Grassroots Efforts

Business students are often leading the charge to bring sustainability into the business curriculum.
Grassroots Efforts

A microfinance course at the University of California, Berkeley, began in way that’s atypical at most business schools. In 2006, then-MBA student Douglas Young decided to take advantage of an unusual option at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business that allows any student to organize a one-credit course. Young found other students interested in microfinance, filled out a one-page form with the university, lined up leaders at microfinance institutions (MFIs) who were willing to participate as guest lecturers, and launched a student-led speaker series.

When Young graduated and left to work at an MFI in Bethesda, Maryland, venture capitalist Sean Foote, who was teaching a course at Haas in venture capital and private equity, had heard of the series. In 2007, Foote offered lectures to supplement the guest speakers’ presentations—he then expanded the course to reach students at other schools, via an interactive Internet simulcast. Last fall, students at 13 other schools watched the course via video stream and asked questions in real time through an online chat room.

This year, 20 schools are signed up to take part in the simulcast microfinance course, which runs once a week from October to December. A professor at another business school has even added his own lecture to the course material and created a three-credit microfinance course of his own, Foote says. “We’d love to have more—we can accommodate up to 50 campuses that have interested students and an Internet-ready classroom,” he says. “This  content gives students the ability to go to their professors and say, ‘We want to do this course.’ They can get their professors excited about this.”

How Haas’ microfinance course evolved is representative of how many social enterprise courses find their way into the business curriculum. When faculty are reluctant to teach a topic in which they are not well-versed, students like Young are leap-frogging the academy to fill the void. They’re starting their own courses, setting up conferences, holding com¬petitions, and spearheading initiatives in sustainability—and they’re working to get more faculty interested in this quickly emerging field.

Leading the Way

Faculty like Foote have plenty of opportunities to support students in their efforts. There is no shortage of students interested in becoming “change makers,” says Liz Maw, executive director of the San Francisco-based Net Impact, a nonprofit membership organization for students and businesses dedicated to sustainability.

Net Impact’s guide of graduate business programs, Business as Unusual 2008, provides examples of how students are driving change on their campuses. At the UCLA’s Anderson School, for example, an interdisciplinary team of graduate students asked faculty to help them design a study emphasis titled “Leaders in Sustainability.” At the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, students participating in Net Impact worked with faculty to design a business course on clean technology for the 2008–2009 academic year.

The Social Enterprise Club (SEC) at Columbia University in New York boasts 315 student members and spearheads on-campus activities such as the Global Social Venture Competition, one of the oldest competitions focused on corporate social responsibility in the United States. In addition, Columbia is home to the Green Business Club, the International Development Club, and the Microlumbia Fund, which makes microloans to entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

“We’ve seen a rapidly growing interest in social enterprise on campus—more than 40 percent of our students are members of at least one social enterprise club,” says Joseph Chmielewski, a Columbia MBA student and one of two leaders of the SEC. He adds that the current financial crisis has inspired many students to consider nontraditional career paths in sectors such as clean energy and the environment. Students who originally came to study finance or consulting, for example, are changing their plans once they see that carbon trading companies and educational nonprofits are hiring.

Making the Case

Membership in Net Impact chapters now comprises more than 10,000 students at more than 200 campuses world-wide. That’s a huge leap from 1994, when Net Impact had only 500 members on 16 campuses. In fact, as Net Impact’s membership has grown, so has the activity level of students like Chmielewski, who have become campus champions for sustainability.

Take Rebecca Solow, who leads the Net Impact chapter at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Now in her second year of a three-year joint master’s program in business and public policy, Solow was part of a group of students who pushed to get a specialization in social enterprise approved in Stern’s MBA program.

With the help of Kim Corfman, vice dean of MBA programs, the students worked for two years to develop and present a case to a decision-making committee. They conducted benchmarking research to show how comparable business schools were addressing the topic and what courses on sustainability Stern already had in place. After they completed their research, the students realized that Stern already had the courses required to create a specialization—the courses just needed to be sequenced and designated differently, Solow explains.

“It didn’t make sense for the school not to do this. It’s really about giving students credit for the electives they’re taking in this area,” she says. “In fact, I would love to see social impact integrated into the first-year core curriculum in an even more structured way.”

Convinced by the students’ research, the administration at Stern offered the new specialization in Social Innovation and Impact in 2008. In addition, students drove the implementation of the Stern Campus Greening Initiative (SCGI), a program that encourages the school community to save resources and reduce its environmental footprint.

If there’s something students think should be a part of the curricular experience that doesn’t exist, they can create it.
—Rebecca Solow, MBAstudent, New York University


“One great thing about Stern is that if there’s something students think should be a part of the curricular experience that doesn’t exist, they can create it,” Solow says. “We were able to make the case for why social enterprise is important, demonstrate growing student interest, and show how Stern could benefit in terms of its competitive position in the market.”

Changing Perceptions

Solow and Chmielewski lead chapters on campuses where social enterprise is a big part of the students’ mindsets. But how difficult is it for students to launch socially driven initiatives at schools with a more traditional bent, whose student body and faculty are less active in social enterprise?

