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A Burgeoning Brand in Sustainable Business

Dr. Eban Goodstein is a contradiction of sorts. Trained in “the dismal science” — economics — Goodstein is an inveterate optimist about the prospects for business to lead the way to a sustainable future, and sooner rather than later. He is turning that optimism into reality as director and founder of the Bard MBA in Sustainability program in New York City. That Goodstein is at the forefront of the sustainable MBA world is not surprising when one considers his career path.

Dr. Eban Goodstein is a contradiction of sorts.

Trained in “the dismal science” — economics — Goodstein is an inveterate optimist about the prospects for business to lead the way to a sustainable future, and sooner rather than later. He is turning that optimism into reality as director and founder of the Bard MBA in Sustainability program in New York City. That Goodstein is at the forefront of the sustainable MBA world is not surprising when one considers his career path.

“I was influenced by the work of Hunter and Amory Lovins, as well as Paul Hawken, going back to the late 1970s,” Goodstein offered. “Then in the ‘90s, books like Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism by the Lovinses showed me there is a way out of this climate change mess, that business has to play a leading role — but, to do so, it would have to reinvent itself.”

He was personally involved in the early days of that reinvention process — from 2000 to 2004, running The Greenhouse Network, an NGO that, among other things, created the Race to Stop Global Warming.

At around that same time, the first sustainability-focused MBA programs popped up on the west coast.

“The Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI) near Seattle and the Presidio [Graduate School] MBA program in San Francisco both launched in 2002,” Goodstein recalled. “I was intrigued by these experiments in a new kind of business education — not a sustainability ‘bolt-on’ (in which 2-3 sustainability-related courses are added on to standard MBA fare), but one that really trained students to run businesses that were in business to solve social and environmental problems.”

Fast-forward to 2009. By that point, Dr. Goodstein had migrated east, to run the environmental policy MS graduate program at Bard College in bucolic Annandale-on-Hudson, between Poughkeepsie and Albany, NY. With the policy program, he had graduate students who wanted to change the rules. He wanted to start an MBA program, to help students to transform the game.

From the ashes of 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference

Also that year, the annual UN climate change conference, COP 15, took place in Copenhagen, Denmark. High hopes for an agreement on a global climate agreement were dashed in the Danish capital. But not all hope was lost.

“I was in Copenhagen,” Goodstein said. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it: That was an epic failure — no meaningful agreements were struck — it was a dark time. But, in the midst of that despair, I found myself at dinner with Hunter Lovins talking about the idea of a Bard MBA in Sustainability program on the East Coast. Hunter said, ‘Then, let’s start one!’ Two months later, I was pitching the concept to Leon Botstein, Bard’s president; two years later we had New York State approval and we enrolled our first class in September 2012.”

If you are thinking that timetable is really aggressive, you’d be right, but you probably also don’t know Bard.

Its “private institution acting on behalf of the public good” positioning is an ethos that President Botstein, also the conductor of New York City’s American Symphony Orchestra, makes sure permeates through the entire Bard community. Beyond being a top-ranked liberal arts college, Bard:

  • Boasts the largest college prison program in the U.S., with 500 inmates working towards a Bard degree
  • Offers a thriving Early College High School Associates Degree program in Baltimore, Cleveland and New Orleans, along with New York City
  • Grants Bachelor’s degrees through satellite programs in Saint Petersburg, in Kyrgyzstan, and in the West Bank in Palestine.
  • Was recently ranked #1 in the U.S. by Princeton Review for classroom experience

Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program’s first class had 13 students; now it is in the twenties; Dr. Goodstein intends for it to grow to 40-50 incoming students each year. About half of the class is from outside the New York City area, adding diversity to the group.

The program’s $65,000 annual cost is about the same as Columbia’s MS in Sustainability Management offering, which, according to Dr. Goodstein, is Bard’s true competitor.

