When Ally Hellenga began her role as community manager for Creature Comforts Brewing Co. in Athens, Georgia, in January 2020, she had approximately two and a half months of normalcy before the pandemic took hold in the U.S. A University of Georgia alum, Hellenga stewards community impact initiatives, and as the project manager behind the brewery’s B Corporation certification process, is also affectionately known as their “B keeper.”
When she walked in the door on her first day, the groundwork for Creature’s journey to B Corp certification was laid by MBA students from the Terry College of Business as part of its B Collaborative project, a unique project-based learning experience.
The Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia is joining local business leaders and thinkers in driving the B Corp movement. The B Collaborative project was developed with the cooperation of local companies and especially the B Corp community. For this experiential learning opportunity, student teams match with organizations trying to achieve B Corporation status. They review and research every aspect of the business, developing a strategy to improve its performance and attain the B Corporation assessment goals.
The class owes a lot to the energy to senior lecturer David Sutherland. Well-connected in Athens with a reputation for supporting local businesses, Sutherland designed the project to answer the question, “how do you put real-world experience into practice in a business course?”
The B Corporation Movement in Athens
A B Corporation is a business certified to meet or exceed social and environmental responsibility, transparency, and legal accountability standards. It takes into account the priorities of all stakeholders in addition to its shareholders. Nathan Stuck, Director of Corporate Culture with Ad Victoriam Solutions, serves as a resource for students on the project. Stuck also runs B Local Georgia, an organization of for-profit companies committed to the principle that making a profit and making a difference doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“I call it the gold standard of social responsibility,” Stuck says of B Corporations. “It’s a badge of honor for getting it because it’s so difficult to achieve.”
To be certified as a B Corporation, an organization must complete an extensive assessment of five operational segments: workers, corporate governance, community, environment, and customers. The questions examine the company’s relationship with its workforce, the quality of benefits, transparency with employees and the public regarding operations, whether they file impact and compliance reports, company demographics, customer privacy and data, carbon reduction targets, and much, much more. Positive responses award points, and once a company hits 80 points, it can move ahead with the certification process. Each subset of the assessment leads to further probing questions, ascertaining the level of commitment and action the organization demonstrates.
Once the score is assigned, a standards analyst audits the organization, verifies the assessment data, and makes it prove it is doing what it says it is. It is a detailed, thorough process that can take months, and to retain B Corporation status, the organization must recertify every three years.
“It’s a continuous improvement loop,” explains Stuck, “and I like the recertification part. It provides accountability.” The second most significant benefit Stuck sees in the B Corp world is intentionality. The certification process provokes innovative ways to solve problems: precisely what the class is designed to spark in students.
MBAs Weigh-in on Working with Creature Comforts
Creature Comforts is a popular brewery with a philanthropic mission. Founded by three friends with a shared love of Athens and a commitment to business being a force for good, Creature Comforts opened its doors in April 2014. Matt Stevens joined in 2017 to head the strategic impact department.
“What we know how to do is brew beer, and we’ve become pretty exceptional at that,” Stevens says of the corporate culture. “But why we exist is just as important to the narrative we tell — our why must be better than simply ‘generating profits.’ To borrow from the B Corp lexicon, we believe that business can be a force for good, that community resilience can be supported by generous companies, and that the private sector has a role to play in social innovation. These values have been in our company’s DNA from day zero and in many ways prompted our company’s call to serve.”
The brewery already maintains community impact programs such as Get Comfortable, which directs profits toward the city’s most pressing humanitarian needs, and Get Artistic, which invests in Athens’s creative community. In fall 2018, Creature Comforts hosted an event organized by the Terry College of Business, bringing MBA students and the local business community together to talk about business as a force for good.
At this event, Stevens sat on a panel where he discussed Creature Comforts’ community impact initiatives. After the panel, he was approached by a student wanting to talk about B Corporations. He recalls answering, “never heard of it…but I’m compelled.” After doing research and reading the B Corporation handbook, he realized it was clarifying the conversations the brewery was having and offered a rigorous standard to measure its efforts. “Through certification, we could formalize the commitments we were making as a company,” Stevens says.
A year later, Creature Comforts was one of the pilot companies in the Terry College of Business’ B Collaborative project. Rob Grabowski (MBA ’20), Smriti Pant (MBA ’20), and Thomas Barrow (JD/MBA ’20) made up the team that worked with Creature Comforts. The one term each used to describe the experience is “awesome.” Their fourth team member Lukas Buschhusen (MBA ’20), a German exchange program participant from Universität Rostock, played a big role in the execution of the project.
“It was an incredible experience. I’m glad I got to do it,” says Barrow, now an attorney practicing in Charleston, S.C.
The opportunity to work with real people and real businesses instead of running through case studies and simulations was extremely attractive to Barrow, and he attributes much of the credit to Sutherland.
“Putting class lessons into practice was a wonderful piece of my education,” he says.
