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Is a green MBA worth your time and money?

Is a green MBA worth your time and money?

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Is the degree of your dreams all that it's chalked up to be?

While working in the field of product design, Sarah Zuhlsdorf became increasingly troubled by a pervasive feature of her job: waste.

“When I saw how wasteful consumer products are — from supply chain to manufacturing, transportation and disposal — it left me morally uncomfortable with my own career choice," she said. "I wanted to build on my design thinking skills to be able to design with sustainability in mind.”

Zuhlsdorf decided to attend the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, where she is working toward her MBA in sustainable management. "The curriculum at PGS sets students up to be able to look at something that is happening and figure out the system that enables it (systems thinking),” she said. "I think about everything in a totally different way." The program, she said, has held "life-changing in the best ways."

More and more, people such as Zuhlsdorf are turning to sustainability MBA programs to further their education, mixing the trusted coursework of a traditional business degree with cutting-edge information on environmental stewardship.

These programs are not without caveats — they’re costly and time-intensive, to start, and vetting them can be overwhelming — but the best programs also have proven beneficial to many looking to break into the growing green-jobs market, or to bring a sustainability tool kit to their existing career.

We spoke to former and current students, as well as industry leaders, to find out if green MBAs are worth your time. (Hint: There’s no one, simple answer.)

The 411 on green MBAs

Environmental-focused degrees are, of course, nothing new; undergraduate and graduate programs focused on topics such as environmental management and environmental science long have been popular fields of study.

MBAs with a concentration in sustainability — often called "green MBAs" — are unique in that they focus specifically on the intersection of sustainability and business success and ethics, using the well-trodden framework of a conventional Master of Business Administration to advance sustainability principles. In today’s landscape, where any corporation worth its salt makes sustainability a key part of its MO, such degrees can feel particularly relevant. (In fact, many have argued that any MBA program should include at least some amount of sustainability coursework, as is becoming more common.)

Several respected institutions offer MBA programs that concentrate on sustainability, although each is different in its specifications. Colleges offering MBAs with a targeted focus on "sustainability" or "sustainable business" include Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; San Francisco State University; Antioch University New England in Keene, New Hampshire; and Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Other schools offer more targeted concentrations: The University of Vermont has cutting-edge MBAs in both "sustainable innovation" and "sustainable entrepreneurship." And a handful of MBA programs focus specifically on global issues, including Colorado State University ("Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise") and Cornell University ("Sustainable Global Enterprise").

At some schools, you can even select from more than one option. Duke’s Fuqua School of Business offers both an MBA Concentration in Energy & Environment and a three-year joint MBA/Master of Environmental Management degree.

Katie Kross, managing director at the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE) at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, said, "Students who complete these degrees are particularly well suited for sustainability careers because they have a solid MBA skillset (finance, accounting, marketing, strategy, operations, etc.) as well as deep subject matter expertise in environmental science and policy. That is a very powerful combination."

Making sense of all the options can be difficult, but there are some resources to help, including this Princeton Review guide to the best green MBA programs, defined as being "based on MBA student ratings of how well their MBA program is preparing them to address environmental, sustainability, and social responsibility issues in their careers." (University of Vermont nabs the top spot.)

Online green MBA programs are ideally suited to those who want to pursue their degree while still working. As with any educational program on the internet, these should be carefully vetted, but several reputable options exist; Best College Reviews lists the crème de la crème as those offered by Euclid University, University of Saint Francis and Wilmington University.

Benefits and considerations

While undoubtedly often useful, these programs should be carefully considered. They’re pricey, for one; the University of Vermont’s top-rated year-long MBA program in sustainable innovation, for instance, costs $49,500 for out-of-state students and $28,331 for Vermont residents — and that’s actually relatively affordable. They also require taking time away from in-the-field work, which, depending on your career trajectory, can be difficult to justify.

Still, many see these programs as worth the time and money.

"It's incredibly valuable to understand all aspects of a business and be able to match sustainable practices to them that are specifically tailored to that company's strategy," Zuhlsdorf said. And, she noted, this is more important than ever, as "sustainability is only going to become more highly demanded from employers."

"Environmental issues like climate change and its impacts are going to profoundly affect businesses across almost every sector in coming decades," Kross echoed. "Today’s MBA students are going to graduate and be launching their careers in a world where natural resource constraints and climate change impacts have increasingly far-reaching implications for how businesses operate — where their raw materials come from, how their supply chains operate, where they invest and build infrastructure." 

Even those who haven’t directly used the skills they gained while attaining a green MBA say the experience was valuable. Andrea Green attended Presidio’s first Executive Graduate Program in Sustainable Business Management back in 2008. And while she doesn’t work directly in a sustainability role today, she said that having attended and surrounded herself with "brilliant thinkers" from the school "has made me a much better businesswoman."

So does that mean you should definitely get a sustainable MBA? There is no one answer — the important thing to remember is that you should do what’s right for you.

Alternative paths

In the course of researching this article, I also talked to people who didn’t pursue a sustainable MBA, and have found their own alternative path to success.

Ten years ago, before sustainable MBAs were common, Karen Janowski received a "regular" MBA, which she has employed in her role as VP of Client Services for Prospect Silicon Valley, a nonprofit focused on cleantech innovations. She later considered an MBA program specifically in sustainability, but said, "Though I thought it would be interesting, when it came down to it, for me personally it was going be more expense and time out of the market, and duplicate a lot of what I’d learned through my MBA and subsequent programs to educate myself.

"We all have our own career path."

Joseph Aamidor, management consultant/managing director for Aamidor Consulting, which focuses on smart building and energy management software, decided on a BS in public affairs and policy studies "because I wanted to do something that was tangible (applied to the real world and built environment) and I was intrinsically motivated to study something that relates to society and overall quality of life." Aamidor recommended talking to people who both have and haven’t received green MBAs, to determine the best personal course of action.

If you decide a green MBA isn’t the right choice for you, other options are available to get you where you need to go. Aamidor suggests looking into internships, to develop your skills on the ground and get your foot in the door for possible future employment in the green-business field; he did an internship in Washington, D.C, that he said had "huge positive impacts."

There are also interesting credential programs to consider; these differ from degrees or certificates in that they demonstrate competency and experience, and require ongoing professional development. They are also less intensive than lengthy degree programs, while still offering career advancement potential.

The International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), for instance, offers two levels of professional credentials. The ISSP Sustainability Associate (ISSP-SA) is geared toward those new to sustainability or those in allied professions, and requires agreeing to the Code of Conduct and successfully passing the ISSP-SA exam. The ISSP Certified Sustainability Professional (ISSP-CSP) is for veteran sustainability professionals with five or more years of experience working in the sustainability field; to be eligible to sit for the ISSP-CSP exam, a candidate must pass the ISSP-SA exam and submit an application, including letters of reference.

"Any business school that is not infusing sustainability throughout their program is doing a disservice to their students, since sustainability is now widely recognized as critical for successful organizations, public or private, for-profit or non-profit," said Maureen Hart, ISSP’s executive director. "This is an area where the ISSP Sustainability Associate credential can be particularly useful for individuals who do not have a sustainability-related degree, as it shows that the individual has the basic knowledge required to integrate sustainability into their work, even if ‘sustainability’ isn’t a primary component of their job, since sustainability needs to be everyone’s responsibility."

And what if, after doing your research, you decide a green MBA is the way to go? Take heart in knowing you’ve likely made a sound decision.

"It's exciting and empowering to have the skills needed to help solve the world's problems,” Zuhlsdorf said of her studies at Presidio. "It's amazing to be part of a community of people that are so closely aligned in values and thinking."

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