Joining — or even starting — a sustainability-focused student club at a business school is a great way to become energized about taking care of the Earth while learning about some of the most important issues facing the world in the 21st century. And as a result of the pandemic, that focus on sustainability and social impact is becoming more and more mainstream — not only among MBA students and the business schools they belong to but also at the companies they seek to work for.
Net Impact, a nonprofit membership organization, is evidence of that. Originally formed in 1993 by a small group of socially minded MBA students in San Francisco, it has a ballooned into a global organization focused on using business skills to combat social and environmental problems. It now has more than 100,000 members from 324 chapters spread across 40 countries around the world. Its influence is felt across business schools, wider institutions and corporations.
One of its key chapters, at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, this year achieved “Gold Status” for its impact on sustainability within the community, while other leading U.S. schools like Yale School of Management and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business have influential chapters to their name.
‘CORE PURPOSE SHOULD BE TO DELIVER VALUE & CREATE AN IMPACT’
At ESMT Berlin in Germany, the Net Impact chapter is made up of students, faculty, alumni, and staff as well as the wider community, and has an active platform where the network discusses sustainability issues and their solution. One of their projects is called “Clean the Spree”, where together with 300 volunteers from around the city of Berlin, students cleaned a section of the local river Spree and its banks, recycling the removed waste.
According to Luka Zrnic, an MiM student and leader of the Net Impact ESMT Berlin initiative, sustainably focused student initiatives are important for three key reasons; impact, development, and networking.
“The core purpose and driver of these initiatives should be to deliver value and to create an impact. Students at business schools can have a great amount of value to offer, while also having the access to the right networks to create multiplier effects.”
For Zrnic, the opportunity to help students grow and develop through these initiatives is robust.
“Not only do the students develop altruistic value systems and a mindset geared towards helping others, but they also have a great platform to apply the business skills gained through curricular activities in a safe environment where they can fail and test things, which in turn helps them better understand their strengths and development areas. “
FUTURE LEADERS SHOULD ‘NEVER MAKE A DECISION WITHOUT SUSTAINABILITY IN MIND’
This message also rings true for Ashly Doré, a student representative for OIKOS, the sustainability student society at ESCP Business School’s Berlin campus, and an MSc International Sustainability Management student.
“Our mission, since the beginning, has been simple: bring sustainability to the minds of the students, faculty, and administration of ESCP and beyond. Be it by organizing panel discussions, flea markets, trash walks, documentary screenings, workshops, or sustainability weeks, we want to make sure future business leaders never make a decision without sustainability in mind.”
Doré sees a sustainability club at the centre of all these actors as an amazing opportunity to bring sustainability into the minds of all before venturing into the business world. “Business schools have the unique quality of bringing together so many stakeholders in the climate crisis. We’re surrounded with future sustainability leaders, financial analysts, corporate c-suite executives, etc. “
As a multi-campus school, ESCP have numerous sustainability societies, including NOISE ESCP Business School (Paris campus), Lighthouse ESCP (Madrid campus) and GEA Sustainability ESCP (Turin and London). All sustainability societies from across campuses meet once a week and share their forthcoming projects in order to find new synergies and projects.
‘GREEN WEEK’ IN CENTRAL ASIA
Over in Central Asia, at the Graduate School of Business at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, student societies focus on making a real tangible difference to the local environment, according to Aray Nurkali, president of the Nazarbayev University Green Society Student Club and fourth year student at the School of Sciences and Humanities.
“The club was first organized as a group of eco-volunteers gathered by NU Green Campus in January 2018,” Nurkali says. “We were truly motivated to make an actual impact on our environment, therefore soon after that, we decided to found a student organization out of our group.
“Our biggest event is ‘Green Week’, with the organization of a wide variety of both entertaining and informative events related to sustainable development and green lifestyle, whether it’s waste sorting workshops, film screenings related to sustainability and existing environmental issues, eco-talks, or clothing exchange.”
