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Protecting the Great Salt Lake With the Resilient Waters Fund
Photo Credit: Jared Michael Siskin Photography

An interview with two Sorenson Impact Institute team members who won the 2024 Kellogg-Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenge

We are thrilled to congratulate Hunter Conrad and Cody Clifford, members of Sorenson Impact Institute’s Impact Investing team, on winning the Kellogg-Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenge for their project, The Resilient Waters Fund! The challenge invites graduate students worldwide to develop and pitch creative financial solutions for urgent social or environmental problems.

Conrad and Clifford, along with their team members, University of Utah graduate students Michael Hall and Alex Parlogean, were selected as one of 12 finalists from a pool of nearly 300 students spanning 44 countries and 55 schools. The Resilient Waters Fund is a creative proposal to leverage private and existing public capital to protect the Great Salt Lake, emphasizing investing in building trust-based partnerships with farmers and other critical stakeholders. We caught up with Conrad and Clifford to learn more about this achievement and what’s next for the Resilient Waters Fund.

Congratulations on winning the 2024 Kellogg-Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenge! What does this achievement mean to you?

Hunter Conrad: Winning the Sustainable Finance Challenge was the most rewarding way to complete my MBA and time as a student at the Sorenson Impact Institute (I’m now a full-time team member!). The experience demonstrated what happens when you put in hard work and gain the support of your community. Picking a local issue like the Great Salt Lake gave us access to world-class researchers and community members who are passionate about saving the Great Salt Lake and generously shared their time and expertise with us.

Cody Clifford: This was an unreal experience, and I am so proud of my team. Winning this competition validated all of our hard work and dedication. This experience also highlighted the urgency of this problem, and it has been incredible to see the excitement we received from local stakeholders eager to solve it and learn about our proposed solution.

As someone new to finance, this opportunity also validated the skills I’ve gained at the Institute. Collaborating with my team to structure a real investment opportunity that career investors take seriously has been a huge confidence booster as I finish grad school.

How did the Resilient Waters Fund, your proposal to protect the Great Salt Lake, come to fruition? Why did you land on this proposal?

HC: The Sustainable Finance Challenge invites participants to explore the root causes of any one issue. Initially, our team discussed everything from the residual heat in data centers to air pollution. We all eventually agreed to focus on the Great Salt Lake as we discovered what a catastrophe it would be if it dried up and that it was such a pressing and locally relevant issue.

CC: As we started to learn more about the Great Salt Lake’s significant impact on Utah’s environment, climate, public health, biodiversity, and various economic industries, we felt this would be a perfect issue to address. To give you an idea of the size of this problem, the amount of water needed to restore the Lake to a healthy level is the equivalent of covering the state of Connecticut with one foot of water. I clearly remember the meeting when we decided on the problem and then joking about having no idea how to solve it. After submitting our proposal and looking further into what was driving the Lake deficit, it became clear we would need to get creative in figuring out how to divert water back to the Lake because water ownership in Utah is a very touchy subject.

Now that your proposal has won the challenge, what’s next for the Resilient Waters Fund?

HC: We plan to make a version of our proposal come to life. We are meeting with potential investors and partners to determine how the project/fund will function. We aim to have enough interest and due diligence done by the end of summer to launch formally. We are speaking to farmers, irrigation companies, public finance experts, and government officials interested in saving the Great Salt Lake.

CC: Winning the challenge is just the beginning for the Resilient Waters Fund. We are transitioning from a competition project to a real-life launch. Our immediate focus is on maintaining our momentum by engaging more with irrigation companies, farmers, and government officials to confirm long-term commitment, which will be vital in getting this project off the ground.

We are fortunate to have the support of Morgan Stanley and the Kellogg School of Management in connecting us with their resources. Since the competition, we have met with interested investors who have contacted us and provided valuable feedback and support to help bring this project to life. We aim to continue our diligence over the next few months to validate our idea, secure buy-in from all stakeholders, and work with the state to leverage existing funding. Potential investors are excited to participate once we have gained traction and reached key milestones. We look forward to making this vision a reality.

How has your work on the Impact Investing team at the Sorenson Impact Institute helped prepare you to achieve this goal?

HC: Being a student in the Institute’s Impact Investing program introduced me to blended finance and innovative financial instruments in practice. Without this background, we would not have had the tools to create our proposed fund structure that utilized market-rate, concessionary, and government funding to bring our solution to life.

As students, we conducted due diligence on similar innovative financial structures and solutions, which gave us insight into what investors consider when assessing a potential opportunity. We knew we would have to do as much research and outreach as possible to talk to farmers, government programs, and Great Salt Lake experts to fully understand the issue and deliver a feasible and realistic solution. Additionally, we were able to speak with several individuals across the Institute to get their feedback and input, which was invaluable in our final presentation.

CC: In many ways, working on the investing team was a massive advantage in this competition. I always tried to bring the Institute’s culture — which emphasizes team accountability, motivation, and encouragement — to the table as a Resilient Waters Fund team member. The impact investing team prioritizes quality research and diligence. It has helped me develop my critical thinking skills, navigate difficult questions, and work towards an end goal, even when the path is unclear.

Understanding the challenges of impact investing is unique to the Institute’s program. Many people express interest in making a difference and supporting social and environmental impact, but attracting private capital to impact investing is challenging. During one of my first deals at the Institute, I worked on an impact investment fund where I learned how blended finance works and how fund managers can use philanthropic capital, which typically doesn’t demand a high rate of return but supports a good cause, to attract market-rate investors by enhancing returns. Our team applied this knowledge to create a similar structure for the Resilient Waters Fund.

Conrad and Clifford will soon launch formal ways for the public to track progress on the Resilient Waters Fund. Sign up for the Institute’s monthly newsletter and follow LinkedIn for updates.

In the meantime, Conrad and Clifford are eager to connect with people, organizations, or government agencies currently focused on saving the Great Salt Lake, particularly those related to land conservation, land easements, and fundraising expertise. They also want to connect with various state and federal entities, such as the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, the Utah Ag Reserve, the State of Utah Revolving Fund, and Congressman McAdams’ office.

Have a tip? Connect with Conrad and Clifford on LinkedIn!

Learn more about the venture capital and impact investing internship program at Sorenson Impact Institute and explore internship opportunities.