2023 Will Be A Big Year In Cergy-Pontoise: The P&Q Interview With ESSEC Dean Vincenzo Vinzi

ESSEC’s main campus in Cergy-Pontoise, France. The 116-year-old school will have a dramatically different look this fall, says Dean Vincenzo Vinzi. File photo

By the end of this year, ESSEC Business School will be dramatically different — physically but by no means philosophically.

One of France’s premier B-schools, École Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales, founded in the early 20th century, is undergoing a massive makeover at its main campus that is scheduled to be complete in time for the start of the fall semester. The transformation includes pedestrianization, greening, and redesigns for historic buildings, resulting in a 40% reduction in energy use campus-wide.

It also includes the creation of a building that seems destined to be the envy of graduate business education in France: the Pierre Nanterme Center for Responsible Leadership, a two-story classroom building with 1,400 square meters of pedagogical spaces “designed to meet the needs of tomorrow.” The entire ground floor will be dedicated to “Enlightening Entrepreneurship,” with the first floor optimized for, and devoted to, innovative teaching methods.


2023 Will Be A Big Year In Cergy-Pontoise: The P&Q Interview With ESSEC Dean Vincenzo Vinzi

Vincenzo Esposito Vinzi, nouveau directeur de l’ESSEC: On the topic of climate change and sustainability, “schools need not be in competition”

ESSEC is unquestionably a business school on the rise. The Financial Times ranked its MBA 64th in the world in 2022, up from 88th just two years earlier, and ninth in Europe. The latter placement puts ESSEC third in France behind only HEC Paris and Edhec, and ahead of INSEAD and a host of other elite schools. The magazine ranks ESSEC’s Master in Management the sixth-best in the world, and its Master in Finance No. 4 globally.

In 2017, when Vinzi became ESSEC’s dean, the school’s MBA was unranked by the FT.

ESSEC’s sparkling new main campus, a little over an hour’s drive northwest of Paris in Cergy-Pontoise, is a reflection of the school’s growing role on the European and global stages. But perhaps more so, it is a reflection of the school’s values, summed up by the school’s dean, Vincenzo Vinzi, in an interview late last year with Poets&Quants:

“We need the leaders of tomorrow that are both specialized very deeply, but who also have a holistic vision of society. It’s really a matter of attitude. It’s a matter of how the students are able to incorporate in what they do a long-term perspective. So they need to be both deep and wide, as I like to say. And this is something that the schools have to undertake.”


Vinzi has proved to be an agent of dramatic change at the school. In May 2020, as the world reeled from the coronavirus pandemic, he spearheaded a sea change in ESSEC’s operations and organization. “Together” is a roadmap for “social and environmental transition” whose aim has been to transform the school in its three core dimensions: teaching, research, and campus life. The plan’s primary goals are no less than the protection of the planet, fighting against social inequalities, and finally, “to be architects of the required transformations of the business school ecosystem and, more broadly, of our society.”

How would ESSEC achieve these ambitious goals? With 50 initial “transformation projects,” among them training all students in contemporary social and environmental issues, which the school has done in all its programs since the start of the 2020-2021 academic year. Broad modernization of the school’s four campuses — the others are in Paris, Singapore, and Rabat, Morocco — and faculty teaching methods, along with “exemplary environmental management” of its campuses and a determined effort to increase the diversity of the student body, were among the many other projects. (The latter is already partly achieved: ESSEC’s MBA program is more than 50% women, a rarity in Europe.)

In 2021, ESSEC launched a new degree that further reflected its mission to train future leaders to respond to major social and environmental challenges. The MSc in Sustainability Transformation, which admitted the first intake of students in August 2022, “is designed to equip future managers with the knowledge, know-how and network they need to have a sustainable impact on their companies and organizations, to become agents of change in an increasingly volatile world and to seize new opportunities from sustainability development.”

A digital rendering of ESSEC’s new Pierre Nanterme Center for Responsible Leadership, “optimized for digital teaching and modular spaces promoting interaction with the corporate world”


To say that many business schools, particularly those in Europe, share ESSEC’s dedication to sustainable change is to state the obvious. In mid-November 2022, Vinzi joined deans of other leading B-schools from the Continent at the MBA World Summit in Milan, Italy, where he participated in a roundtable to discuss the vital importance of collaboration in the molding of future leaders. Among the other participants were POLIMI Graduate School of Management’s Federico Frattini, Gunther Friedl of TUM School of Management, Karen Spens of BI Norwegian Business School, and Lee Newman of IE Business School. More than 100 MBA students attended the eighth annual conference.

Reflecting on the experience, Vinzi says he came away impressed by the dedication of so many to creating a new generation of leaders with the right skills to effect needed change.

