This book is a roadmap for business careers in sustainability

Katie Kross and I have known and collaborated with each other for 10 years. I was excited when she published her guide to sustainability careers, "Profession and Purpose," in 2009. I was doubly excited to hear about its second edition. "Profession and Purpose: A Resource Guide for MBA Careers in Sustainability" just became available for purchase on Monday.

Katie is managing director of the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE) at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She has supported hundreds of MBA students and alumni in their searches for purpose-driven jobs.

We sat down to discuss how much has changed in the last five years since her first edition came out.

What is your definition of a Purpose job?

I use the term “Purpose” to include a broad range of careers through which you can have a positive social and/or environmental impact on the world. My coaching tends to focus on careers at the intersection of business and social/environmental purpose, but there are lots of ways to make a purposeful impact through a career in almost any discipline.

What is the demand for Purpose careers from MBAs?

One indicator of demand has been the growth in Net Impact, a global organization for students and young professionals who want to use their skills to transform business and the world. Membership grew 30% in 2012-2013, and there are now over 53,000 members and 320 chapters globally.

Many MBA students today are from the Millennial generation. Recent reports have shown that Millennials are looking for ways to imbue their careers with meaning — including making a social and/or environmental impact.

Are MBA schools doing enough to meet the demand for Purpose Careers?

I think MBAs are well prepared in terms of a skillset. However, disciplines such as sustainability, CSR or social entrepreneurship typically don’t hire through on-campus recruiting channels at business schools. So MBA students passionate about a Purpose career often have to navigate a job search that’s different from more traditional MBA disciplines. Some business schools do a great job of helping students interested in Purpose careers, while others may not have the capacity or expertise to help in this area.

The first edition of "Profession and Purpose" was published five years ago. What has changed in the marketplace since then?

The biggest change is that sustainability has become much more mainstream in business. The first edition of my book came out soon after Walmart announced its sustainability initiative, which at the time was really bold and new. Now, partly because Walmart and other companies have been driving sustainability up through their supply chains, and partly because consumers and the general public are more aware of sustainability issues, sustainability has become more readily understood, taught in business schools and more mainstream in practice.

Another recent change has been the rise in impact investing, which has become more of a focus for the students and alumni with whom I engage.

Where are the jobs?

There continues to be good growth in corporate sustainability and CSR jobs at large companies, but the number of jobs is still small in aggregate. The biggest opportunities are in a traditional business role (marketing, operations, finance, strategy) at a Purpose-driven organization. That might be an organic food company, B Corporation, environmental or social NGO, impact investing fund, clean tech company, or any other organization where social or environmental issues are part and parcel of the organizational mission. These are roles where the job seeker might not necessarily have social or sustainability management as the central focus of their job, but it can be very rewarding to work in an organization where everyone is on board with a shared sense of purpose.

Another place we see job growth is in the energy sector — including both traditional energy employers and those in cleantech, renewable energy and energy efficiency applications, which often appeal to purpose-driven candidates.

I went to last year’s VERGE conference. One of the really interesting spaces going forward is in the intersection of energy, technology and infrastructure/buildings. There’s so much innovation happening to make buildings more efficient, intelligent and productive with resources.

What skills are employers looking for in these jobs?

There is a lot of diversity in the skills, but in interviewing employers for my book and a research article I wrote last year, a few themes stood out.

1. Ability to lead change: Demonstrate that you can envision change, take initiative, be persuasive and influence others.

2. Systems thinking: The challenges of sustainability tend to be big, complex, multilateral issues requiring leaders who understand the systems dynamics of the big picture.

3. Diverse employment history: It’s not necessarily expected that you should follow a linear career path. In fact, a lot of employers value diverse work experience. Many employers I interviewed value a mix of private-sector business skills and an understanding of the Purpose-related issues.

Why should someone buy this book?

The landscape of Purpose jobs is incredibly diverse, so it can be really hard to find job search resources and job openings in one place. "Profession and Purpose" is intended to be a “one-stop shop” for job search resources, career advice, tips, examples and employer insights necessary to navigate a Purpose-driven job search. There are career options in fields like sustainability, social entrepreneurship, and impact investing, but there are also many other disciplines through which a student or graduate can have a positive change on the world.

Top image by Anneka via Shutterstock.