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Guide to the Online MBA in Sustainability

Sustainable businessSustainability is a hot topic in business today. Everyone wants to present a public image of doing the right thing by the environment and humanity. Companies want to eliminate their carbon footprint, help those less fortunate, and be as ethical and efficient as possible. After all, much of the time, being sustainable also means enduring, and it could even mean spending smarter and improving community standing.

As employers of MBA graduates express interest in hiring people with the know-how to take advantage of opportunities in sustainability, business schools are responding in kind. Many now offer courses and programs aimed at teaching students how to do good and succeed in business simultaneously.

Some schools were well ahead of the curve on this one. For example, the University of Michigan launched a dual degree program between their Ross School of Business and School of Natural Resources & Environment in 1993. Students who complete this program earn a MBA degree from the Ross School and a MS degree from the School of Natural Resources & Environment. The program graduates about 25 students per year. Among one of the first of its kind, it now boasts more than 350 alumni, a $40 million endowment, and three dedicated endowed chaired professors, says Andrew J. Hoffman, professor and director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at University of Michigan.

While some business schools started paying attention to the environment before it was the cool thing to do, plenty are getting in on the act now. Often, the curriculum is a reflection of efforts the university is making on its own campus to be greener and make greater contributions to society.

For instance, some business schools have rebuilt their classrooms to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification standards. This means they have used specific materials and construction methods to achieve different levels of certification for their buildings. It's proof that many business schools are looking to do more than pay lip service to sustainability. In fact, more students than ever are demanding programs that will help them become successful in the business world while also permitting them to make meaningful contributions to society.

Who is a good match for an MBA in sustainability?

Obviously, those who are interested in the triple bottom line -- social, environmental, and financial impact of a business -- are the best fit for such programs. Some of these students may be looking to launch a startup with a social bent, while others just want to help traditional businesses improve their ways. They might have a background in science or environmental studies, or they could come from the world of nonprofits. Some might simply have a desire to do something more with their business education. The student body at these programs run the gamut from treehuggers, who realize they need business acumen to really make a difference, to those on Wall Street, who want to make a change and focus on something, such as clean energy.

What is the curriculum like in a sustainability MBA program?

Like all MBA programs, you will find core courses such as finance, statistics, and accounting, but they might feature case studies that focus on ethical and environmental dilemmas. Marketing might include how to encourage consumers to buy green products, while finance might teach how to identify new markets and instruments that advance sustainability, such as social investing, says Michael Lenox, associate dean for Sustainability Programs and academic director of the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

Then, there are a series of electives that more specifically address sustainability issues. At Darden, that could mean the chance for hands-on learning. "Students frequently take advantage of experiential courses which enable them to grapple with real-world sustainability and social impact issues, whether in a developing country or in their local community," says Lenox.

Indeed, students who concentrate in Innovation for Sustainability at Darden are required to complete a capstone project. "This concentration is designed to equip students with an informed sustainability perspective to strengthen their managerial and decision-making capabilities and their ability to improve society through business," he adds.

University of Michigan's dual degree students spend an entire year working on an extensive team project. "This work is of such a high caliber, that three of the projects that I have advised have been published as books and most turn the experience into internships or full-time jobs," says Hoffman.

In addition, student clubs help students network with others who have similar interests. The Net Impact organization has chapters on many campuses. With more than 50,000 student and professional leaders as members and 300 chapters around the world, Net Impact aims to mobilize business students to address problems, such as poverty, climate change, and health epidemics, both while on campus and later in their careers. Through their chapters, students get involved in networking events, connected to job leads, or assigned to projects with a real-world social impact.


What careers do graduates pursue?

Graduates of sustainability MBA programs could land just about anywhere. They might take on marketing, finance, or general management roles in a traditional organization, or become a social impact entrepreneur by launching a startup that addresses some sort of problem in society. Clean water, clean energy, green living, empowering those in third world countries through business and technology, and climate change are all big issues that tend to get attention from today's business students. To get an idea of what some graduates have accomplished, take a look at these Darden alumni: Will Teichman is director of sustainability at Kimco Realty, while Katherine Neebe is director of sustainability and stakeholder engagement at Walmart.

The concept of "doing good while doing well" is blossoming. And with the growing number of b-schools and MBA students embracing sustainability, our future may be in good hands. Hopefully, the next generation of business leaders will place as much importance on saving the world as they do the bottom line.