“They are the solution, so it’s important that these students, either MBA or other programs, once they get trained, hopefully they also get transformed within a school,” he says. “They need to represent the solution. They need to really be engaged in making the needed transformation. So, in other words, I feel like our mission at ESSEC — but I think all business schools should go in these directions — is not simply to transfer knowledge but also while they’re at school, get them more and more engaged so they say, ‘Okay, we are the actors of change.’ They need to undertake responsibility of making it happen.

“We have lessons to give, but we also have experience to share. One more thing I said to the MBA forum was that schools on this topic need not be in competition. We need to really work together, work your system or system progress, which really is long-term perspective. And if students learn the technicalities, but also the approach and the engagement, then we have a chance that they become engaged actors of positive change. Because if they’re well-equipped, but they’re not engaged, and they are spectators, I think we have done half of our job. We do a complete job if freely they are engaged. They’re the solutions.”


What are some of the specifics you talked about during the MBA World Summit? There was a dean’s roundtable, I understand. Did you talk any specifics?

Vincenzo Vinzi: We talked a little bit about what are the required competencies amid the responsible transformation that is ongoing in the world. This transformation is ongoing, and business schools are, must be, part of it, in terms of contribution. And this goes, of course, through the evolution of the programs, but also through the evolution of the competencies that the students, participants in MBA but also all the other programs, need to acquire while they’re in the school. You see sometimes we say, ‘OK, soft skills and whatever.’ Okay, I laugh at that, because I think these schools are going through hard skills and soft skills for many of the kids. Now, it’s really a matter of attitude. It’s a matter of how the students are able to incorporate in what they do a long-term perspective.

A long-term perspective is not a soft skill, per se. It’s really the way they approach problems. How they keep asking themselves why they do what they do. It’s a posture, you see. It’s the attitude. And this is the kind of evolution we need. So this is what we shared and I feel this is extremely important.

But that is not to forget the hard skills, because I think one thing that is extremely important is that we need to break the silos across disciplines, because in management we’ve always been very good, I think, in adding topics, in getting specialized, even on any new topic, business schools have been good for decades, especially the top-tier ones, in dealing with the new topic when it comes. You add the new course, you add the new master’s, you add the new bachelor’s, whatever. What is needed, according to me, with respect to the new challenges that the world is facing — or the urgent challenges, many of them are not even new but they become more urgent — and really the call for action is that we need to break silos across disciplines. And this is quite new, because having an interdisciplinary approach, having professors collaborate with each other across departments, being able to collaborate with other schools when it comes, for instance, to climate change, when it comes to environmental challenges — it’s not a topic for one discipline, but it’s a topic for many disciplines. It’s not a topic only for a business school, but we need to work also, for instance, with engineering schools.

And so, in a nutshell, we need the leaders of tomorrow that are both specialized so very deep, but also they need to have a holistic vision of society, so they need to be both deep and wide, as I like to say. And this is something that the schools have to undertake. Now, how to make that happen? There are two things that we have been doing at ESSEC very much related to climate change, environmental challenges, ecological transition, social transition, whatever, across departments. We have a specific course on responsible leadership, a specific seminar on understanding and changing the world. But what is also an added value is that those topics actually irrigate transversely the fundamental courses, because otherwise there is always a risk that in the morning you follow a course on a specific topic treated, I would say in the old manner, in the afternoon you have a specific course on ecological transition. Then in the evening the students say, “OK, how do I make the two things coherent with each other?”

So the real value I think is in having those topics not exclusively as another course, another master’s, whatever, but really irrigating transversely the core course. I mean, whenever we talk ecological transition, is very clearly social transition as well. But even when you talk about data, technology, artificial intelligence, of course you have the gigs, they must specialize. But when you talking about data, artificial intelligence, whatever that has an impact on everyone’s life on a daily basis, then a leader of a company, even though he must not be the specialist of the topic, he must lead the company knowing about this topic as well. So this is the challenge that we have undertaken. It’s really the core of what we’re currently doing.

So many of these things are happening, not only in Europe, but in the U.S. at the top business schools. But in what ways do you feel Europe is in the vanguard, that Europe is leading on some of these issues: in sustainability, for instance, in climate change? European business schools are actually a little bit ahead of the U.S. schools in many ways, aren’t they?

“We are in the middle of the river. I don’t think of the recognition that we have done something. I think it is a further booster to do even more. But it’s important that at least to be recognized to walk the talk”

For European business schools, it’s also a question of culture, it’s a question of sensibility of the school to this topic. I think it also reflects how the region of Europe actually tries to cope with these topics. So at the end of the day, it’s about the demand from students. So it’s really, I would say, a systemic approach, to which the business schools belong, of course.

