks in at nearly 4,224 gallons each day. Adding low flow faucet aerators to the School’s 96 bathroom faucets would reduce water use by 30-70%. The aerators are reasonably priced and only need to be replaced once a year. Sounds pretty good, right?

Such was the case made by Team Aqua, a four-member group of WSB students pitching their strategy to judges during the recent Net Impact Sustainability Competition, an event sponsored by the Wisconsin Chapter of Net Impact, a student organization. Now in its second year and held virtually, the competition is open to all UW–Madison students.

“The intent of this competition is to give students the opportunity to create a strategy for the Wisconsin School of Business that will decrease its environmental footprint, improve its social impact, and reduce its operating costs,” says Ashwin Maheshwari (MBA ’22), a student in WSB’s Center for Brand and Product Management who is on Net Impact’s executive committee. “It’s a chance for students to take what they are learning in the classroom and apply it to the real-life challenge confronting today’s businesses: How can they become more socially and environmentally responsible?”

The event is designed as a cross-campus collaboration with the UW–Madison’s Office of Sustainability. The office manages the Green Fund, an initiative that supports student sustainability projects for the betterment of campus.

Wisconsin MBA students Roman Orizov (MBA '22), Xu Hong (MBA '22), and Meiying Jin (MBA '22)
Wisconsin MBA students Roman Orizov (MBA ’22), Xu Hong (MBA ’22), and Meiying Jin (MBA ’22) examine an HVAC filter while in the Grainger Hall attic. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

“If a student has an idea for how to make campus more sustainable, we can help them connect with the people to make that happen, and we have money available to buy the nuts and bolts to actually implement those ideas,” says Ian Aley, Green Fund program manager. “We’ve done everything from rooftop solar panels to low flow toilets to pretty much everything in between.”

Net Impact competition participation has more than doubled since last year to 75 students, Aley says, something that WSB’s Ann Terlaak, an associate professor of management and human resources and the faculty advisor for Net Impact, is pleased to see. Terlaak is the director of the School’s graduate-level Certificate in Business, Environment, and Social Responsibility Program, in which many of the competition’s students are enrolled. Terlaak was also one of four judges for this year’s competition.

“This competition is a great reflection of the growing interest in sustainability among Wisconsin MBA students,” Terlaak says. “They not only want to learn about business and sustainability in the classroom, but also practice it outside of the classroom. Making it better yet, this competition is special because it actually improves the sustainability of Grainger Hall’s operations. It’s so much more than a mere theoretical exercise.”

Culling ideas, building strategy

Once the competition launches, Net Impact entrants have 12 days to assemble their teams, come up with an idea, and research their strategy. All teams must submit a written proposal, budget, and impact estimate. The final five teams give a presentation in front of the judges, with each team rated on a valuation matrix for categories such as innovation, operational savings, and significant impact. Even if a team doesn’t win, its members are welcome to apply to the Green Fund post-competition.

Thanks to a generous donation from WSB alum and competition judge Ron Meissen (PhD ’07), the top three contestants receive a monetary prize that can be used at their discretion.

Wisconsin MBA student Andrew Shaw (MBA ’22) talks with his teammates about their project
Wisconsin MBA student Andrew Shaw (MBA ’22) talks with his teammates about their project prior to the competition. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

Grainger Hall’s Facilities and Event Services team plays a vital role in the Net Impact competition, and the event is only one of the activities and initiatives that the department has been actively involved with in the sustainability realm. The unit has worked closely with UW–Madison’s Office of Sustainability in the past and received its Office of Sustainability Green Office Platinum Certification in April 2020, says Tim Bent Jr., director of facilities and event services.

During the days leading up to the event, Bent Jr. and Aley held joint office hours for students to talk through their ideas and visit the systems and spaces relevant to their proposals. Bent Jr. offers insights on the building and ideas for brainstorming on areas of improvement. And if students are funded post-competition, he holds the funds and initiates the upgrade completion process and oversight. “We make sure students aren’t just left to their own devices,” Aley says. “It’s absolutely about student ideas, but then we want to help them connect with people to actually gather the data they need.”

Team leader Jorge Tefel (MBA ‘22) and fellow team members Joe Dalle Molle (MBA ’22), Karan Modi (MBA ’22), and Folarin Omotoriogun (MBA ’22) took their idea all the way to a first prize finish. Their innovation is a safe and environmentally friendly Stabilized Aqueous Ozone (SAO™) based cleaning solution that can tackle multiple surfaces at Grainger Hall using an electric current. Aley and Bent Jr. met with Tefel and his team during office hours and connected the students with Jodi Krause, custodial services program supervisor for UW–Madison’s University Housing, who shared her expertise with the team. The group is working with the Green Fund to advance its project through the next stages.

“We settled on the cleaning solution idea because it allowed us to make a difficult positive impact on the environment by instituting small change,” says Tefel. “This was a unique and exciting competition to be a part of. Sustainability, to me, is about maintaining balance for the good of all humanity and our planet. The funds will help make our vision a reality by implementing our idea at WSB.”

Moving into development

Catering cart: This mobile waste-sorting station took first place last year. During and after a catered event, the cart will offer customers and staff spaces to sort their dishes, liquids, food scraps, recycling, and trash. Aley worked with one of the students who proposed the idea, Nick Schaefer (BBA ’20, MIPA ’21), to draw up designs for the system. A team of engineers from the student organization Insight is currently building a prototype. “Rather than rolling out a big landfill-bound waste receptacle and just putting everything into it,” Aley says, “this would allow for resource recovery that is a lot more nuanced.”

Heating and ventilation efficiency: A plan to convert Grainger Hall’s heating and ventilation system from a pneumatic system to a digital one took second place last year. Aley, Bent Jr., and students are meeting with organizations like Focus on Energy to work through next steps. The innovation will make the system “more responsive to the occupancy of the space,” Aley says. “If there’s no one in the room, it doesn’t need to have air blowing perpetually.”

Loading dock lighting: A simple yet uber impactful idea, one of last year’s teams focused on switching out Grainger Hall’s loading dock lights and adjusting the motion sensors to make them more energy efficient and reduce the number of hours in use.

Taking up the challenge

Like many of the students involved with Net Impact, prioritizing sustainability doesn’t stop when the competition is over. Maheshwari’s future plans include an internship this summer with the global beverage company Diageo, the makers of top brands like Johnny Walker and Guinness. He applied and accepted the offer in large part because he was impressed with their long-term sustainability strategy. For his generation and those coming behind him, he says, the carbon footprint issue is a critical one.

“We’re the ones who are growing up, we’re going to change the world—we can change the world—but you really have to start where you live and with your community,” he says. “That’s what really excites me about this challenge: I can directly impact my daily life with an idea versus this huge, idealistic, ‘I should be watching my carbon footprint.’ Now I can actually put my ideas into something real.”

Learn more about WSB’s Certificate in Business, Environment, and Social Responsibility Program.

Read more about the UW–Madison Office of Sustainability’s Green Fund.