“Most of our students aren’t even looking at MBA programs when they start to consider us — they like us because we offer a mix of Sustainability Management and an MBA. And they see that our program is more substantive than what most MBA programs now do, which is to offer one or two sustainability classes as an add-on to a traditional, single-bottom-line MBA.”

All-star faculty, innovative curriculum

Sustainable business pioneer and author Hunter Lovins, who was there at the program’s birth, also co-founded Presidio’s program and taught at BGI. She and Goodstein co-developed a curriculum that combined what they saw as the best possible mix of academic training, real-world experience and career development. Taking advantage of both the low-residence structure and the New York City location, Lovins noted that, “we solicited and were quickly able to develop a world-class faculty of ‘practitioner professors’ who actually work in sustainable business.” Lovins now flies in from wherever she happens to be once each month to teach at Bard.

Bard is the only MBA program in the world to offer a yearlong, first-year class focused on sustainability consulting — NYCLab, run by Laura Gitman, head of BSR’s New York office. From day one, students work in teams for real-world clients on sustainability challenges. Clients this year and last include Moody’s, Clif Bar, the National Wildlife Federation, Etsy and Eileen Fisher.

The guest lecturer lineup reads like a sustainable business All-Star team: It includes Green Giants author Freya Williams; Andrew Winston, author of The Big Pivot and a sustainability consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics.

According to Goodstein, the Bard MBA in Sustainability program’s courses are divided into three verticals:

  1. Sustainability Vision: “The approach here is to see sustainability as a business opportunity where others see it as cost; to see environmental degradation as a series of design problems.”
  2. Leadership: “How can we engage others, drive change in ways that build business but don’t damage the climate?”
  3. Execution: “We have a sustainable business plan; how do we finance it, market it, sell it?”

In the second year of the program, all students complete an individually mentored Capstone Project. Its purpose, Lovins says, is “for students to work with their advisors to identify a life passion and then build a business model around it.” That can mean developing a startup, or building expertise in a sustainable business sector followed by a professional internship or consulting project for an existing company.

Libby Zemaitis, a climate scientist at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, used her Capstone Project as a platform to disrupt the mobile home industry by starting and becoming CEO of UpHomes. Nour Shaikh’s Capstone helped him start a sustainability-focused Office of Innovation at Voya (formerly ING) Europe.

Per Lovins, the two-year program provides students with what they’d get at elite B-schools and much, much more: “We’ll give you the tools you’d get at Harvard, but customized to your passions. You want to learn finance? We’ll teach you finance just like Stanford would, but we’d show you to how use it to leave the world a better place.”

Graduates and their jobs

Though the sample size is small — five graduating classes — it is big enough to conclude Bard Sustainability in MBA graduates generally find work in four buckets:

  1. Sustainable entrepreneurship
  2. Traditional roles in mission-driven organizations (i.e. Tesla)
  3. Sustainability roles in traditional or mission-driven companies: “One of our graduates landed a job as sustainability director at Pratt & Whitney,” Goodstein recounted. “Another developed the financing for a solar initiative at Etsy.”
  4. Sustainability consulting: Bard has placed graduates at CDP, KPMG, BSR, Futerra and Sustainalytics, among others.

What’s next?

While the program has proved its concept, Goodstein expects the size to double in the not-too-distant future. But what really makes his eyes light up is the proposed new ImpactLab. Its focus will be to build a global learning community of faculty and students around a transition to impact finance.

“The key to a sustainable future will be to move trillions of dollars from destructive channels to regenerative investments,” he asserted. “We’ve already started raising money; we plan to pilot it this coming spring.”

Down the road, Goodstein said he can envision a Bard-style MBA in Sustainability program flourishing in cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Miami or Chicago.

And, while Bard MBA in Sustainability students are going (to exciting, purpose-driven) places, it seems like Goodstein will be staying put.

“I’ve got the best job in the world. It’s creative — I work with terrific young people helping them get, or invent, the jobs that will change the world.”