If the ideal business has sustainability embedded throughout, why not embed the same lens throughout an MBA program?
That’s what faculty members had in mind for the Sustainable MBA program at Duquesne University’s Palumbo Donahue School of Business.
Since the program launched in 2007, students have completed more than 100 consulting projects with multinational corporate partners including Heinz, Bayer and FedEx. According to Robert Sroufe, Murrin Chair of Global Competitiveness and Professor of Sustainability, Operations and Supply Chain Management, no two projects have been alike.
Unlike other MBA programs that offer a sustainability concentration as an add-on to the conventional curriculum, Duquesne’s program presents sustainability as the connecting element across the business curriculum — from marketing and public affairs, to finance and operations.
Corporate Knights’ Global Green MBA survey ranked Duquesne’s program No. 1 in the United States and eighth worldwide in 2013. The Aspen Institute has consistently ranked Duquesne among the top 25 in the world for integrating financial, social and environmental responsibility.
Ivory Tower No More
As more global companies move toward integrated reporting and thinking, a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to pedagogy within MBA programs will become more crucial.
Diane Ramos, a founding faculty member who helped design Duquesne’s program, says a manager doesn’t need to specialize in life cycle analysis to know that it will “help a company find ways to streamline the supply chain, reduce environmental risks, lower product liability and save on costs.”
Ramos co-teaches the three consulting courses and serves as the Associate Director of Graduate Programs at Duquesne’s Palumbo Donahue School of Business. Before joining the faculty at Duquesne, she worked for SmithKlineBeecham (now GlaxoSmithKline), where she occasionally gave feedback on MBA student projects with the company. From her perspective, the projects were too academic and disconnected from the real world.
“I never got any sense that there was cross-pollination from discipline to discipline or that most of the professors involved had any sense of what was actually happening in industry,” she said. “The thinking was ‘ivory tower’.”
The projects Ramos judged rarely generated useful recommendations for her company, she added.
Ramos says the goal for Duquesne’s student consulting projects is to make immediate and lasting impacts on the clients. The engagements are also intended as a “proving ground” to apply the concepts students learn in the classroom.
With 30 to 35 MBA students in a cohort, the program has a high demand for actual industry projects for students to tackle. Typically students audit corporate partners for risks and opportunities in multiple areas from packaging to transportation, and often find opportunities to incorporate sustainability values in branding. Past projects include Environmental Profit and Loss statements, carbon footprint analyses, integrated bottom line development, and zero-waste initiatives.
What’s Keeping You Up at Night?
To develop project ideas, Ramos and Sroufe say they reach out to existing partners and prospective clients to ask: “What’s keeping you up at night?”
For Braskem, a Brazilian petrochemical company and biopolymer producer, one area that needed further exploration was identifying the true cost of bio-based polyethylene (PE) versus oil-based plastics. The company needed data to justify the price premium in packaging materials for the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry.
“A lot of companies want sustainable products, but they don’t want to pay more,” said James Kahn, Braskem’s commercial manager of I'm Green polyethylenes, which are produced from ethanol sugarcane.
Duquesne students did a cost-benefit analysis over the life cycle of each product, including processing, disposal, and environmental and social costs. Based on their findings (using an integrated bottom line approach to cost accounting), the students concluded that environmental and social costs justified the higher-priced bio-based PE.
From there, the challenge was to create a social media marketing plan for Braskem aimed at educating buyers in the CPG industry. “Braskem is a B2B company and sustainability is a significant topic for both B2B and B2C companies,” Kahn said. “Understanding what the consumer wants is both key and challenging.”
The biopolymer producer, which is expanding its North American presence, needed a strategy to convince buyers that choosing the sustainable yet more expensive option resulted in products that were more valuable to their own customers.
The students explained how Braskem could use social media to connect to new audiences through existing CPG partners and environmental NGOs.
They also recommended Braskem capitalize on “ingredient branding.” Similar to Intel’s strategy, which uses the “Intel inside” logo on computer packaging, the idea was to feature the “I’m Green” logo on CPG packaging. From there, Braskem could build deeper relationships with customers and cross-market the “I’m Green” branding on social media.
Soon after students gave their final presentation in spring of 2014, the cost-benefit analysis came in handy for Kahn, who says he used some of the data for his own presentations. He also said Braskem planned to implement the social media marketing plan.
“It gave us a different view — the forest from the trees,” Kahn said. “We learned a lot.”
Unleashing Creativity through Whitespace
Ramos and Sroufe scope each student project based on what the industry partner wants.
In some cases, the clients prefer to leave the projects less defined and give the students a blank slate. These “whitespace” projects generally focus on business model innovation and allow students to experience business in, as Ramos described it, “the surround-sound version.”
In 2013, PricewaterhouseCoopers assigned students to envision the B2B supply chain consulting needs of the future. The students explored diverse scenarios from adding new services and creating strategic alliances to developing applications for the Internet of Things.
Sroufe said projects like these tend to be more difficult and somewhat intimidating for students who tend to want clear explanations of the deliverables upfront. However, he added, ambiguity can unleash more creativity — a highly valuable asset in a business environment that’s wide open with big data and technological opportunities.
Duquesne’s MBA Sustainability program and its faculty are primarily focused on solving real-world problems and do not charge fees for their consulting engagements. Rather than selling a product or solution, Ramos explained, the consulting projects aim to help partners examine emerging challenges or opportunities.
In exchange, students get the benefit of applying classroom lessons to actual business challenges and receiving practical advice from industry professionals. Clients typically spend several hours on each project, working with students and giving feedback. To help support the program at large, clients have hosted students at global facilities during study abroad trips, provided funding for events, and contributed donations.
Pivot Projects for the Real World
William O’Rourke is the former vice president of sustainability and environment for global aluminum producer Alcoa, which has done five consulting projects with Duquesne students.
Since retirement, O’Rourke has served as a mentor for Duquesne student projects, and he notes two impressive qualities of the work.
First is the students’ ability to adapt to changes halfway through a project. He says in about a third of the projects, both students and clients realize they are going down the wrong path and need to change direction.
Industry clients have echoed the sentiment in their evaluations, Sroufe said, noting they were especially impressed by the manner in which students were able to refocused and pivoted based on feedback.
Second, O’Rourke points to academia’s ability to help industry focus on the big picture.
In the latest project with Alcoa, student teams evaluated the company’s exposure to climate change risks. Working with the head of Alcoa’s insurance department, students identified 10 facilities around the world that would be most affected by weather events such as rising sea levels, cyclones and hurricanes.
They presented possible scenarios in minor, moderate and extreme weather conditions, and also advised Alcoa to develop new mining and processing technologies that were more resource-efficient.
“Most corporations and organizations are focusing on problems just for today or tomorrow,” O’Rourke said. “But what academia brings to a corporation is the ability to look past next quarter’s results.”