But also, we are in France and we see how much this topic has been on the political agenda for the past few years, and even more so now. I would say the political sphere of a country or a region, of course, makes the whole region more or less sensitive to some topics. So I think it’s related both to the environment, where we are, and also to our own culture. If you think of ESSEC, for instance: ESSEC was born in 1907, it was founded by the Jesuits at the time. The purpose of the school was infusing business with ethics. In 1907, I’m not sure there were many schools that were thinking about business and ethics. Nowadays, all the schools have a sort of engagement in that. But you see the point: The humanist values, ethics, business for the common good, actually launched in the region of what is called the COBS, Council on Business & Society, which is an alliance with a purpose, to link business with the common good. Nowadays, it’s eight business schools in the world that are members of this alliance. And it was started 11 years ago. It was quite pioneering to launch an alliance with business and the common good. You see the point? So there is the history. There is a culture. There is a tradition ingrained in our values. There is a political environment, as well as demands from the students. They make the engagement on this topic quite, I would say, natural and authentic.

What can you tell us about diversity initiatives at ESSEC? You have a good reputation for bringing women into your programs, and having programs with high proportions of women. What can you tell us about gender and race diversity at ESSEC?

With respect to ESSEC, I think there are four dimensions that are important. I will start from our own actions. It is extremely important to be as exemplary as possible with respect to the students. In other words, walking the talk. Core, there is a lot of talk in the classroom, it’s pedagogy, all the pedagogy experience, but also we are an institution. Similarly, for the environmental ecological transition or a lot of things being developed in the pedagogy, in the research, but also we as an institution, we’re building a new campus. So we need to be ourselves exemplary in terms of reducing our carbon footprint, building new buildings that are eco-responsible and so forth, so on.

When it goes to diversity, it is the same thing. So aside from the institutional level, since September 2022 we have an exciting committee with a perfect gender balance. At ESSEC, if you look at the employees of ESSEC, you have a larger majority of women as compared to many other schools. It depends, of course, on the specific jobs, but overall among the employees of ESSEC you have a majority of women. What I have been doing for the past few years was really something that was important to me, was to achieve a point where in the level of the senior leadership team we had this gender equaling. This was achieved in September 2022. But it’s not only gender, it’s also other diversity: It’s your profile, academic, non-academic. It’s where you come from, and so forth and so on. It’s extremely important.

So we have this equalization of the ESSEC committee. It’s an ingredient among others. But I think it’s important in terms of sending the right message to the whole community. Another element is pedagogy and students. There you have two dimensions. It’s what we provide as courses, experiences, tools to make people aware of all the topics related to diversity, because sometimes you have cognitive bias, you have cultural bias, you have all sorts of biases that sometimes also lead you to behaviors that do not respect diversity. It’s a matter of will not to respect. It is very bad, of course. But in other cases you also have behaviors that do not respect diversity because you have a bias. You breach our Charter for the Respect of Others, which we have set in place, perhaps because you are not aware of some codes or some behaviors and so on. Since March 2021 — March 8, International Women’s Day — we have a signaling platform at ESSEC, so that anyone witnesses something that he or she believes is inappropriate with respect to the Charter, he or she can signal that to the school.

It’s also important for us, because we are in administration in a school, to raise awareness. So for instance, through the course in the first year on management, we do have a specific module on understanding risk typing, leveraging diversity, which should never be constrained but a richness for everyone. With respect to diversity, the course does not mean giving up what we are. Our roots are there, but it’s enriching our roots and enriching also the other of what we are, and vice versa.

And what we developed at ESSEC is the Diversity Fresco. You might have heard about the Climate Fresco, which is with respect to the comprehension of all the topics related to climate change, environmental transition, and so forth and so on. We have developed at ESSEC the Diversity Fresco, which is a serious game with respect to all the topics related to diversity, which means understanding diversity, all the biases that I was sharing with you earlier on, and working in groups so that this serious game, just like the serious game on the topics related to companies, finance, human resources and whatever, all students undergo this Diversity Fresco. And we do have many other schools and even companies ask ESSEC to deliver this Diversity Fresco in their organizations because, of course, there are diversity issues everywhere nowadays in the world, in organizations, institutions. And they can build on that.

Another topic with respect to diversity is related to courses. For instance, I take one example, both in pre-experience and post-experience programs, which is a course for female students to negotiate salary, because in some cases you do have a posture of our graduate students in terms of being shy, in terms of not negotiating salary and whatever. And I think it’s important that we help them train themselves. It’s a matter of having the right code. It is a matter of having the right approach, a matter of understanding the techniques, because sometimes they accept. They don’t dare to negotiate salaries, you see. So we set up a course with respect to that. We also have a program which is called Women Be Board Ready, which is related to how women who have reached very interesting high-level positions in companies actually move to the next position, break the glass ceiling. And for this we have a specific course.

