Sustainable business has largely progressed in spite of, not because of, traditional management education. The masters in business administration (MBA) taught in business schools once paid lip service to sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) at best, and at worse sought to discredit it. However, the financial crisis of 2008/2009 caused a radical rethink. The short term, profit before people mentality that contributed to the crash left accusatory fingers pointing to the MBA.
Business school deans, as flummoxed as everyone else by an economic collapse they hadn’t foreseen, began a period of soul searching. Peter Tufano, a Harvard finance professor, said in 2009 that MBAs had a hand in “developing arrogant students”, while Henry Mintzberg, management professor at McGill and Insead, said at the time that US business schools “don’t create managers, they create hubris.”
Few then could have foreseen a situation that by 2014, talented pupils interested in a career in sustainability sectors would choose an MBA path. Or that some business schools would integrate social and environmental sustainability throughout the syllabus, not merely as a token elective.
Heather West has a background in water stewardship in the craft brewing industry and solar module manufacturing. She spent last summer at The Nature Conservancy developing a funding model for bird friendly management practices along the Pacific Flyway. And she is now a second year joint MBA and master of forestry candidate with the Yale School of Management (SOM) and Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES).
“I decided to come back [to grad school] because I wanted to focus on land management, and really understand how capital markets and management decisions have an impact on land”, says West. “I have worked at a number of different non-profits or NGOs and I see myself working for more down the line. But I see real value in exposing yourself to experience in business and understanding markets in a real way … it’s going to become more important for people to be able to work on both the business and NGO side and be able to think from multiple perspectives.”
Sarah Lynn Smith is also a second year joint degree student at SOM and FES, having previously worked on renewable energy project finance at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Unlike West she sees her future firmly within the business world rather than non-profit.
“I really think that business is the most efficient way to make an impact”, says Smith. “The best way to scale whatever you’re doing is through a market. So working on sustainability in business allows you to think about a much broader range of issues that you might be able to tackle and to actually see that happen within the space of a few months or years as opposed to a much longer time frame.”
Specific classes at Yale include forest and ecosystem finance, financing green technologies and impact investing. But it isn’t just the options with ‘green’ or ‘eco’ in the title that cover sustainability. “You see a lot of blending with other business areas”, informs West. “It may not always be explicitly stated as sustainability but there’s a very large undercurrent of it throughout the curriculum.”
West and Smith form part of a team, headed by Stuart DeCew, programme director at the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, shortlisted for the final of this year’s Nespresso Sustainability MBA Challenge.
“What has excited me the most during the MBA, being a more brand focused person, has been understanding how investments and capital markets work and understanding the vast network of companies and businesses out there that are making decisions”, says West. “My brain is trying to make those connections all the time.”
Smith believes that having such a knowledge base will prove a valuable commodity in today’s business world. “More and more you see, at the top level of companies, people willing to set goals around greenhouse gas emissions, and put money and resources behind hiring people who have these skills – because their work touches every part of the company”, she argues.
West describes herself as “somewhat of an optimist” by saying, “I really do think that companies are moving in that direction, moving away from greenwashing, and understand that the decisions they are making in the boardroom really have long term impacts.” As for her own development, she says that “the amount of information you are willing to consider when you make a decision inherently makes you think about longer-term implications.”
Following the MBA, Smith plans to work on an entrepreneurial venture building a smartphone app that allows people to buy healthier, more sustainable food. “Having gone through both the business and the environment programmes has really equipped me to work on something like this”, she says. “I would never have seen myself as an entrepreneur before. That has hugely influenced my five year trajectory.” Meanwhile West sees herself in five years time working on investment capital in “sustainable land management” either for forestry or grasslands. It’s hard to imagine many MBA students saying that pre-2009.
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