What Patagonia Learned From MBAs


“This was the most inspiring thing I’ve done this year in business school,” Steward said. “I think that the interdisciplinary approach of the competition is really, really integral to how we need to solve future business problems.”

Stewart, who said it was “fun and an honor” to present in front of a panel of higher-ups at a company she looks up to, believes the experience has altered the way she will choose teams moving forward. “I think that the way I form teams to tackle problems will forever be influenced by this,” said Stewart. “I will always look for the exact right team–interdisciplinary teams in particular–to tackle these triple bottom line questions.”

For Stewart’s teammate, David Ruebenson, another first-year MBA at Ross, the project has changed some of his personal and professional pedagogy. The former management consultant at Accenture was as bottom-line driven and red and black oriented as the next consultant or investment banker. But after this case competition and another project involving a triple bottom line Costa Rican beer company, Ruebenson says he’s a “recent convert” to the business for good movement.

“These kinds of initiatives do help every bottom line,” Ruebenson said. “I thought it was a bunch of hooey when I first heard about it.”


Even for members of teams that did not place in the top three, the day was inspiring and a success. Kathleen O’Malley, a second year MBA at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business says it was a fantastic opportunity getting face time with Patagonia’s leadership. It also proved to be a learning experience. “There were so many parts that went into this,” said O’Malley, whose background is in energy. “I think just grappling with that and understanding all the different trade offs as you try to make the most sustainable decisions was a good learning experience.”

Rebecca Christoffersen, a second year MBA at Virginia’s Darden School of Business, said the competition was nerve-wracking at times. Still, Christoffersen says her team–made up completely of MBAs–played to business strengths and focused on practical ideas that Patagonia could implement immediately.

For Patagonia’s Marcario, the idea to hold a case competition stemmed from her participation on a case competition panel a few years ago. “I saw how powerful it was to have students solving really important issues and problems and bringing that perspective to the world,” Marcario said during her opening statement. “And we need it. It’s Earth Day today. The first Earth Day was in 1970. That’s 46 years ago and we haven’t come very far. And business hasn’t really done the work of being responsible for the three-quarters of the world’s pollution it produces.”

Berkeley Haas Dean Rich Lyons shared similar sentiments during his introduction of Marcario.

“As businesses start to think more deeply about why they exist and what is there purpose, and to motivate the people that work for and with them to follow along in that mission, these become the defining elements of modern enterprises,” said Lyons. “And Patagonia is really leading the way here. This is the focus of their competitive positioning in the marketplace. They use it to inspire and implement solutions, of course, to some of our world’s biggest challenges.”

The next step for the winning team from the University of Michigan is a surf day with Patagonia during Memorial Day weekend. And the Midwestern-based team should enjoy the fun in the Southern California sun because it will quickly switch to work, Graves says. According to Graves, this is the beginning of a partnership with the team in which they will give the same presentation to Patagonia’s employees and begin working with Matt Dwyer, Patagonia’s director of material innovation and development, on implementing the proposed plan.


The partnership and competition seems to be a natural fit. The word “inspiring” was used at the end of the day to a point of nausea. Yet it was appropriate. The graduate students and Patagonia representatives were mutually inspired by each other and the similar drive to see business as a vehicle for radical environmental changes.

“Business as usual is going to lead to a world that is lacking in biodiversity, lacking in beauty, lacking in meaningful work,” Marcario said. “If we only chase profits, we are not going to have a world that anyone is going to want to live in.”

And the movement roots itself in the beginnings of the pioneer founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard.

“Our founder Yvon Chouinard could not be here today,” said Marcario. “But he’s really proud of this work. He’s fishing right now. And I’m lucky enough to work for a guy who would rather protect his fishing hole and your fishing hole than make himself rich.”


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