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In Pioneering Venture, Michigan MBA Students Lead Climate Investment Fund

AACSB

Covid-19 may have slowed, but it has not stopped, the effort to address climate change from the vantage of graduate business education. New programs and initiatives are happening everywhere, from small programs in the UK, which hosted the recent G20 summit that was largely focused on the global climate crisis, to Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and other elite MBA programs, where curricular and co-curricular efforts are well-supported and legion.

Doubt B-schools’ commitment to the issue? Scan some of the websites for the leading MBA programs and count how often you see the word “sustainability” — and how many new degrees are on offer that focus on sustainability, clean tech, responsibility for the environment, and more. B-schools, guided in large part by the sentiment of their students, are in this fight for the duration.

Meanwhile, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported in September, climate startups are booming as VC firms throw money at companies promoting clean tech solutions. That’s the game the Michigan Climate Venture is joining.

EXCITING IDEAS & THE OPPORTUNITY TO SCALE

Janet Genser is also a second-year MBA/MS student. A California native, she most recently worked at a nonprofit finance fund in New York City, focused on project management and internal process operations. Long interested in food and sustainability, Genser is now co-director of external relations for MCV.

“Having come from a nonprofit finance organization, all we talked about was how we need to catalyze capital to make a real difference,” she tells P&Q. “And it’s helping our nonprofit clients realize that they need to be financially sustainable to really help their communities. And so I took that with me into school thinking, ‘Okay, impact investing. I really want to explore that as a field.’ So I was very interested in a fund, and I was so excited to get invited to be part of the founding team for MCV.

“At the same time, there are many important problems, but I think this is the most pressing problem right now to be focusing on. And so I’m very excited about the opportunity to be looking at all these different ideas that are coming up, and helping scale them.”

Genser says she’s not sure yet what she wants to do after school, “but I really like that we are getting to understand what does go into a good business model. I’m interested in food and sustainability, so I’m going to be focusing on that vertical. I’m just really excited to see what’s out there, and what I want to get excited about after school.”

She adds that many others at Michigan — even those not associated with the Erb Institute — feel the same.

“What I’ve noticed in the last year since joining the Ross class is that there’s a ton of Ross students that are really interested in sustainability and climate change, who aren’t part of Erb,” Genser says. “It is just becoming much more common to see. Creating something that people can really identify with and say, ‘I want to come to Michigan because of this opportunity,’ I think is huge. A lot of people are going to take that and run with it and go do something really incredible with their career.”

Gautam Kaul (top middle): “It’s like $200K to come get an education, then sit in a classroom. Seems unfortunate, to say the least.” Michigan Ross photos

A PROBLEM THAT IS ‘GETTING MORE & MORE REAL’

Colleen Sain, a third-year MBA/MS student, was a software engineer before grad school. Working for an education tech startup, she didn’t plan to go back to school.

“But then this problem of climate change was just getting more and more are real,” Sain tells P&Q. “I was just hovering, and I really wanted those business skills, and environment skills, to actually make a difference.”

The final push she needed came in the form of a New York Times bestseller.

“I got myself a copy of this book called Project Drawdown, a collection and quantitative ranking of all the different solutions to climate change and how effective they actually might be,” Sain says. “And so the engineer in me really gets excited like, ‘Oh, this is actually solvable. We can do it.’ I think the hard part is really the people part. But a project like this, we’re going to be helping startups that are actually on a mission to decarbonize.”

MCV is an important step in her own career development, too. She currently serves as its co-manager of fund operations.

“I also really wanted to build a lot of the business skills that I was, frankly, lacking,” Sain says. “How do you actually assess what’s a good business model or not? How do you build growth, et cetera? And so being able to actually get that hands-on experience of going through and looking at a bunch of startups, seeing what’s actually going to have an impact, both financially and sustainability, was perfect for me.”

‘UNLEASH THE POWER OF CAPITALISM’

John Pontillo, a second-year MBA/MS student, served in the Peace Corps and worked at a social impact consulting firm before enrolling at Michigan. With Sain, he is MCV’s co-manager of fund operations.

While in Mozambique in the Peace Corps, climate change impacted Pontillo in what he describes as a very “visceral” way.

“In the Peace Corps I saw two effects directly related to climate change, in torrential rains that caused an outbreak of malaria and tuberculosis, and I watched my neighbors die,” he tells P&Q. “And the second year I was there, there was severe droughts that caused the price of food to rise dramatically, and many people with whom I lived had trouble finding food.” Along with his experience in the nonprofit world — “getting tired of asking for funding to do things” — Pontillo “wanted to have of the ability to make decisions with funding.”

“To me, being able to practice this, and actually use real dollars, and leverage the incredible minds in institutes and programs that are at this school and across the Great Lakes region, is just an unparalleled opportunity,” he says. He wants to take what he’s learned and work in investment management, “hopefully shifting large amounts of capital into green-tilted funds, into things that can unleash the power of capitalism in a productive way, that can help people live better and avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change.”

Pontillo says in investment, there’s always a tension between short- and long-term gains. What the MCV is trying to demonstrate, he adds, “is that you can do good and also make money.” In terms of ambition, the sky is indeed the limit.

“I think a lot of us have the hypothesis that that’s the way capitalism has to evolve, if we’re going to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change,” he says. “If we can prove through the work that we do that we’re able to align mitigating climate change and capital returns, we can demonstrate how the university can invest their endowment — and, little by little, that can start the dominoes falling, and show others how that can be done as well.

“I think we’re near a point where a lot of investment management houses know that the long-term is going to be this different style of investing, but they’re really hesitant to change in the short-term because of those gains. So we’re interested in furthering that along, and proving that it can happen.”

DON’T MISS ON EARTH DAY 2021, MEET THE B-SCHOOL SUSTAINABILITY GRADUATES and GEORGETOWN’S NEW DEGREE: TACKLING, NOT JUST TALKING ABOUT, CLIMATE CHANGE