Today’s Solutions: June 09, 2023

How green MBA programs produce graduates skilled in social and environmental stewardship.

Andrew Tolve | November 2009 issue

Every month, business students all over North America retreat to a campus on Bainbridge Island, 255 acres (90 hectares) of pristine land a short ferry ride from Seattle, Washington. The campus has the vibe of a New Age commune. Fruit and vegetable gardens blossom alongside Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold-certified buildings. Used water filters through ponds teeming with plants and frogs and fish, and comes out the other side cleaner than city water.
It’s easy to imagine coming here to forget about the outside world. The business students, however, are here to transform it. As members of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, they’re learning about sustainable business and how it can revolutionize corporations. Most students work full-time jobs while taking virtual classes at night and retreating to Bainbridge once a month for four-day intensives. “When you come to Bainbridge, you’re joining a network of sustainable professionals who are looking to be innovative,” says Melissa Dingmon, director of admissions and a Bainbridge alum. “People here want to work in a way that meets the needs of humans through products and services without inhibiting healthy communities or a vibrant planet.”
Founded in 2002, Bainbridge considers itself the pioneering sustainable Master of Business Administration (MBA) program. Others have been quick to join the movement. Upward of a dozen institutions now offer curricula geared toward green MBAs. Traditional business schools have increased their focus on sustainability as well. Many have started centers for social innovation; still more have introduced concentrations in ethics and the environment.
“It’s very exciting to see the energy that’s going into rethinking curricula out there,” says Nancy McGaw, deputy director of the Business and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, which encourages schools to champion social and environmental stewardship. “We’re finding that across the board schools are embracing sustainability,” she says. “The number of courses being offered that include social and environmental content is going up, just as the sophistication of that content seems to be increasing.”
And none too soon. The past two years have brought one financial meltdown after another, from the subprime mortgage crisis to the Bernie Madoff scandal to the collapse of the auto industry to the worldwide recession. With the global economy still in a precarious state, corporate leaders, pundits and politicians are seeking innovative solutions—just the sort this new breed of MBAs is eager to implement.
By the mid-1990s, business schools had earned the unenviable reputation of being the vestigial organs of higher education—they were still there but no one really knew what they were for anymore. The schools looked at test scores of students coming in and salaries of alumni going out, and in between provided a predictable education in accounting and management.
The green MBA set out to change that. The idea is to integrate traditional subject matters into a setting that mirrors business in the 21st century. No longer are students there just to learn the basics or to make profitable connections. They’re being educated in how to apply the theme of sustainability to every arena of business. “For us this isn’t about introducing some fringe model,” says Nicola Acutt, associate dean of Presidio School of Management in San Francisco, California. “It’s really fundamentally about business for the 21st century. What we offer is a curriculum designed to help people lead with a much broader sense of skills and competencies, and to take on challenges in a very pragmatic and practical way.”
Presidio School of Management was founded in 2003, shortly after Bainbridge opened its doors. Among the dozen or so institutions to follow that lead, a handful stand out. Colorado State University has started a global social and sustainable enterprise program, Griffith University in Australia has launched a sustainability specialization and the Norwich Business School in the U.K. has introduced an MBA in Strategic Carbon Management; the first class will enroll in 2010.
Few of these programs are yet accredited, but that hasn’t deterred corporations from hiring their alumni. Sustainable MBAs have found homes at Mattel and The North Face, Patagonia and Coca-Cola. Kevin Maas parlayed his experience at Bainbridge into Farm Power, a Washington-based power plant company that recycles farm and food waste into renewable electricity. Jamie Simon used her experience at Presidio to convince her employer, Red Bull, to create a new department of sustainability, which she directs. “At the time, there was no sustainability department and it wasn’t on their radar,” Simon says. “That’s not to say they weren’t doing things that were environmentally and socially responsible; it just wasn’t organized under one domain. And when it comes to setting goals and metrics and targets and measuring and managing your environmental footprint, it’s really important that the structure is in place.”
In 2005, Kevin Hagen graduated from Bainbridge to Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), the largest outdoor gear and equipment retailer in the U.S., where he serves as director of corporate social responsibility. “If MBAs are graduating without the core skills and competencies of sustainability today,” he says, “they’re obsolete before they get started.” Hagen teaches a certificate program in sustainability at Bainbridge and regularly speaks to students at Stanford, Dartmouth, Wharton, and other top MBA programs. “My advice to young MBAs is to get these skills but to use them in classic roles.”
Eagerness to adopt change isn’t generally among academia’s strengths. Academics are by profession deliberate people, as rigorous in their thoughts as they are rooted in their tenures. It was in this context that sustainable MBA programs broke away from the establishment to start institutions like Presidio and Bainbridge in the early 2000s. But in the years since, traditional business schools have proven surprisingly receptive to the idea of sustainability. One measure is the Beyond Grey Pinstripes survey, which every two years ranks business schools on how well they incorporate social and environmental stewardship into their course content and faculty research.
When the survey was launched in 1998, it was tough to find enough schools to celebrate. Now it’s a challenge to pare the field down. “Throughout management education, we’re finding a more nuanced understanding of what stewardship really involves,” says McGaw of the Aspen Institute, which runs the survey and provides participating schools with resources like case materials, teaching innovation programs and award incentives for pioneering faculty. “We don’t have one model that we think all the schools should adopt,” says McGaw. “We think there are many ways to do this.”
