The New Green Focus for Future MBAs

The New Green Focus for Future MBAs

Recently, a majority of MBA students at the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado at Boulder signed a letter strongly stating that the reason they chose the school was for its leadership position in sustainability and they encouraged the school to add more courses and opportunities related to this emerging field of management.

In a few short years, eco-friendly practices have gone from being new-fangled selling points to becoming essential requirements, with states vying with each other to offer incentives and legislation that promote green technology and business. While the corporate world is scrambling to devise strategies to address sustainability, business schools across the country have been incorporating it into their curriculum for the past several years, both in response to student demand and in line with industry trends.

Some schools, like San Francisco's Presidio School of Management (which contributes a regular column for, the Dominican University in San Rafael, Calif. and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute in Wash. were founded with the idea of integrating the concept of sustainability with business education, but mainstream business schools are also making this shift.

MBA students graduating from these progressive schools will receive a solid grounding in environmental issues. These futuristic programs will prepare them for the reality of tomorrow's markets by equipping them with the social, environmental and economic perspectives required for business success in a competitive and fast changing world.

The Aspen Institute conducts a rigorous research survey and ranking called Beyond Grey Pinstripes, which spotlights such innovative full-time MBA programs. The survey ranks the top 100 schools in terms of student exposure and opportunity, course content and faculty research in environmental stewardship. Their global 100 list ranks Stanford University at the top, followed by a mix of Ivy League schools and many other avant-garde universities as well as a few entrants from outside the U.S.

In order to gauge how business schools are progressing, I spoke with administrators at three business schools at various stages in developing in-depth course content and opportunities in sustainability. Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is one of the top ranked schools in terms of course content, according to the Grey Pinstripes survey; Boulder's Leeds School of Business placed within the top 20 overall and 33rd for course content in the survey; and the Rady School of Management at the University of California at San Diego is fairly new and has not yet been ranked, but it has achieved significant progress in preparing its students and giving them opportunities to team up with cleantech researchers.

What emerged from the talks was that aside from course content and faculty research, programs such as Net Impact clubs, practicum projects, venture capital competitions and opportunities to network with green technology thought leaders and researchers had the most impact on grooming MBA students to handle sustainability and launch green start ups in the real world.

Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado at Boulder -- Deming Center for Entrepreneurship

Colorado is home to NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) and has a thriving cleantech industry and Leeds encourages its students to tap opportunities to gain exposure by interacting with local CEOs and executives.

The school partners with Cleantech Ventures to run the Cleantech Venture Challenge, which showcases emerging opportunities and ideas from the best universities teams around the world and offers $25,000 in prize money. It also launched the Sustainable Venturing Initiative in 2005, to foster growth in renewable energy and clean technology.

"Our course content includes topics like Sustainable Venturing. We coordinate TEAM (Transforming Energy and Markets), which is our outreach program for an energy initiative, between the private sector and researchers," said Paul Jerde, Executive Director of the Deming Center. "Students benefit from having access to our relationships with hundreds of cleantech companies [to get] internships; and to test market feasibility business plans and ensure they have not drifted off course," he said.

Jerde said student interest in sustainability is very high, which is why they drafted a round-robin letter to request more exposure. "Taking these courses enables them to understand the tenets of sustainability and apply it to any industry. Our students [get jobs] in natural products, renewable energy and consulting, where they help companies become more sustainable," he explained, adding that the Leeds school has won recognition because of its strong fundamental courses, which have been infused with cleantech entrepreneurialism.

Courses in the pipeline include one for second-year MBA students on CSR principles, which will be heavily based on the latest research; and another on principles of sustainability for developing communities. Jerde feels strongly that sustainable practices have to be incorporated into the mainstream subjects like supply chain management, logistics, marketing and finance and the Leeds curriculum committee is working towards that goal.

Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill - Center for Sustainable Enterprise

The Wall Street Journal ranked this MBA program 5th for corporate social responsibility, based on a national survey it conducted in 2007, which assessed recruiter's perceptions of business schools and their students. This review of their opinions is different from the Aspen Institute's survey, which focuses on actual course content and student opportunities.

The Center for Sustainable Enterprise (CSE) was established in 2001, when Kenan-Flagler began offering MBA students the opportunity to graduate with an enrichment concentration in Sustainable Enterprise. There are 12 electives which count as SE courses and the core program in SE was taken by more than half of their 280 first year students.

A recent major project that the school undertook in partnership with UNC's Institute for the Environment was for Bank of America. "We did a corporate environmental footprint analysis of their domestic operations and suggested ways to reduce their carbon footprint," said Katie Kross, Executive Director of the CSE.