Grabowski works with The Home Depot in Atlanta and has a background in psychology and nonprofit organizations.
“One of the things the UGA Terry MBA program did well was the variety of experiential learning courses,” Grabowski says. “Professor Sutherland used his professional career experience to train us to manage an innovative project.”
The group was excited to work with Creature Comforts. Much of the team’s work was done independently, as the class met two days a week while students made arrangements to connect outside of class. They not only spent time with the team at the brewery but were also treated to a tour of the new production facility.
When the team first met, the brewery reached a score of 60 on the assessment. This was a high-level first pass, and the team needed to assess if this was an accurate baseline and determine how to get to 80 points. The deliverable was a presentation outlining a plan for Creature Comforts to hit the score goal.
“With a B Corp assessment, there’s a lot of steps,” says Grabowski. “It’s ‘do you do this, do you track this, do you use this data to make adjustments?’ There were a lot of opportunities for Creature to start tracking things and start having conversations about certain items. They could change some language here, catch some low-hanging fruit, and that was the area we were looking through to get from status quo to 80 for certification.”
Grabowski took on the role of project manager, and Barrow used his law school instruction to handle the governance and other legal components. Pant had a background in environmental work, and she took on that workstream.
“What I understood, because of this project, was that every small little thing counts toward your end goal,” she says. “So, what I worked on was not just environmental; it has a lot to do with operations because you have the products coming out, the machinery you are using, the carbon production, how much energy you are using — all of these things are also a part of operations.”
She learned about the class through word of mouth. “I had heard so many people say great things about it, and I was looking for something that had to do with design thinking projects — and that’s what the whole class was about.”
By the end of the semester, the students delivered a presentation outlining how Creature would get from their baseline assessment to over 80 points — a game plan that laid out the first steps toward becoming a B Corporation.
Athens and the Lasting Impact of the B Corp Movement
“I was so lucky, I literally stepped in the door on the first day in January and had a binder full of next steps to start this role thanks to this wonderful, powerhouse team of MBA students,” says Hellenga, who is implementing the plan developed by the student group. “It’s an enormous challenge. But a clear roadmap was on my desk on day one.”
Creature Comforts’ leadership team was so committed to the certification process that Hellenga did not find it difficult to continue the work even under the stress of quarantines and economic shutdowns. She credits the assessment’s design with facilitating sharing responsibilities among members on her “B-Team.” Even working under pandemic restrictions, the larger B Corporation community helped provide guidance and information resources.
“The students were 100 percent instrumental in me coming on board and getting this up and running at Creature,” Hellenga says. “I feel the B Corp Collaborative program at UGA has sparked the B Corp movement in Athens. The B Corporation community is wonderful to reach out to, ask questions, clarify and collaborate. We’re small and mighty in Athens.”
“The B Collaborative project was catalytic for us,” Stevens says of the project. “I think it has been a great win-win — providing experiential opportunities for business students, but also leaning upon the resources of the university down the street.”
Creature Comforts is the second B Corp in Athens. “We have all the makings for a very sustainable, very progressive business community,” Stuck proudly asserts.
Stuck was in the MBA program when Ad Victoriam Solutions had a handful of employees and wanted to be certified as a B Corporation. What was supposed to be a semester project turned into three semesters and then a job opportunity. The fall following his graduation, Stuck brought in students from the Terry College to help with the audit, as he never went through one before. One of those students fell in love with the B Corp movement, was able to secure grants, which led to hosting an event with a student-led panel that drew B Corporations from Atlanta.
It was through this event that Sutherland began to work with Stuck on promoting these projects for his class. As a result, in the last three years, Nathan and Ad Victoriam Solutions have worked on close to 20 student-led projects with the business school and many companies helmed by UGA alumni. They are now looking at four more successfully certified B Corporations that came out of the B Collaborative project over the next few months.
Starting this fall, Nathan Stuck will teach a B Corp-focused class at the Terry College of Business, including three to four weeks of lecture and guest speakers. Then, collaborative projects will be handed off to the students, which he has eagerly lined up in advance of the class.
The MBAs who worked with Creature Comforts on the B Collaborative project have taken much from their experience to their careers.
“It was amazing! The best part of being a student and doing a project of this nature is that everyone is willing to help you, to give you input,” says Pant. Today, she is with RBW Logistics in Augusta. “Just going through the points on the questionnaire can give you a lot of ideas. Because it is so comprehensive, just looking at it, you notice things you didn’t really think about.”
“It has instilled in me the values of sustainability and corporate responsibility, and what’s funny too is the right thing can also be economical,” says Grabowski. “It was a cool experience, seeing a company like Creature Comforts be so intentional with their decision-making and really care about it. We’re getting a better framework for what a sustainable, effective for-profit business can look like, and that’s a cool shift. And I felt like I was a part of that shift in a way, and I am excited to see that move forward, especially in Georgia.”
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