One program that perennially ranks atop the Beyond Grey Pinstripes survey is the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the school has always been an engine of entrepreneurship. But in 2000 it launched its Center for Social Innovation with the express purpose of exploring how business could drive social and environmental good. “The world has changed,” says Kriss Deiglmeier, the center’s executive director of operations, “and we have these global problems that need to be addressed. MBA programs have the responsibility to educate the next generation of leaders.”
The center offers classes on social innovation and stewardship and publishes the widely respected Social Review. It also runs a range of initiatives—like the Board Fellows Program, which takes students abroad to learn about social innovation in developing countries, and the Social Innovation Fellowship, which provides a third year of funding for students launching for-profit, social-purpose ventures—and regularly consults with other programs trying to launch similar centers. Two recent success stories are Singapore Management University’s Lien Centre for Social Innovation and the Centre for Social Impact in Australia. “It’s not a Coke-and-Pepsi situation,” says Deiglmeier. “We all want more of this. The more schools we get involved, the more that fuels an increased commitment to these values and practices.”
European institutions have proven particularly eager to play along. In 2003, Oxford University’s Saïd Business School welcomed the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, which hosts annual conferences on social innovation and sponsors social entrepreneurship worldwide. INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, has launched a Center for Social Innovation, too. Sustainability has also migrated into the curricula of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, University of Copenhagen in Denmark, IESE Business School of Navarra University in Spain and a host of institutions in the Netherlands. The 2008 Beyond Grey Pinstripes survey ranks the Rotterdam School of Management, for instance, as one of the top schools in the world for its focus on social and environmental stewardship.
This year, the oldest MBA program in the country, Harvard Business School, graduated its 100th class. This one was different, though. For the first time, more than half the graduating students wouldn’t receive their diploma until they’d sworn the MBA Oath, a student-led pledge “to serve the greater good.”
The oath was the brainchild of Max Anderson, class of 2009, who wanted to create something akin to the Hippocratic Oath physicians take. “The MBA in general has come under a lot of scrutiny,” Anderson says. “Business schools failed to predict the crisis, MBAs are involved in the crisis… and there’s a perception in the public that if you have an MBA, you’re not looking out for the best interest of anyone other than yourself. If that’s where we MBAs are starting from, that’s a bad position.”
Since the Oath’s debut in May, students from top business schools around the world have signed on. It’s one indication of how seriously the latest generation of MBAs takes its social and environmental responsibility. Business schools may be gradually adopting sustainability, but students are racing ahead with it, starting social innovation clubs, hosting conferences on ethics and devoting summers to social purposes. Students at Wharton, for instance, have spearheaded microfinance projects in Philadelphia and organized a social impact consulting service. Students at Harvard have founded a social innovation club, now the largest club on campus with more than 900 participating graduate students. Students at Stanford went to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina to help entrepreneurs build sustainable businesses.
“The millennial generation has put all its momentum behind this movement,” says Liz Maw, the director of Net Impact, an international association of business students and professionals committed to positive social change. Net Impact was started by MBA students in 1993 and has more than 11,000 paying members. Many of these belong to student chapters, which nominate “student champions” to introduce curriculum change initiatives. “If you’re a student right now, one of the keys to making a case for curriculum change is to show what other schools are doing to address social and environmental progress. That’s the value we provide.”
Net Impact also hosts an annual conference on social responsibility, publishes Businesses Unusual, a guide in which students rate how well their schools perform on sustainability, and works with the United Nations Global Compact to implement the Principles for Responsible Management Education. The Principles, or PRME, were hashed out in 2006 and strive to set a global standard for sustainability in business schools. “Curriculum transformation and change has to be a dual process,” says Manuel Escudero, the head of academic initiatives at the UN Global Compact and the man who conceived of the PRME. “First, it’s very important to have the top-down approach, to have the dean and administrators setting the tone and incentives for change. But equally important is the bottom-up approach; you need students clamoring to break ground.”
In the past two years, 245 business schools have signed onto the PRME, many due to strong student support. Students at Thunderbird Business School in Arizona, for example, approached the UN to see how they could convince their administration to comply. Escudero hopes to have at least 10 percent of the 11,000 business schools in the world abiding by the PRME five years from now. “We don’t believe this type of change happens from one day to another,” he says. “The aftermath of the crisis has given this urgency, but this isn’t something that can be improvised. It takes time. It’s about the philosophy of continuous improvement.”
In that respect, the PRME has much in common with the MBA Oath, the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford and the four-day intensives on Bainbridge Island. The fundamental dynamics of business, society and the environment are more intertwined than ever before, and accommodating such complexity requires a completely new way of sustainable thinking. Those who get this are moving forward; those who don’t are putting themselves out of business.
Andrew Tolve has a nomadic, freelance lifestyle that’s anything but sustainable.

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