Student Perspective: Counting Elephants and Tech Innovation


“Business strategies for a better world.”

As a current MBA student actively involved with Wharton Social Impact Initiative, I hear this phrase often. In theory, we believe that what we learn in business school can and should be applied to solve big problems and make a positive social impact.

But what does “business strategies for a better world” actually mean? Do the dual purposes of earning a profit and making an impact inherently conflict, or can integrating impact into strategy create additional value for a company? Can, and should, business have a positive social impact?

This summer, I sought to answer those questions for myself in a hub of innovation: Silicon Valley. Thanks to the incredible Wharton network, I connected with Jon Jones of GSVlabs—a Wharton alumnus who has both “Chief Investment Officer” and “Social Impact GM” on his business card. If I wanted to learn more about the intersection of business, technology, and social impact, clearly GSVlabs was the place to be.

Conveniently, much of the focus of my internship has been having conversations with entrepreneurs, investors, and business leaders to better understand the impact investing market and how to position GSVlabs in the impact entrepreneurship space. one theme holds true: for-profit businesses have enormous potential for large-scale change—and maybe not in the most “traditional” ways.

Soon after arriving at GSVlabs Jon told me a story about something I didn’t expect—a story about counting elephants.

Orbital Insight is best known for its satellite imaging technology. The company’s vision algorithms count and measure roads, airplanes, clouds, cars, lakes, land, buildings, and oil tanks to provide an understanding of the world. Orbital’s data engine can literally count the number of cars in a retail store parking lot over time, for example, to predict and forecast revenue data to sell to asset management firms. The commercial applications of the technology are exciting both customers and investors—and recently led to a $20 million series B round.

However, Jon had a different topic in mind earlier this year as he sat down for lunch with Orbital Insight’s VP of Product Engineering and fellow Wharton alumnus Shwetank Kumar. The night before the meeting Jon came across a National Geographic article about the danger of elephant poachers in Africa and various initiatives to catalog and protect these endangered animals, including efforts funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to fly planes across the continent searching for elephants.

With this story fresh in his mind, Jon asked Shwetank if they couldn’t just use the same technology to count elephants in Africa. Rather than spending huge sums of money manually flying planes around in dangerous conditions, Orbital’s algorithms could analyze millions of data images for a faster and lower-cost solution in a highly accurate but low-risk approach.

Orbital is already exploring ways its technology can track global water reserves and map poverty in developing countries—much of it driven by their passion for impact. How many other for-profit companies could have a similar large-scale impact simply by thinking outside-the-box of typical product applications?

This philosophy also isn’t just true for startups. While many big corporations create Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices and give money away to different causes, the most impactful corporations are able to align impact directly with their business models. McDonald’s may not come to mind as a leader in social impact or healthy food, but they have sold over 2 billion packages of sliced apples since adding the option to their menu in 2004, often into markets with limited access to healthy food choices.

My experience at GSVlabs this summer has showed me that while integrating impact and strategy in an authentic way might be challenging, it is both possible and advantageous to apply business strategies to make a better world. More importantly, companies don’t have to—and shouldn’t—wait to make an impact. The most successful companies integrate impact mission from inception and stay on that path in a strategic way that aligns with and adds value to the business along the way.

While nonprofits, governments, and other social sector organizations play a critical role in social impact, for-profit companies from startups to Fortune 500s have the scale potential that is needed to make the greatest impact and help solve the world’s biggest challenges.

GSVlabs is global innovation center based in Silicon Valley that accelerates startups and connects corporations to technologies, business models, and entrepreneurs. The Silicon Valley headquarters is a thriving ecosystem of 170+ startups, 150+ industry-leading mentors, 25+ corporate partners, 4 accelerator programs, and 200+ programs and events annually.

Mary GamberMary Gamber is a full-time Wharton MBA student currently in her second year. She has worked previously in consulting and education, and is interested in how companies can integrate impact with strategy.