Building the green MBA: Your ideas needed

Building the green MBA: Your ideas needed

At Bard College, we are launching an MBA in Sustainability next fall in New York City. To best meet the needs of the growing number of sustainable businesses, we want to know key lessons others derived from their business education—whether it was an MBA or “the school of hard knocks,” whether it was green or mainstream. 

As GreenBiz readers, you have been a part of the sustainable business revolution, changing the face of the business over the last two decades. So, we want your input.

In the comments section below, you can help us crowdsource the top skills and concepts our graduates will need to rewire the planet with clean energy, build sustainable food systems, and pioneer new ways of financing a better world.

What does an MBA in Sustainability look like? At the core there is a simple idea: solving environmental or social challenges can be profitable.  Moreover, only profitable solutions can ultimately scale fast enough to meet the needs of billions of people without destroying the planet.

This is in contrast to the traditional view--still dominant in business education--that the needs of the environment and broader society are simply costs to be externalized. The Sustainable MBA teaches students how to implement this core sustainability idea: to find scalable opportunities that align profit with mission, and drive system-wide innovation. 

Sustainable business is a powerfully attractive idea, one that has achieved broad mainstream acceptance. But as Elysa Hammond, Clif Bar’s Director of Environmental Stewardship has put it, “Deeply transformative approaches to sustainable business? I don’t see that. Often sustainability is an add-on. Yes they conserve energy and water, but it is secondary to making money, as much money as they can. It doesn’t question the whole paradigm”.

The task of sustainable MBAs is to move companies beyond this “sustainability lite” mainstream version, to fully implement scalable, financially successful business models that radically reduce ecological footprint, while treating stakeholders with justice and respect. 

Fortunately, there are two decades of sustainability practice from which students can learn, with new lessons emerging daily in business practice, covered here on the pages of GreenBiz and elsewhere. And there is also exciting work that has started to transform business education.

Ten years ago saw the launch of two pioneering MBA programs: the Bainbridge Graduate Institute near Seattle and the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. These were the first programs to build sustainability into a rigorous business curriculum, from the ground up.

A few years later, schools in Vermont and New Hampshire began offering versions of a sustainable MBA, and most major graduate business schools now offer a course, or a few courses, in sustainability. Just last month, Wharton became the first major program in the country to announce an Executive MBA in Sustainability.

However, there is still a big gap to fill. From New York, west to Chicago, and south to Miami—until now—there has been no two-year MBA program fully integrating sustainability into the curriculum.

Bard College has a long history in graduate sustainability education. Our MS degrees in Environmental Policy and Climate Science and Policy integrate a first year of  academic study in science, economics, policy and law, with a 4-6 month internship experience, and subject mastery through a thesis capstone. 

In creating the Bard MBA, we put our knowledge of how to structure a graduate curriculum to work, again creating an integrated academic core. In courses covering strategy, economics, leadership, operations, finance, marketing, statistics, organizational behavior, entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship, and innovation, students are trained to identify and execute around opportunities to profitably attack environmental and social challenges.

We also include a heavy dose of experiential learning. First-year students in our program will work in closely mentored teams on year-long consultancies for area businesses. In addition, we are leaning on the experience at Bainbridge and Presidio. Hunter Lovins, who was a co-founder of Presidio and is now a professor at Bainbridge, will also be teaching in the Bard MBA. (Both the Bard and Bainbridge programs are structured around “weekend intensives,” explaining how Hunter can teach during the same term in both New York and Seattle.)

We are also relying on the excellent case repository assembled by the Center for Business Education at the Aspen Institute. And we have been hosting a series of curricular design charettes with business sustainability experts in and around NYC.

Green businesses need sustainability leaders and cleantech entrepreneurs who are conversant in both core business skills and the most cutting edge thinking and applications in resources management and sustainable business practices. Startups need core business competencies in order to compete and survive. 

Our goal is to find, shape, inform and arm those future professionals with the skills they, and you will need. In order to accomplish this, we want to create the kind of feedback loop with you that will allow us to hew closest to the realities of the market and avoid the traps of theory.

So, we want to learn from you.

Tell us what you believe are the most critical skills needed today in our industry and in your business specifically.

Which skills did you learn in your MBA program (if you went through one) that you find most valuable to you? What did you miss out on in school? If you didn’t go through an MBA program, which skills have you acquired in businesses that you find vital to success?

Getting the green MBA right is critically important. To rewire the world in the next 20 years, to reinvent transportation, reimagine global agriculture, redesign cities across the earth--for all this, we need a new approach to business education.

I look forward to your ideas!

Image of Global Education by mostafa fawzy via Shutterstock. Photocollage by GreenBiz Group.