One last point. Sorry, but the topic is extremely important. So it’s important to share with you. It’s about social diversity, which means opening the doors of ESSEC to more diverse, in terms of students, their social background, where they come from, coming from less favorable backgrounds, areas, departments in France. What does it mean? It means that ESSEC for 20 years has had the Center for Equal Opportunities. It’s really, I would say, an investment of the school. It’s financial investment, it’s time, it’s community engagement. This center has been developing programs for searching students at the level of high school, at the level of middle school, well before ESSEC, where the objective was not to make the advertisement of ESSEC but provide those students the knowledge of what higher education is. It doesn’t matter disciplines or the school. It could even be for doing literature in the French state university. That’s not a the issue. The issue is that we see that as soon as you go to some middle schools or high schools in France, those students do not even know what is higher education. It doesn’t matter the topic or whether it’s private or public or whether it’s a school or a university. So we use our knowhow, preparing tools, videos, to go there and explain to them what it is, that it’s also for them, if they’re good academically speaking, they should not be afraid. We’ve been doing that for 20 years. There are new programs.

This is my obsession. I think the social elevator must start much earlier. You see it all over, if elevator starts in the floor that is dry, people risk not to get there. You see what I mean? So I can provide you a number on this. Nowadays ESSEC is 22% — within the Master in Management, we have 22% of students who have their dossier, we say in French, which means that they have funded scholarship. The objective is, which is already a good percentage, but we wish to reach in two years, 27%, which means that when it goes through all sorts of actions, it’s making the system known to the students at the stages in their life as I was sharing, increasing the number and the amount for scholarship.

When it comes to sustainability, what are some of the differentiators for ESSEC compared to some of your brother or sister schools in Europe, especially with regard to COP 27? The conversation seems to be really accelerating: I wonder how ESSEC is leading that conversation.

Nowadays, 100% of our students are sensitized to environmental issues through a very universal approach, as I was saying earlier on. So I think those are quite distinguishing features, because when I say 100% of the students, it means that it doesn’t matter what problem, what background, what profile, what age you have as a student of ESSEC, everyone goes to this training. A second important point for me, is that the approach is transversal, interdisciplinary, which means that these topics actually beyond the specific courses, the students follow, they also actually are treated within the fundamental course.

So we have transformed all of our core courses to look at these issues through this lens. At the same time, we have also created the specialized courses for those who wish to grow these issues in the profound way. Two very specific examples of this, we created a bachelor’s which we call Act. It’s a bachelor’s degree in partnership with the local university in Cergy, which seeks to educate the new generation to drive change. The word Act, actually is an acronym in French, which means “Learn how to lead transition project.” Act in French means “Apprend la conduite la transition”. And I think that in companies, we need more and more profiles with this competence, because when you talk about transition even within companies, you have to federate several actors within a company to make a transversal transition project happen.

Another program that we also started is the Master of Science in Sustainability Transformation. This is at the master degree level. And the objective is really to keep future leaders with the knowledge, but also the tools, the network, to make a sustainable impact towards the way business is done. So this is from the pedagogical point of view.

The other part, to keep answering your question, is related to us as an institution. I think this is extremely important — linking the pedagogy to the actions of the school. For instance, we are committed to becoming exemplary in terms of our own operations at the school. So we are currently renovating our campus here in Cergy, with a high-ecological performance building. So for instance, energy consumption will be 40% lower, even though we’ll have one-and-a-half building more as compared to what we have now. We will reduce by 40%, the energy consumption with respect to the standards. We launched already, two years ago, a zero-waste plan to reduce campus waste production by 30%. We initiated a zero plastic plan to remove all single-use plastic from our campuses. And we developed a sustainable energy plan. What does that mean? Installation of solar panels on the roofs of ESSEC Cergy campus, participating also in a local renewable energy comparative. So this is to say that there is a big engagement of the school on our own operations.

Last but not least, it’s the mobility of our students, because we computed our carbon footprint and almost two-thirds, to be precise, 64% of our carbon footprint actually is generated by the mobility of our students, professor and staff. So what we’ve done is that we have set up, since the beginning of this academic year, in ESSEC, a responsible mobility plan with three key factors that play a role. It’s the frequency of travel, the means of transport chosen, and the geographical destination. Just to provide you an example, students who need to travel for their training, for their professional life, for instance in France and in Europe, it’s the school that pays in case they take the train, to push them to take the train. Instead of the airplane, the school makes the investment of paying the cost.

Of course, we’re very proud of that. It doesn’t mean it’s finished. Not at all. We are in the middle of the river. I don’t think of the recognition that we have done something. I think it is a further booster to do even more. But it’s important that at least to be recognized to walk the talk.


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