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PeriodCon organizers during the conference in February.

New Student Conferences Tackle Issues at the Nexus of Business and Society

With the addition of four new events, the Yale School of Management has seen the number of student-led conferences on campus more than double over the past five years.

By Karen Guzman

Students at the Yale School of Management launched a new conference this year dedicated to a rapidly growing industry: marijuana. On February 16, a diverse mix of investors, entrepreneurs, researchers, and activists filled Evans Hall for sessions on marketing, regulation, and other aspects of the legal cannabis industry.

The audience reflected the swift movement of cannabis into the mainstream, said speaker Tahira Rehmatullah ’14, managing director of Hypur Ventures and CFO of MTech. “A few years ago, cannabis conferences and panels looked very different,” she said. “It’s amazing to witness the growth across so many verticals.”

Speakers and organizers alike agreed that a new industry is being born. “This onslaught of legalization and policy changes has led to the need for a variety of businesses,” Rehmatullah said. “Cannabis needs the same ecosystem as every other industry.”

With the Business of Legal Cannabis Conference, Yale SOM became the first U.S. business school to host a conference dedicated to the legalized business of recreational marijuana. “We’re very excited,” said co-organizer Billy Marks ’18. “There’s been a lot of buzz from the student body, as well as locally and regionally. The turnout has been great.”

Cannabis was one of several timely topics addressed in new student led-conferences at Yale SOM this year. As students increasingly seek to address the critical issues impacting business and society, conferences are growing at a fast rate. Five years ago, Yale SOM hosted five full-scale student-led conference; this year, the school is home to 12.

Students say that conferences let them hone their organizational and networking skills, while diving deeply into subjects they care about passionately.

“You put into practice a lot of the things we study in classes, and you apply them to real-life issues,” Marks said. “There’s a lot of teamwork that goes into this, in both academic and professional circles, so there’s a lot of collaboration. We were lucky to share best practices with one of the other new conferences this year.”

Other debut conferences included PeriodCon, which brought together industry leaders, policy makers, product innovators, and advocates to discuss global challenges and innovations in menstrual hygiene, and the Hispanic and Latin-American Conference, which examined U.S.-Latin American relations, with the theme “Leading Through Uncertainty: What the U.S. Can Learn from Latin America.”

Amanda Skinner ’08, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, was a featured speaker at PeriodCon. “It was a great example of the value of student conferences,” she said. “I’m not sure this is a subject that would have occurred to faculty, or the school, and yet the reality is that this is a pressing issue of justice and equity for women.”

PeriodCon Co-Chair Yennie Lee ’18 said the event began as a conversation among classmates that then sparked interest in the schools of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Nursing, Public Health, Law, and Yale College. The event also had a number of campus sponsors, including the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at YaleYale Center for Customer InsightsYale Center for Business and the Environment, and the Yale Graduate and Professional Student Senate.

“Business plays an important role in menstrual equity,” Lee said. “Major consumer product goods companies and new startups are positioned to improve access to hygiene products through fair pricing and product innovation, and yet, it isn’t happening at the scale of consumer demand. PeriodCon was a platform for us to understand and possibly solve this puzzle.”

In late April, a group of Yale SOM students will hold the new Hidden Champions Conference in collaboration with the Hidden Champions Institute at ESMT Berlin, a member school of the Global Network for Advanced Management. The event will draw lessons from the companies that have quietly established themselves as market leaders in examining how to compete with increasingly diversified business players on a global scale. 

These new conferences join an established lineup that’s been drawing experts from across sectors to Yale SOM for years. Among them are gatherings devoted to education, healthcare, private equity and venture capital, and philanthropy.

The Yale Healthcare Conference, which was founded in 2004, is the oldest student-run conference at Yale SOM, bringing together more than 500 professionals, students, faculty, and community members to address the most complex challenges facing the healthcare industry today. Students from the schools of Public Health, Medicine, and Nursing collaborate with Yale SOM students to plan the conference. Vivian Nguyen SOM/YSPH ’19 is one of this year’s co-chair.

“In a time when healthcare equity is being challenged across the nation, we want to demonstrate that a strong business case can be made for expanding healthcare access,” she said. “Improving Healthcare Access: Benefits and Solutions for Business and Society” is the 2018 theme.

“Having grown up in a Vietnamese refugee family, I’ve always been passionate about expanding healthcare access for marginalized populations and I’m proud that this year’s theme meaningfully advances SOM’s mission while also resonating with me on a personal level,” Nguyen said.

The Yale Philanthropy Conference is another well known, and established, event. Now in its 14th year, the conference bills itself as the only convening of the nonprofit and philanthropic sector planned entirely by MBA students. The event brings together thinkers, students, and professionals from leading institutions and foundations to discuss the role of philanthropy in contemporary society.

Sarah Watson SOM/YDS ’19 served as co-chair for this year’s event in February. “To me, the conference is emblematic of SOM’s mission statement—educating leaders for business and society,” she said. “What makes it different from similar conferences is the insertion of the private sector mindset. Those who attend tell us it’s a fresh and singular experience for them every year.”

The conference lets Watson stay abreast of the latest trends in the nonprofit world, where she began her career. “I’m considering entering the private sector, but I still want to maintain my commitment to social impact,” she said.

In the planning and execution, new friendships are also forged. “I get to work and connect with Yale SOM alumni who are leading some of the most prominent strategies on the issues that matter most to me,” Watson said. “And I meet classmates who share my interests. It’s a great outlet, both professionally and personally.”