Why Paul Hawken is teaching MBAs

Why Paul Hawken is teaching MBAs

Paul Hawken, the visionary and iconoclastic entrepreneur and author, announced this week that he was joining Presidio Graduate School, the San Francisco-based school focusing on “sustainable management education,” to teach a course called Principles of Sustainable Management. Hawken, who I first met 20 years ago when we both spoke at the same Atlanta event, doesn’t sign on to things easily — he’s far more likely to create his own enterprise or nonprofit (or business school, for that matter) — so I was intrigued about his choice, and what he intended to bring to the process.

Hawken is no stranger to academe. His father worked at the University of California, Berkeley, and Hawken grew up in an environment where, as he once put it, “we could deconstruct anything.” Hawken attended Berkeley and San Francisco State University, although he received no formal degrees.

I reached Hawken at his farm in Oregon, where he’s spending part of the summer. Here’s our brief conversation, edited for clarity.

Joel Makower: Tell me what led up to this. Why Presidio, and why now?

Paul Hawken: They’d been inquiring for several years. Then I began working on some projects with one of the teachers there, Amanda Ravenhill, and she was the one who asked if I would join. [Presidio president and CEO] William Shutkin I know way back from RMI.

Makower: I imagine you’ve had other opportunities to do this kind of thing. What about Presidio did you see that made this interesting?

Hawken: From my point of view, it’s kind of a gift to me, because you learn by being with students. The only question is who learns the most in the exchange. If you want to know what you know, try to teach it.

In the case of Presidio, it’s so interactive, and there’s just an amazing amount of creativity and openness in the new generation, partly because they’re not burdened with all the baggage that you get over time; they come with freshness. At the same time, they come with a need to know more and understand more. It’s a great combination for me to work in that environment. And to work with Amanda, because she represents that generation. We have a lot to learn from each other.

And I can bike to it.

Also, if you’re a guest lecturer, which I’ve been many times, it’s kind of touch-and-go: You don’t really get involved. It is sort of like a sage-on-stage download. But when you’re working with them in different ways and involved with their lives, it’s a more edifying experience.

Makower: I think of guest lecturing in business schools like being the funny uncle who comes in, makes everyone laugh, spoils the nieces and nephews, then leaves, without any real accountability.

Hawken: Absolutely. And you can say things that are a little more outrageous, but then they go back to the normative paradigm inherent in that school, whatever it is. But in teaching, where you go through two semesters with them, you actually get to understand and listen. You find that things that you and I take for granted are novel, and things that they take for granted are instructive to you and me. I love that combination of teaching and learning. It’s collaborative.

Makower: “Principles of Sustainable Management” seems, on its face, a pedestrian topic. I think of Paul Hawken teaching something unique or different. How do you view this course?

Hawken: The name of the course may be pedestrian but the name of the game is life on earth. A lot of the students are going to nonprofits, and some are going to for-profits, but more peer-to-peer types of enterprises. Some are going into food, which is a guarantee that you’ll never make money in small, local food production. People are doing this out of love.

Sustainable management sounds like you’re going to become the chief sustainability officer of Monarch Envelopes or something, but that’s really not who that student body is. There are people who come from large corporations, but they’re the minority. The student body is really diverse — in gender, age, background, intention, purpose.

Makower: So, how are you going to disrupt that topic?

Hawken: By first telling them that the only thing you can really manage are cows and herds. The word “management” is a catchall term, so the first thing we’ll do is deconstruct it — what does it mean? I think that you can implement or effect something if you understand what it is you’re trying to do. But if you don’t understand what you’re trying to do, then it doesn’t matter how many courses of management or leadership training you’ve done.

What I see in the classic business schools that are teaching sustainability and environment and business is a more constricted version of what sustainability should mean. It’s not one of my favorite words, as you know. I don’t use it much.

To me, when you understand the core principles, you are better equipped, better able, more capable, more innovative, and you’re going to create more breakthroughs for yourself and your team. Sustainability is simply not something you add on to a company. You can try — you can make a department, you can hire people to do that. But at the end of the day, that has nothing to do with sustainability.