The sustainability leaders of tomorrow are beginning to emerge from an unlikely source: graduate business schools. The MBA once blamed for fuelling the “greed is good” mentality behind the financial crisis is increasingly embracing sustainability as part of the core curriculum. And perhaps more importantly, they are now attracting a wider pool of talent than simply the wannabe Jordan Belforts who view Wolf of Wall Street as more of a how-to guide than a grotesque profile.
Yodit Beyene is an MBA candidate at the University of Michigan, Stephen M Ross School of Business. An alumni of the University of Texas in Austin, and George Washington University, she went on to work across numerous charitable projects in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, for the next seven years. “When you work in a place like Ethiopia your work becomes your life,” she says “I engaged with community groups and got a food programme together for homeless people … that was a real source of pride.”
So why did she come back to grad school to study for an MBA? “There’s definitely a role for non-profits to make an impact”, says Beyene. “But growth in countries like Ethiopia cannot come simply from non-profits … for example, the flower industry is a recent success story, within a matter of years women now have access to income, which means their children have better education and nutrition. And that made me think that the business sector has the capacity to make a larger impact. That’s why I decided to go to business school to re-engage in the development context from a business perspective.”
Among her classmates, Luis Ordoñez is an operations manager with more than five years of experience in manufacturing production in his home country of Colombia. He was attracted to Ross specifically for the sustainability focus of its syllabus. “I have always had the idea that business can contribute to society but when I was working I didn’t feel I was making a big impact”, says Ordoñez. “When I started to look for an MBA programme I was looking for a school that had a strong focus in this area … What I want to do is continue in operations and look at how, through the supply chain, you can make a positive impact to society through decreasing carbon dioxide emissions and making manufacturing more efficient.”
On the MBA course, Ordoñez has worked on a six-week pro-bono project for clients around the world to implement solutions with social impact. “Sustainability for me is not only how you can have a greener operation or how you can reduce your carbon footprint,” he says, “but also how a company can interact with the different stakeholders and how the company can be sustainable with the communities where they operate … I think the MBA develops a lot of that.”
Beyene too believes her MBA is not only relevant to developed markets, but is applicable to work in developing countries: “When I think about sustainability I think from the perspective of developing countries. The aspects of sustainability that link to people’s own livelihoods, the focus on different stakeholders, and the role of business in the bigger sphere and having a positive impact on the world – the fact that you see people really engaged in this at Ross increases the level of the conversation beyond just the profit question. Profit cannot sustain everything.”
Beyene and Ordoñez form part of a team, headed by Terry Nelidov, MD of the Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at Ross, shortlisted as finalists for this year’s Nespresso Sustainability MBA Challenge .
Beyene believes that the missing link in sustainability strategies is all too often the consumer. “Companies constantly informing the consumer base and the shareholder base: that’s the way to operate in a sustainable way and that’s the way the world has to move,” she argues. “The more they can inform, the more they can move the needle of consumer demand and even become creative in contributing to becoming more sustainable.”
Ordoñez also argues that companies should better integrate their sustainability strategies with their core business. He says: “Some companies still see sustainability just as a CSR programme but not how sustainability can be good for the business as well.”
The fact that a new breed of leaders are now undertaking MBAs however, could help to bring about a change in mindset. “If you are on an MBA and want to work on sustainability,” says Ordoñez, “you don’t have to only aim now for a sustainability position – you can do it from operations, you can do it from marketing, from sales. I think future business will have the mindset that sustainability is everywhere, not just in the sustainability department.”
This is a generation “that recognises the role that business has and the background of an MBA can elevate their voice,” says Beyene. She describes the MBA as a “means to an end” to her goal of working for organisations “engaged in a shared-value definition of sustainability, impacting on people’s lives and livelihoods in developing countries.”. That Beyene, Ordoñez and their peers now have the tools to do so is a cause for optimism.
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