How MIT Sloan Teaches Sustainability

Class in the MIT Sloan School of Management - Ethan Baron photo

Class in the MIT Sloan School of Management – Ethan Baron photo

How do students get jobs in sustainability?

When we think about careers and sustainability, we use a framework developed by my friend at Duke University, Katie Kross. She has developed a 2×2 matrix with traditional and sustainability-oriented roles and traditional and sustainability-oriented companies/organizations.

mit-sustainable-mba-careersThe matrix shows four cells of slightly different careers and experiences. We are very happy to send our graduates to all four of those cells. But it’s really important to understand how those experiences are different. In the sustainability role inside a traditional company (lower-left quadrant), we see jobs for CSR staff, or environmental health and safety, or a corporate affairs function where the role is to look out for the reputation and interests of the corporation as a whole and manage its risks from a regulatory reputational and operational standpoint. We see professionals do great work in these staff roles — an example might be galvanizing energy-efficiency programs that cut across a firm’s facilities and operations. That said, those staff people in sustainability are only going to be effective to the extent they have a receptive audience among core line business people.

We also want to put people into traditional roles in traditional companies that impact sustainability. Greg Zielinski, who graduated from Sloan in 2012, went to work for Amazon and he is now the manager of one of their Washington state distribution centers. From that role he’s able to work on job quality and social sustainability issues in a way that no HR-function or sustainability-function person can. He’s got the authority to make his facility a pilot for efforts in sustainability in a powerful way. His work might dovetail with people who are in a sustainability-related staff function.

Training for Sustainability Impact

Even if you want to be a chief sustainability officer (or something similar), you have to speak the language of business; you have to have the operational and finance skills or the marketing skills to be able to speak the language of the people you are trying to engage with inside the company, and be able to credibly make the business case for the efforts that you are promoting.

People who are interested in sustainability have to have a really interesting mix of skills: they have to understand sustainability, they have to be able to talk to NGOs, and they have to be able to sense the emerging issues that companies are going to have to face in the future. Then they have to be able to translate what’s needed and engage people across different functions of the business. This field requires a real multilingual sensibility.

Through the Sustainability Initiative, we think that we develop people with that sensibility. We know that more than half our sustainability certificate students go into traditional roles in traditional companies — consulting firms, or strategy or operational roles in companies. We’ve noticed that they bring a sustainability lens to their work; they see ways to create value, whether it’s through greater labor productivity or greater energy efficiency or new business opportunities in clean technology or differentiated products.

Business Roles in Sustainability-Oriented Companies

Sloan has a distinctive advantage in the upper-right quadrant, traditional business roles in sustainability-oriented companies. For example, we’re seeing a lot of new enterprises being built to deploy clean energy technologies or energy efficiency technologies. Companies like EnerNOC or Opower have a mission to advance sustainability, and have jobs for people with an operations sensibility or a finance sensibility or business development. I really like that quadrant because that’s where you see fast-growing enterprises, offering people a way to making use of their MBA skills, and to be part of the innovation process that we honor here so much at MIT. But again, we’re very happy to see people go into all four quadrants of the sustainability matrix.

Can you give us some examples of work that Sloan graduates are doing in the sustainability space?

The two companies I mentioned above, EnerNOC and Opower, have a number of Sloan alum. Tom Atkinson (Sloan ’94) is on the EnerNOC executive team, and Jeremy Kirsch (Sloan ’04) is the COO of Opower, which was just sold to Oracle.

Robin Chase (Sloan ’86) started Zipcar. She’s a real innovator. Zipcar has been very successful; it was sold to Avis for almost $500 million. Now we’ve seen further evolutions in car-sharing with Uber and Lyft. A well-shared Zipcar replaces 15-20 cars on the road, so there’s a really interesting set of environmental benefits there in a business that’s been very successful. That’s the kind of innovation that we like to celebrate here at MIT Sloan.

Can you tell us about some businesses that were born at MIT Sloan?

A number of really exciting social enterprises have come out of Sloan. There’s a waste startup called Sanergy, which won the MIT business plan competition in 2011 and is now quite visible in the social enterprise and investing circuit. They’re working in Nairobi, Kenya and other megacities in the developing world with a great sanitation solution. They make a pay-per-use toilet that can capture the waste and turn it into energy and fertilizer. This way they solve a public sanitation problem, an energy problem, and an agricultural activity problem in one business model.

Another one is a company called Wefunder which is a crowdfunding company. Founder Mike Norman (Sloan ’10) started out in urban studies and decided to do a joint degree with Sloan. He was really passionate about urban economic development and getting capital and entrepreneurship opportunities for people who might otherwise not have it. He explored a couple of different business ideas around urban entrepreneurship. What he realized was that if we could do crowdfunding of startups, it would open up a whole new pool of capital for nontraditional businesses that currently don’t get investments — businesses that venture capital funds wouldn’t have on their radar.

At that time, the regulatory infrastructure prevented crowdfunding of startups; to take an equity position, you had to be an SEC-accredited investor, requiring a net worth of $1 million. So Mike built a political coalition, working with a bipartisan group from Congress, and in less than a year got a bill passed called the JOBS Act — JOBS is an acronym for Jumpstart Our Business Startups — which Obama signed into law and which enabled crowdfunding of startups. So he founded Wefunder, a brokerage for crowdfunding. That created a whole new market infrastructure for funding of innovation and getting capital into peoples’ hands who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the capital markets for startups and innovation. He created a new policy, a new market infrastructure, a new context for innovation. If you look at the kind of investments on Wefunder, you’ll find businesses in cleantech, software to help utilities and enterprises cut their energy use, entrepreneurs who are coming from urban communities who are developing products for those urban communities. That’s the kind of really game-changing innovation that we’re particularly proud of.

And then we’ve got people who are building out really important capabilities in institutions. For example, Wellington Asset Management, one of the top asset managers in the world, has Christina Zimmerman, an environmental, social, and governance strategist (ESG) who is an executive MBA student at Sloan, and an ESG analyst working for her who is an alum of our sustainability certificate program, Drew Morales ’15. They are really building out the capability at Wellington to get superior returns on their investments by being smarter about sustainability.

What else can you tell us about the MIT Sloan community that we wouldn’t already know?

One of the things I’ve noticed about our students is a humble brilliance. People are really smart and are really capable, but they don’t really wear it on their sleeves. They’re extremely collaborative and supportive of each other. Anyone who has an idea for something they want to advance, everyone around them mobilizes to help them to do it. It’s a profoundly loving community, which is something that you don’t necessarily expect from MIT.

This article was originally published on We See Genius, our news site celebrating smart innovators making a positive difference in the world.


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