MBAs Get Hands-On Lesson in Sustainability

Posted by: Alison Damast on November 25, 2011

The typical MBA student takes a class trip to a foreign country to observe the business climate, meet with business leaders and lend their business expertise to a project. Removing barbed wire fences and clearing invasive brush typically isn’t on the agenda, that is unless you’re a student traveling to Chile this December with Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management’s Environmental Entrepreneurship Development course.

The course, now in its second year, sends 20 MBA students to a remote area in Chile - the 450,000-acre future Patagonia National Park — to learn first-hand about sustainable and environmentally responsible business practices. The class was developed by Tetsuya O’Hara, an adjunct professor at the school and director of advanced research and development at clothing company Patagonia, along with former Patagonia CEO Michael Crooke, now a Pepperdine professor. O’Hara first came up with the idea for the class after going with a group of Patagonia employees a few years ago to volunteer in the area.

He thought that MBA students studying for the school’s Socially, Environmentally, and Ethically Responsible Business Practice certificate, would benefit from seeing first-hand a land conservation project in action; students in the certificate program are required to attend the course. “When you go to the great outdoors and see the actual issues facing the environment firsthand, you can approach things differently,” said O’Hara.

The five-day class requires a serious commitment from students, who have to travel 16 hours by plane to Chile from Los Angeles and then seven hours by bus to first get to the land conservation area, the site of the future park. About half the students sleep in tents, while the others sleep in a lodge in the area. They start their morning out with brisk physical labor, spending about four to five hours clearing fences - there are more than 600 miles of fences that need to be taken down - and removing alien plant species. 

After showering, students get together in the afternoon and work on class projects and case studies that address sustainable business practices. They also attend lectures given by Kristine Tompkins, the former longtime CEO of Patagonia, and her husband, former North Face and Esprit CEO Doug Tompkins, co-founders of Conservacion Patagonia, the non-profit foundation behind the future park. At the end of the week, students are required to come up with their own plan for a sustainable business. Last year, students proposed ideas ranging from environmentally-friendly yoga mats to ways retail stores could eliminate paper receipts, he said.

O'Hara said he believes the format of the course is unique among MBA programs, and that the exercise students get in the morning is invigorating for both their bodies and minds. Students seem to agree; this year's trip was filled to capacity, with 10 students on the waiting list.

"When you use your body and exercise a lot, you can focus and have a much clearer vision and way of thinking," O'Hara said. "It really kind of sets the tone so in the afternoon we can think big about how we can save the planet by doing the right thing."

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