At these schools, it can be difficult to attract attention, says Benjamin Stoll, an MBA student at Reims Management School in France. He leads that school’s chapter of Oïkos International, an organization that, like Net Impact, was founded by students interested in environmental issues. The organization started at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland in 1987; as of April 2008, the organization had 20 chapters in 15 countries.

Reims offers a sustainable development program and sponsors several events and conferences. Even so, some students at Reims “reject sustainable development as too boring or restrictive,” says Stoll.

Oïkos Reims’ members opted to counter the “boring and restricting” image of sustainability with “fun and glamour,” says Stoll. They organized an environmentally conscious fashion show, which featured fashion created from recycled, organic, and fair trade sources. The group asked designers around the world to lend their clothing creations and recruited business students to act as models.

The fashion show was so successful that some students purchased the clothes featured on the runway and have asked that Oïkos Reims make it an annual event. That kind of enthusiasm is what the group needs to attract new members, says Stoll.

Students at France’s ESSEC Business School also can be a hard sell when it comes to sustainability, says MBA student Irène Stolz, a leader of ESSEC’s Net Impact chapter. “We have found it difficult to touch students, because there are so many other events on campus,” says Stolz.

To stand out from the crowd, ESSEC’s chapter is working to implement “Shadow Days,” a one-day internship program in social enterprise. The goal, says Stolz, is to provide students who otherwise would not pursue internships in social enterprise with opportunities to follow a professional working in corporate social responsibility.

Students and faculty can be inspired by efforts like these, says Maw of Net Impact. Because it can be a huge challenge to integrate social enterprise into existing curricula and the business school community at large, she adds, students need to be patient and focus on “small wins.”

“Students are making the case for adding electives, establishing a core course, or hiring faculty who can make this a priority,” Maw says. “Or, they can do something as simple as raising their hands to make a point about sustainability in their current classes.”

Building Momentum

A more pressing challenge for students who want to drive change on their campuses is developing continuity in their efforts from one year to the next. Most MBA students are on campus for two years or less, which often is not enough time to ensure the success of a project or long-term goal.

Students in the International MBA program at the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business in Columbia start their year in July, take classes through December, and then spend eight months abroad. “Our biggest obstacle is ensuring the sustainability of the chapter,” says Steven Coffman, president of Moore’s Net Impact chapter, which is just three years old. “The program leaves a small window, from September to December, for first-year and second-year students to interact and plan for leadership transition.”

Jennifer Liao is the incoming president of the Net Impact chapter at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Liao believes that students can take a long-term approach by conveying the organization’s values, goals, and plans clearly to the incoming cohort. “With each year’s change in leadership and incoming class, we must constantly build our reputation and raise awareness,” says Liao.

The UIUC chapter keeps members active by offering them a range of networking opportunities, as well as job search and learning support, Liao explains. By keeping its members connected and engaged, Liao believes, the group can achieve its long-term objectives: developing more courses, case competitions, and conferences that emphasize sustainability.

In addition to maintaining momentum in their projects, students passionate about sustainability also have faced another significant hurdle: Until now, there have been few textbooks and case studies available that addressed the specific challenges of social enterprise.

But that’s quickly changing. The Aspen Institute has created, an online database of case studies that provide professors with a starting point in designing curricula in sustainability. The European Foundation for Management Development followed suit with, a gateway that compiles the latest educational resources grounded in CSR.

At the same time, entities such as the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Business as an Agent of World Benefit at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, are hosting conferences, promoting education, and generating a larger pool of research in the field. AACSB International, too, is addressing the topic—its second annual Sustainability Conference, held in Minneapolis this July 29 to 31, will center on discussions about sustainability, social responsibility, and ethics.

This means that students and faculty alike no longer need to start from scratch when proposing and designing new courses. These new resources offer professors a blueprint for integrating issues of social responsibility into core disciplines such as finance, marketing, strategy—indeed, the whole business curriculum.

Seeing Profit in Problems

Although the majority of business students graduate with plans to work in the for-profit sector, they expect to work for companies that integrate social and environmental returns into their businesses, says Chmielewski of Columbia. “Those who assume that ‘social enterprise’ is synonymous with ‘nonprofit’ have had their eyes closed for the past decade,” he says. “Many students today believe that social enterprise is not inconsistent with economic success.”

Of course, these students driving sustainability initiatives are helped when faculty champion their initiatives with them, as Foote did at Haas. However, like Chmielewski, Foote argues that students and faculty should do more to find the profit potential in sustainable business practices—not just promote the social benefit.

“When there’s no profit in problems—whether they’re education, low-income housing, homelessness, or drug abuse—they won’t get solved,” Foote argues. “Business schools need to graduate talented people who don’t just believe they can save the world. They must also believe they can make money at it.”

That’s the beauty of students who are a part of the Millennial Generation, says Foote. They are passionate, creative, and can see the opportunities that others might miss. “I’m so impressed with the initiative these students have. This is a generation of leaders who say, ‘We want it to happen, so we’ll make it happen.’ They don’t take the traditional ‘rules’ as a given,” he says. “That bodes well for the future of solving really complex problems. I’m really inspired by that.”

For information about Net Impact and Oïkos International, visit their Web sites at and Those interested in taking part in Haas’ simulcast course on microfinance this fall can contact Sean Foote at [email protected].