Alison (Mock) Dennis ’94 has the ear—and conscience—of modern business.
Some teenagers anoint their walls with posters of heartthrobs or fast cars. Alison Dennis '94's bedroom was different. “You know that painting The Peaceable Kingdom?” she asks. She’s referring to Edward Hicks’s famous work that depicts lions lying down with lambs, children resting near tigers. “I painted a mural of that on my walls.”
This confession is at once pausing and unsurprising. Since graduating from Bennington, Dennis has devoted herself to harmonizing corporate business models with social and ecological responsibility. To paraphrase: She wants profits to lie down with principles.
“The notion that resources are scarce is a principle of business. In other words, there’s plenty of room for corporations to grapple with the reality that the most profitable businesses of the future will be those that take the best care of the planet and its people. In fact, I believe business—more than government, more than education—is the best positioned to drive this transformation toward sustainability.”
But hang on; let’s go back for a minute—to just beyond the bedroom mural.
“Yes,” Dennis laughs, confirming a rumor, “that was what my concentration was at Bennington: ‘constructed memory.’ You see, my education before I got to college was an alternative one, and everyone kept asking me, ‘Well, Alison, what are you going to do, though, when you get into the real world?’ I kept wondering what this ominous sounding ‘real world’ was. So, what I studied at Bennington was why we offer up our ideals, our language, our education, our notion of what’s possible—our selves—to this thing: this real world.”
In other words, why the peaceable kingdom couldn’t be more than a painted mural?
“It became clear to me that what I was really majoring in was organizational change: What happens when we break down our internal and external barriers; what happens when we give ourselves permission to imagine an ideal world?”
Post-Bennington, Dennis found herself doing supply chain work for a hospital before deciding that industry wasn’t her calling. She left the job, and forgoing an expensive wedding, she and her husband instead used the money for an extensive honeymoon: 27 countries, six continents, and 365 days. They explored the food systems and traditions of their various destinations. This, she says, was her calling.
Dennis then took a job as a supply chain director with Burgerville, a 39-store fast-food franchise in the Pacific Northwest. “Food creates a very approachable first place for people to be curious about sustainability,” she says. “No one feels stupid asking a question about the origins of a hamburger or the nutrition of a milkshake.”
She quickly became the company’s director of sustainability and integrated a range of ecologically minded measures into an industry anyone would be forgiven for thinking was an unlikely candidate for ranchers agreeing to lie down with cattle. “We asked what would happen if ranchers, line cooks, educators, regional government— every link in the supply chain —thought about clean water, social equity, and health standards?”
Talking to each person one by one, Dennis began effecting real change. A defining moment was when she developed a composting and recycling program with one of Burgerville’s assistant managers. No one thought such a program was possible, but it has since become a model for how fast-food restaurants can become environmental contributors, not takers.
“We don’t have to wait for someone to give us permission to design our ideal world,” she says. “I’m finding that, in business, critical mass is what creates change, but critical mass isn’t a big number. Finding champions, finding leadership can come from one-on-one conversations. Everyone is capable of a sustainable future. There are ranchers right now who are stewarding their lands, businesses right now that see innovation and bottom line savings in improved waste management. We just have to acknowledge all the sustainable progress that has happened. Then we’ll start seeing it everywhere.” Once we do, Dennis believes that progress will become exponential.
This past January, Dennis began her new role as executive director of Portland State University’s Center for Global Leadership in Sustainability (CGLS), a place she describes as operating at the “nexus of scholarship and practice.” At CGLS, Dennis hopes to expand her reach, applying principles of sustainability to actual businesses and teaching future MBAs at the Center’s affiliate, the School of Business Administration. She hopes to infuse tomorrow’s private sector with a sense of public responsibility.
“I tell people the two most important business decisions I ever made were taking that year off to travel and going to Bennington. I was taught how to write, how to speak with conviction, how to ask the right questions,” she says, and then pauses. “Really, though, I was taught to look inwardly and ask myself: Who am I and what is the contribution I can uniquely make?”