Climate change. Food security. Women’s rights. MBA students around the United States and globally are tackling some of today’s biggest challenges, and nowhere more so than at Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management.
Kellogg students are confronting society’s greatest problems by launching such social impact ventures as One Acre Fund, Djinn, The Global Investing Network, Equilibrium Capital, The Surge Institute, Kheyti, and Maziwa. But they’re doing more, addressing the thorniest dilemmas head-on by performing board service, consulting for nonprofits, and learning sustainable investing.
The number of Kellogg MBA applicants who express interest in social impact has nearly doubled over the last five years, says Megan Kashner, clinical professor and director of social impact at Kellogg. “Part of that reason,” she says, “is because of what’s changing in the world. The other part is this generation’s awareness, interest, and perspective.”
‘AT THE INTERSECTION OF CAPITAL & ECONOMIC, BIOLOGICAL, HUMAN, BEHAVIORAL & SOCIETAL SYSTEMS’
Ask anyone in school leadership and they will agree: Social impact is woven throughout Kellogg’s programming, and is central to the school’s culture and purpose. In the 1970s, Kellogg became one of the first top-tier B-schools to teach nonprofit management as an MBA discipline; since then, the curriculum has evolved with the addition of classes on nonprofit governance, social innovation, social enterprise, and sustainable investing.
This year, Kellogg received a $3.5M gift from Golub Capital to sponsor the school’s long-running Board Fellows program for five years and create a second Golub Capital Social Impact Lab. It also became the host of the Moskowitz Prize, the premier global prize for research in sustainable finance.
It’s no wonder, then, that more than 34% of Kellogg’s full time class of 2020 took three or more social impact electives, and over 80% was involved in a social impact-oriented student club.
As encouraging as it is that there’s been an influx of social impact students applying to Kellogg, David Chen, Kellogg’s Faculty Lead of Impact Investing and Adjunct Professor of Finance, stresses the importance in social impact students honing their business skills. “If saving the planet was easy, someone would have already done it,” he says. “It’s complex; we’re at the intersection of capital, and economic, biological, human, behavioral, and societal systems.”
One of these students looking at the intersection of these systems to make an impact is Kellogg 2021 MBA Sam Schiller, who recently launched a social impact organization which helps farmers access carbon markets and adapt to climate change.
MEET SAM SCHILLER, CO-FOUNDER OF CARBON YIELD
After getting his undergrad from Northwestern University in social and environmental policy, Schiller worked at Tradewater, a Chicago startup that helps to reduce the world’s carbon footprint by collecting and destroying the most harmful greenhouse gases. Schiller also worked with farmers in rural communities to help develop renewable energy projects.
Inspired by the way in which social impact is woven into Kellogg’s culture, he decided to return to Northwestern for his master’s. “There’s a lot of environmental work out there that doesn’t cross societal and political boundaries. I wanted to work on fundamental issues and prove that by taking action against climate change, you can actually improve the situation for farmers and rural communities,” he says.
“Having Kellogg’s tools and faculty available at my disposal gave me the confidence to go out on my own and be able to assess risk and opportunities with a full arsenal of skills.”
LAUNCHING A SOCIAL IMPACT VENTURE
During his MBA, Schiller did pro bono consulting work to understand how carbon revenue could help support those that are transitioning to organic growing practices. Then, in David Chen’s Impact Investing and Sustainable Finance class, he had the idea for Carbon Yield; a firm that helps farmers get paid to restore their soil and create an agricultural economy where farms and farmers are sustained not only by crops they grow, but how they steward working lands.
For Schiller, this course was catalytic in launching Carbon Yield. “Chen’s course was crucial for me, not just in thinking about what the business of generating carbon offsets on farms is, but also in generating capital at scale to provide loan resources to farmers to make these kinds of changes,” he says.
During Shiller’s time in Chen’s class, he collaborated with a team of four to learn how to generate both financial and social returns. Each team member brought diverse experience in banking, private equity, and nonprofit work to the table, and one of his teammates even ended up becoming his company’s co-founder.
“We help create better incentives for farmers to store carbon in the landscape, improve soil health, and manage their land in an environmentally-friendly way. We want them to become more profitable because they’re aligned with environmental benefits,” explains Schiller.
At Carbon Yield, they work to ensure that environmental markets and carbon offset rules do not just benefit large industrial projects, landfills, or enhanced oil recovery projects. Rather, they work with the carbon registries to actually incorporate direct soil sampling and monitoring to figure out how farmers can increase their revenue potential on the ground. First, they identify opportunities for farms to access carbon markets and other environmental premiums, like organic labeling. Then, they navigate the carbon market on farmers’ behalf by cataloguing, registering, and verifying their carbon credits. Finally, they negotiate carbon offset purchase agreements with institutional buyers and share the profits with their farming partners.
“I don’t think that every social problem fits a revenue model, but a lot of major problems and potential solutions can be financed,” says Schiller. “I want capital to flow to the right activities. It takes intrepid folks that are conversant in both the needs of investors and in the core fundamental social impact challenges of our time to negotiate those kinds of tensions and create opportunities.”
SIGNIFICANCE AFTER SUCCESS
Kellogg’s social impact curriculum teaches students like Schiller to get capital to flow to the activities and issues that matter most.
Chen, a 1984 Kellogg graduate, launched a sustainable investing firm called Equilibrium in 2008. Around this time, he was asked to visit Kellogg as a guest lecturer to speak about the use of finance and investment instruments and sustainability. “At the time I launched Equilibrium, sustainability in the business world was synonymous with responsibility and advocacy. But we wanted to show how sustainability could be seen as a competitive advantage, which was a radical idea at the time,” he says.
Chen began teaching impact investing and sustainable finance after visiting the school as a guest lecturer, making the school one of the first top-MBA programs to offer instruction on this topic. “I’m trying to connect students with their value system and show them that there is a professional career that connects them with it,” he explains. “I want to help students create a career and life of significance and not just business success.”
According to Chen, students in this class get exposed to great thinkers, executors, and fund managers that are across the entire spectrum of investments. This class takes a different approach to sustainable investing than most, grounding the practice in the fundamentals of finance, strategy, organizational development and behavioral finance. “The most important, impactful investment strategies were just solid investment strategies that took advantage of sustainability,” says Chen. “Sustainability isn’t just the domain of startups, it’s the domain of large scale change. And large scale change efforts happen in collaboration. It’s about capital markets, entrepreneurship, and change management.”