From resource scarcity to climate change and poverty, the sustainability challenges we face are immense. This hasn't escaped a growing number of companies that are increasingly viewing the issues as potential business opportunities, leading them to develop new products and services designed to address these problems.
For the last three years, Dow has gone a step further by trying to foster the next generation of sustainability problem solvers through the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge. The event is meant to "encourage and promote forward thinking mindsets in social and environmental responsibility," according to Neil Hawkins, Dow's vice president of sustainability and environment, health and safety.
The contest helped some students launch new companies and taught them about the potential of collaboration, Hawkins told me. I sat down with him last week when Hawkins visited GreenBiz Group's headquarters while in town for the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Awards. In this Q&A, he explains that students also taught Dow a thing or two.
Tilde Herrera: Why did Dow create this contest?
Neil Hawkins: When you look at the sustainability challenges facing the world, you're not going to solve them by any one discipline. The engineers are not going to solve all these problems. The chemists and scientists are not going to solve them all. The business school people are not going to solve them all. You need to have everybody collaborating to find really good solutions. But when you look at universities, they are inherently siloed. You don't have different departments working together very well.
So we created an award whereby students are recognized for working in an interdisciplinary way. Every school has a competition that fosters interdisciplinary approaches and thinking, and we wanted to encourage that. All the schools that are in our program are ones we recruit at. So it also helps us in maintaining our relationships on campus and our presence, but more than anything else, we wanted to encourage interdisciplinary work. I think it's been successful in that regard.
TH: How would you describe students' interest in sustainability?
NH: Based upon my experience, and I'm out at universities all the time, they're on fire for this stuff. Let me just give you an example. In China -- we've hired a couple thousand people in China in the last five years -- our whole recruiting program is built around our sustainability program because the top students in China have choices on where they work and they're very interested in helping solve the sustainability challenges of China. So coming to work for a company that is interested in providing them those opportunities, and backing them with our science and technology, has been a very elegant way to find the right kind of people to work for the company.
But across the board, university students today are very concerned about the planet. They're very concerned about health, safety and security. It's a top-of-mind issue. My daughter, who's 23, is very environmentally conscious. She's a social worker but she's an avid recycler and very careful about her energy consumption. I don't think that she's a lot different from most. I think that this is a generation that is very aware.
So as a trend, I expect that to continue. I don't think it's going to tail off, I don't think it's a fad. So I'm proud of our engagement at universities. In fact, we also just announced a very large R&D-related program, $25 million (per year for 10 years) across 10 universities.
There's a widespread concern in this country that we don't have enough people going in to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, compared to other places. As part of our overall support of advanced manufacturing needs in this country, we've become very active in promoting STEM (Science, technology, engineering) education both in grammar and high schools but also at the college level. We have a lot of programs here at Berkeley where we're working directly within the University and in science, especially chemistry and chemical engineering.
But I just mention that program -- it's more of a research program but it's another example of where we're very serious about partnering with universities because we think that the young minds coming out of these schools are the key to solving these challenges. So we're trying to help seed the thought process, the interdisciplinary nature of this kind of work, the big picture, not just the little picture engineering mechanics or whatever. You have to know that to solve the challenges, but the bigger context and why it matters. Our award program I think helps illustrate that.
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