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The Little Green Business School That Could

Presidio National Park

The Presidio of San Francisco, the national park that’s home to Presidio Graduate School.

Its first cohort of 22 students included graduates of Yale and Stanford universities. Roughly 10% of its total student and alumni population went to UC-Berkeley for undergrad, and the second- and third-most popular feeder schools are the University of Colorado-Boulder and, once again, Stanford.

But you probably haven’t heard of Presidio Graduate School, a tiny San Francisco-based institution whose MBA program has a lofty goal: producing business leaders who’ll infuse the world with justice and sustainability.

That grand plan stands in stark contrast to the school’s modest setting. It’s located in the Presidio of San Francisco (yes, that’s where the name comes from), a beautiful national park with a view of the Financial District’s skyscrapers and the Golden Gate Bridge. Every building in the park is government-owned, and many of those buildings are former military barracks. Presidio Graduate School is housed in what used to be officers’ quarters. Walking into the building feels a bit like walking into the head office of a summer camp.

Unusual location aside, no one in the school is shy about its mission. “[The students] believe, and I believe, that Presidio is right about the future,” Presidio President and CEO William Shutkin says. “That is, that one day, it will not be optional to think in systems, to consider the social and environmental impact of every product and service we build. It will no longer be an option. So those students and graduates and professionals who are already prepared to think and behave in that way will have an advantage each and every year we go forward.”

A SECTOR-NEUTRAL MBA PROGRAM

Terms like social entrepreneurship have become increasingly popular in the past five years, so it’s no surprise that virtually every elite business school has put at least some focus on social and environmental impact. To list just a few examples from schools known for being green: Michigan Ross has the Erb Institute, a partnership with the School of Natural Resources and Environment; in 2012, roughly 100 Stanford Graduate School of Business students joined together to create the Food and Agriculture Resource Management (FARM) Club; in Yale’s executive MBA program, sustainability is one of the three options for areas of focus. Even Harvard Business School hosts Green Week.

But since its founding in 2003, every week at Presidio has essentially been Green Week. The latest Net Impact guide to business schools, which measures students’ satisfaction with different MBA programs, rated Presidio #1 in social impact and #2 for environmental sustainability. When asked how much of the curriculum focuses on traditional MBA topics versus sustainability and social impact, former finance professional and current student Megan Crocker replied, “100% and 100%.”

Why is it so important to meld the two areas? Some people might argue that do-gooding is fundamentally incompatible with business. But Shutkin rejects that notion. “We are sector-neutral,” he says. “Part of my proposition to our students and to anyone who will listen is that we are evolving toward a meta-sector. One day, it really won’t matter how one is structured as a corporation—for-profit, non-profit, even the public agencies—because increasingly, we’re seeing these sectors combine and work together.”

“EVERY MBA PROGRAM ON THE PLANET SHOULD LOOK LIKE US” 

Dwight Collins, associate dean of the MBA program and one of Presidio’s founding faculty members, echoes the idea. “MBA programs traditionally have an accounting track and a finance track and a marketing track, right? And a sustainability track,” he says. “It’s like one of a menu of items. For us, the only way to do business on the planet . . . is to have every one of those topics be done sustainably. Our ultimate aspiration is that every MBA program on the planet should look like us.”

Collins gives some examples of topics that have come up in his operations class. One: End-of-life manufacturing, which is about designing products for multiple lives. He also teaches students about industrial symbiosis, training them to pinpoint companies and manufacturing processes that go together so that the waste of one production process can become raw material for another. “All these things, as we figure out how to do them right, can help us make more products,” Collins says—and not necessarily more expensive products, he specifies.

Another differentiating aspect of Presidio’s curriculum is its heavy online component. (Truth be told, it’s hard to imagine the school’s building holding lots of students all the time.) It’s a typical “blended MBA program:” Students work virtually most of the time, but every month, they spend four eight-hour days in a traditional classroom setting. Students can choose to work through the coursework full-time in two years or part-time in four years. “It also allows our students a certain level of flexibility,” Shutkin says. “Most of our students are working in one capacity or another, full- or part-time.”