How Green Is My Corporation

Businesses clamor for MBA grads with sustainable skills

March 11, 2013

Josh Kaplan is enrolled in the master’s in sustainability management program at American University.

Businesses have a green obsession these days, and it has nothing to do with money.

So many companies are setting their sights on becoming “greener” — i.e. making sure what they do has minimal harm on the environment — that business schools in the D.C. area have created master’s programs to prepare students to meet these new needs.

“It’s demand driven from companies,” says Jorge Rivera, an associate professor who teaches environmental management courses at George Washington University’s School of Business, “and from students who want to learn about these things so they understand these challenges.”

Last fall, American University’s Kogod School of Business responded to that demand by launching a new program: a Master of Science in sustainability management.

Students jumped at the opportunity. “I was really drawn to this idea that the next frontier of sustainability was in business, where you don’t traditionally see it as much,” says Josh Kaplan, 23, a part-time student in the new AU program.

While AU’s program is based in the business school, students take classes in the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Public Affairs and the School of International Service, too. It’s the only program in the country quite like that, program director Dan Jacobs says.

Kaplan predicts it may not be the only one for long.

“I think, as the area becomes more defined, other schools will want graduates who can compete with people who have this sort of training,” says Kaplan, whose full-time job is in AU’s Office of Sustainability as its sustainability outreach specialist.

“It will become less of a special kind of field,” he says.

When teaching sustainability, business schools focus on what they call the “triple bottom line” — ensuring that a business is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. It’s a term increasingly heard in boardrooms around the country.

“Business has changed,” program director Jacobs says. “The trend is towards a much greater level of responsibility and interest in sustainability.”

But even if business leaders want to be environmentally friendly, that doesn’t mean they want to hire a bunch of environmental scientists, Jacobs says. “They’re looking to staff their companies with people educated in business schools,” he says.

Much of the demand for this new type of student comes from changing laws.

For example, climate change regulations are being implemented in Europe and California, and companies in those places need compliance officers to ensure they’re in line.

In the past, companies would have hired engineers or lawyers who focus on compliance and the technical aspects of environmental protection. The new trend is toward hiring MBA grads with environmental know-how, says GW’s Rivera.

“You bring in an MBA who focuses on the opportunities of protecting the environment,” he says. “This is the person who is going to identify where there is a ‘win-win’ option that the companies can use.”

AU’s inaugural class of 28 students began last August; those who are attending full time will graduate in May 2014. The interdisciplinary course curriculum includes environmental science, global environmental politics, finance and marketing.

The majority of students in AU’s program attend full time, Jacobs says. Many arrive with some background in environmental sustainability, but the program has its fair share of career-changers as well.

“This kind of degree is a really great investment,” Kaplan says. In his favorite class so far, he studied urban planning and sustainability and focused on LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building certification. The class visited the embassy of Finland, one of the few LEED-certified embassies in D.C.

Kaplan says his dream job would be advising companies on ways to be more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.

“I think that this degree program would really equip me to be able to do that within a large organization or in the private sector,” he says.

Kaplan’s choice of job position — often called a sustainability officer — is one of the more common career paths in the field. But environmental sustainability-focused business degrees are applicable in a variety of new business fields.

In particular, there’s a lot going on in the organic food industry. It’s been growing by 20 percent annually over the past 15 years, Rivera says. And the field of green entrepreneurship — new companies dedicated to helping other companies become more sustainable — is burgeoning.

Of course, the most stereotypical career path for MBA students is in finance, and there are finance jobs for MBAs with a sustainability bent. A new, greener trend is sprouting in the financial field — socially responsible investing. Investment firms such as Fidelity and Vanguard offer special funds that only invest in businesses with environmentally friendly or socially responsible practices.

“[Firms] pay a lot of attention to the environmental and social responsibility issues,” Rivera says. “They need MBAs who know about environmental management to know where to invest.”

Eugenia Gregorio, 33, says she’s discovered her sustainability degree can lead to more jobs than she thought possible.

The part-time student at George Washington University’s School of Business is working toward an MBA with a focus on corporate social responsibility and environmental stewardship.

“The really cool thing is all of the tools that you learn from these classes you can actually carry to any type of job,” she says.

Gregorio should know. She already works full time as the sustainability manager for the Tower Companies, an eco-friendly real-estate developer. But she believes this degree will open even more doors.

“It doesn’t have to be a sustainability manager position,” she says. “If you’re in an accounting department or development department or marketing department, all of those departments kind of touch on corporate social responsibility and sustainability.”

The numbers show that plenty of students agree.

At GW, about 15 percent of the more than 1,100 MBA students pursue the environmental management and sustainability concentration, says Liesl Riddle, associate dean for graduate programs in GW’s School of Business.

They’re preparing for a business world in which going green is more valuable than ever before. As Gregorio says, “It just really seems to be a critical element to doing business.”

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