By Francesca Di Meglio Justin DeKoszmovszky, a rising second-year student at the S.C. Johnson School of Management at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., is spending his summer living and working with small-scale farmers in Kenya. As part of a six-person team, he's exploring new opportunities for communities, entrepreneurs, government organizations, local universities, and S.C. Johnson, the school's benefactor. The team has many goals, including finding ways to diversify crops.
Many MBA students are following DeKoszmovszky's path and pursuing careers involving sustainable development, which is defined as a job or project that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to succeed. Usually, sustainability is focused on the environment, but it can also include finding ways for factories to reduce carbon emissions to fundraising for AIDS patients who need medicine in Africa. It's the latest "it" field for MBAs.
"We can't continue to operate our economic system the way we are today," says DeKoszmovszky. "Some of us have accepted this fact and are working to be ahead of the curve, motivated both by the massive opportunity and the desire to be proud of our work and careers." He added that companies which demonstrate environmental concern are more appealing to the public, and that efficiency initiatives can save businesses money.
INSUFFICIENT OFFERINGS. The environment is always among the top interests of members of Net Impact , a San Francisco-based network of over 11,000 MBA students and professionals who want to use business to "create a better world," says Executive Director Liz Maw.
About 90% of the 104 Net Impact chapters around the world recently responded to a survey about how B-schools are meeting the growing demand for environmental-management courses. Only 7% of respondents said their schools offered relevant courses among core requirements, and 35% cited electives. About 30% of students surveyed said their programs were doing a disappointing job in the area of sustainability.
Students are lobbying for change. Even at a school like the George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C., which has MBA concentrations in sustainability and was recently praised by its peers for its efforts, about 50% of the students said there weren't enough corporate, social, and environmental responsibility lessons in the core, says Carl Schlemmer, a 2005 MBA graduate and former member of GWU's Net Impact chapter.
HEATING UP. What's behind the growing interest in these issues? For starters, global warming, and its recent prominence in the headlines, is a driving motivator. The Earth's surface has warmed about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the last 100 years, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and experts are predicting it will heat up between 2.5 degrees and 10.4 degrees over the next century.
Scientists warn that such dramatic climate changes could have far-reaching consequences, including loss of wildlife and life-threatening pollution. Already, occurrences such as the increased mortality rate of polar bears in the warmer Arctic climate, are forcing people -- from the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations to corporate giants -- to pay attention to sustainability issues.
Business schools are reacting, too. Many educators are staying on top of the trend by offering courses designed to make future business leaders more aware and responsible. "The people in business today who are trying to grapple with these issues have business degrees that didn't equip them to understand what's really going on," says Rick Bunch, executive director of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, a school on Bainbridge Island in Washington that offers an MBA or a certificate in sustainable business.
OPEN-SOURCE CURRICULUM. The school, which graduated its first class in 2004, aims to integrate social and environmental issues into all facets of business education, from accounting to operations. Bainbridge students tend to be older, with a median age of 35, and to remain with their employers. They participate in classes on the island over specified weekends for two to three years. Tuition for two years is about $33,000. As an open-source institution, Bainbridge allows any educator access to its syllabi. "We can't graduate enough of our own people to fix the world," says Gifford Pinchot, chairman and co-founder of Bainbridge.
Some schools, such as The Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado at Boulder, have taken Bainbridge up on its offer to get ideas on how to infuse sustainable business courses into more traditional MBA programs. Others are simply coming up with their own curriculum.
London Business School, for example, recently created a portfolio of five relevant courses, ranging from one that will deal with carbon-emissions management to another on social entrepreneurship. The courses will be offered in the next academic year, based on demand and interest. Reflecting Europe's longstanding interest in environmental issues, LBS has been requiring MBA and executive MBA students to take business ethics and corporate social responsibility classes for the last 10 years.
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. The Yale School of Management (SOM) in New Haven, Conn., which had one of the first programs to combine business with environmental studies, remains strongly involved in the area of environmental management. Its joint program with the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies was launched in 1982 and has produced more than 110 graduates.
Garry Brewer, the Frederick K. Weyerhaeuser professor at SOM, created the program at Yale and 10 years later led the development of a similar course of study at the University of Michigan before returning to SOM. Brewer admits that convincing environmentalists and future managers to study together was difficult at first. But there's no question that the two camps are starting to notice their mutual interests.
The bottom line certainly figures prominently into the decision to become greener. B-schools follow the lead of recruiters, some of whom are making the environment a priority -- not just because it's the right thing to do, but also because there are economic benefits.
SCOUTING SUSTAINABILITY. General Electric (GE), which is on the Dow Jones Sustainability index, a list of top companies in the area, recently launched Ecomagination, an initiative to create products and solutions that benefit society at large and also bring in money.
"It's pretty exciting when making the world a better place for your children's children can also be profitable," says Julie Taylor, manager of commercial development programs for GE in the company's Fairfield, Conn., headquarters. GE is looking to hire people who understand sustainability, she adds. Other companies, including Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), have said they have an interest in students who have studied sustainability issues.
Mark Starik, professor of strategic management & public policy at GWU, says he expects there to be a doubling of material pertaining to sustainability in core courses over the next five years.
Most educators agree that recruiters will increasingly look for students who are at least aware of these social and environmental issues. Students want to better align their personal values with their career goals and still make a profit. Green money, it seems, is rising in value. Di Meglio is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Fort Lee, N.J.
Edited by Phil Mintz