Students are offered a host of programs and experiential learning opportunities to hone their knowledge in sustainability, a key reason for Kenan-Flagler's popularity and high ranking. The CSE conducts a venture capital investment competition and offers practicum projects where they can consult on diverse projects.

The Center has launched an incubator program called Business Accelerator for Sustainable Entrepreneurship (BASE), to which early stage entrepreneurs can apply and if selected, work with and draw on the expertise of mentors and students, to develop market analysis and fine-tune their environmentally friendly product or service. BASE gives students summer internships and an up-close opportunity to work on their sustainability management skills.

"We have over 30 entrepreneurs applying for 7 spots. Eventually our plan is to have resident entrepreneurs who interact with our students on a daily basis, for course credit or internships," said Kross.

In addition to the incubator program students are involved in a host of business groups; about a third of the students are members of the Net Impact club, making it one of the most active chapters in the country. Net Impact is a global non-profit network of MBA students who are leaders in social entrepreneurship and sustainability.

Aside from this, the CSE holds a sustainable enterprise career fair, which is well attended by organizations like the World Bank and the U.S Environmental Protection Agency as well as technology majors like IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

"Our students are very satisfied with the course content, especially since we've considerably expanded our SE program in the last two years and we plan to add more electives in the future," said Kross.

Rady School of Management at the University of California at San Diego

Established just 5 years ago, Rady is forging a reputation for innovation and boasts several MBA alumni who have become successful greentech entrepreneurs.

Founding Dean Robert Sullivan recently delivered a keynote address titled 'The Future of Business - Forging Green Leaders' at the Climate Change conference the school hosted in partnership with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

The speech emphasized the need for a generation of leaders skilled in business and climate change applications. "Science has to go hand in hand with management. Can you have an understanding of science and business and still be a good leader. We say, yes, you can," said Sullivan.

He added, "If the industry does not embrace environmental consciousness, then all the research in the labs can not do much good. So the [private sector] has to understand and appreciate the complexity of climate change and the need for sustainability. Without this, it would just be greenwashing, like the Exxon Mobil ads you see on TV."

Speaking about the Rady School's program, the Dean referred to UCSD's roots, which hark back to the 1950s. "The theme of environmental consciousness is the DNA of this campus and goes back 50 years. Sustainability is not an add-on but is integrated throughout our curriculum," he said.

The typical profile of students at Rady is different from those in other business schools. Nearly 48 percent of the students in their MBA program have undergraduate degrees in science and technology and many of them opt for a joint MBA-PhD degree, in partnership with Scripps. "The Scripps Institute is the seed from which this campus was created and Scripps is the largest research institute for climate change and it is here that the term biofuel was coined," said Sullivan.

The MBA curriculum includes elective courses such as the Business of Renewable Energy. "Sustainability is a defining principle for us," said Sullivan, who expects the school to be incorporated soon into the annual rankings conducted by Beyond Grey Pinstripes.

The school has a three-course Lab to Market program which all students are required to take as a core course. It begins in the classroom and moves to a project based environment. Students work in teams, with faculty, researchers and business gurus to guide them. "The course teaches students how to harness and transform science and technology based innovations into new projects and ventures that fulfill a market need and add social and economic value," said Vish Krishnan, Professor of Innovation, Technology and Operations Management at Rady.

Students from the class of 08 created a project called AlgEn for their Lab to Market program, which emerged from their interest in the growing market for biofuels and generated interest with in the investor community. "AlgEn aims to create crude bio diesel with out shorting the supply of food to supply energy and is looking at new strains of micro algae as a source," said Sullivan. The team was given access to a patented technology made available through UCSD's technology transfer office.

A Plethora of Career Choices for Future Green MBAs

As more business schools respond to this movement, beefing up their curricula and providing learning opportunities for their students, prospective MBA students will have a bigger pool of programs to choose from and apply to and more career choices as well.

But as Gerde put it, "'What job can I get in sustainability' is a false question. The opportunities are wide-ranging, from sourcing and logistics to renewable energy."

According to a report from Net Impact, the number of CSR jobs that are publicly advertised has gone up by 37 percent since 2004. This reflects a genuine need in the market for managers and senior executives knowledgeable about the environment, who can lead green initiatives and create new profit centers.

In response to this market demand as well as the student mandate to merge their interest in management with their concern for the environment, integrating sustainability concepts into the mainstream courses and adding more green electives will be a major trend focus for these and other schools.

Padma Nagappan is a freelance business writer with an interest in green technology, green business and construction.