“Eco-Heroes” is another event, where trips to across Kazakhstan are arranged in order to clean trash from the shores of the lake found there. Participating students make a contribution to a cleaner world, as well as enjoy the landscapes of Burabay.
“Clubs like Green Society are needed everywhere,” says Nurkali. “When it comes to business schools, students and graduates can learn about opportunities for a sustainable and eco-friendly life and make their future business as environmentally friendly as possible.”
A CHANCE TO ‘ACTIVELY IMPLEMENT IDEAS IN A REAL WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT’
The Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) has an initiative called the Erasmus Sustainability Hub, which functions as both a study association as well as an umbrella organization for all sustainability initiatives on the campus. Within this role, the Erasmus Sustainability Hub has over 70 active student members in projects or committees, with whom it organises multiple events or activities on a weekly basis.
As with UC-Berkeley Haas, the graduate-level chapter of Net Impact at RSM has previously and consistently held a gold standing because of its robust event programming. They also motivate students to come up with their own sustainability-related projects or initiatives by providing them with the opportunity to apply for the Hummingbird Fund, created by RSM to fund innovative and impactful ideas from student that focus on making a positive change.
At Leeds University Business School, in Northern England, they take a slightly different approach to sustainability, with the school employing two sustainability architects per year on the MBA program who get involved with and launch sustainability initiatives at the school.
The program had run successfully across the main university for several years, with part-time paid positions which give students the chance to deliver sustainability projects. Ariane Far, one of the Business School’s current sustainability architects, is leading a project that involves raising awareness, educating and engaging students on the topic of food waste.
“I would most definitely advocate for more sustainability projects in business schools as I believe the topic is central to any future career or life path a student will take. More broadly, if we truly wish to make a change for the better, each and every one of us will have to question the impact of our work and everyday life in terms of environmental, social and economic impact, and business schools are no exception.
“Sustainability projects not only allow students to start using their classroom skills on a topic that is important to them, but it also goes further by allowing them to actively implement ideas in a real workplace environment.”
‘UNIVERSITIES ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE KIND OF LEADERS THEY SEND OUT INTO THE WORLD’
Also in response to the COVID pandemic, Nova Business School in Portugal launched an online platform – entitled We All Have a Role to Play – where anyone could gather information and co-create innovative projects that could help mitigate the consequences of COVID-19.
According to Luís Veiga Martins, Nova SBE Associate Dean Community Engagement & Sustainable Impact and Chief Sustainability Officer, there are myriad ways to contribute to the creation of a better, fairer and more sustainable future, all it takes is intention and something to light the match!
“Many MBAs will find that a big part of their experience will take place outside the classroom,” explains the Dean. The invaluable networks you form with all our students, as well as corporate connections, set you up for success after graduation, both personally and professionally.”
The Nova platform is provides access to rigorous and demanding expertise, scientific insights, and impactful projects and resources that will help policy makers, business managers, students and society at large to reach clarity on what the SDG mean for public and private organizations, as well as existing projects that everyone can support, learn from or be part of.
“We believe that universities are responsible for the kind of leaders they send out into the world. It is our duty to support as many learner as possible to address the SDG through their current or future roles, regardless of the professional path they follow,” says Luís Veiga Martins.
Beyond the business school classroom, student clubs emerge when students mobilize around a goal, interest, or innovative idea. These groups can create networking opportunities and sustainability improvements that go way beyond the campus. Nova SBE’s Social Consulting Student Club (NSC) launched an impACT Stories initiative, inviting guest speakers such as Catarina Grilo, Director of Conservation and Policy at ANP/WWF, to speak about the environmental issues at the science-policy interface, the role of science in policy-making and specifically on the human dimensions of marine conservation and fisheries.
For as long as social issues challenge our environment and our planet, we trust and expect business schools and their MBA and Masters students to rise to the challenge, responding with new and ever more advanced ways to confront and solve them. Student clubs are just the beginning.