Going All In

The University of Vermont revamps its MBA program to focus on a single topic: sustainability. How and why did it make the decision?
Going All In

When Sanjay Sharma began his new job as dean of the School of Business Administration at the University of Vermont in Burlington, he knew his first order of business would likely define his deanship. He needed to scrap a tra­ditional 38-year-old MBA program and replace it with an entirely new model that addressed 21st-century business challenges.

The school’s previ­ous MBA program had been designed in the early 1970s for mid-level man­agers at area companies such as IBM, General Dynamics, and GE Healthcare—but by 2011, when Sharma arrived, those participants were a dying breed. IBM had gone from a peak of 8,500 employees in 2001 to about 4,000; GE Healthcare purged 10 percent of its workforce in 2012. With such a limited pool of potential students, says Sharma, “it was not financially viable to run a 45-credit program.”

The school initially concentrated on improving the old program, which was marketed to local residents and UVM employees who wanted to earn their MBAs in the evenings. But without the additional students from major local companies, the program couldn’t attract significant numbers. “The future looked bleak,” says Sharma.

To determine how to revamp the MBA, Sharma convened an ad hoc com­mittee that analyzed other programs, conducted an internal review, and interviewed business leaders to discover what they wanted from graduates. Even­tually Sharma and his team decided that they should develop a specialized program focused on the world’s great­est sustainability challenges, as well as related issues such as the environment, ethics, poverty, and inequality.

Sharma had a deep interest in the top­ic: His scholarship explores environmen­tal strategy and corporate sustainability, and he authored the book Competing for a Sustainable World. But he knew it was risky to launch a program with such a defined specialty. “As a faculty member, I loved the idea of focusing on sustain­ability, but as a dean I was wondering if we would attract enough students,” says Sharma. “Philosophically, I believed in it, but I just didn’t know if it would work.”

Nonetheless, in the fall of 2014, Shar­ma and his team launched the one-year Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA program, or SEMBA, by turning the broad outlines of an idea into a carefully crafted new program.


Sharma’s first step was to recruit Stuart Hart, a leading authority on the ways poverty and the environment affect business strategy. Hart’s 1995 article “A Natural Resource-Based View of the Firm” is the most highly-cited academic work in the field of sustainable enter­prise, while “Beyond Greening: Strate­gies for a Sustainable World” won the McKinsey Award for Best Article in the Harvard Business Review in 1997.

“He’s the equivalent of Michael Jor­dan in basketball,” says Sharma. “He’s a superstar in his field and puts us at the forefront of business sustainability.” Sharma reasoned that Hart’s presence would give the program instant credibili­ty and attract other top-flight scholars.


Hart also had extensive experience in starting similar programs: At the University of Michigan, he developed the Corporate Environmental Management Program, a joint effort between the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources; at the University of North Carolina, he created the Center for Sustainable Enterprise; and at Cornell University, he developed the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise.

For UVM, Hart had something differ­ent in mind from those previous initia­tives, which he refers to as “saddlebag” programs. “If you open up a saddlebag, it might have some cool stuff inside, but if you take the saddlebag off the horse, you still have the same horse,” he explains. “You haven’t fundamentally altered the animal. We’re trying to alter the animal.”


To strengthen the program even fur­ther, Sharma recruited additional top faculty members, funding some of their appointments through a large donation from alumnus Steven Grossman. Gross­man’s gift covered the creation of three endowed chairs: one in sustainable busi­ness, which went to Hart; one in finance, which went to Charles Schnitzlein; and one in entrepreneurship, which was filled by Erik Monsen.

Sharma also was able to pull in exist­ing faculty. While some felt they didn’t have relevant expertise and chose to stick with teaching in the undergraduate program, close to half came on board for SEMBA. Associate professor David Jones, whose scholarship focuses on how workers respond to an organiza­tion’s socially and environmentally re­sponsible business practices, was named co-director of the program along with Hart. Longtime faculty member William Cats-Baril, an associate professor for information and decision sciences, became the inaugural SEMBA director.

Other professors joined SEMBA from the university’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, Gund Institute for Ecological Econom­ics, Department of Community Develop­ment and Applied Economics, and Ver­mont Law School. The multidisciplinary nature of SEMBA’s faculty enriched the program, says Sharma, and helped it gain acceptance across campus.


With the faculty in place, the next chal­lenge was to design the program itself. Co-director Jones conducted extensive research on MBA programs across the U.S. and concentrated on developing a distinctive position for SEMBA. The ini­tial curriculum was mapped out by com­mittees that reported to faculty during each segment of the design phase. That initial design later was refined by Hart and Cats-Baril and approved by faculty.

They created a program that was un­conventional, consisting of four eight-week modules composed of shorter, intense courses worth varying credits. It emphasized the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits. Topics in­cluded world challenges, business strat­egy for a sustainable world, sustainable operations, leadership for transforma­tion, and finance for innovators. To keep sustainability at the forefront of every course, Hart led workshops about how to integrate it into various disciplines.

Not unexpectedly, that worked better in some courses than others. Faculty met at the end of each module to discuss tactics. At the end of the first year, they went on a retreat to explore the tech­niques they had used and identify where gaps still existed. Says Hart, “It has been a series of process interventions that have helped build up a core team of busi­ness professors, as well as an outside team of faculty from other disciplines.”


A hallmark of the program is its three-month practicum, in which students go around the world to work with com­panies like Keurig Green Mountain (formerly Green Mountain Roasters), Burton, Novelis, PepsiCo, Ben & Jerry’s, Novo Nordisk, Casella Waste Systems, AllEarth Renewables, Cabot Cream­ery, FreshTracks Capital LP, Seventh Generation, and Vermont Energy In­vestment Corporation.

During the practicum, two- and three-person teams create a venture plan by starting a sustainable business, expanding an existing one, or working within a corporation that’s addressing sustainabil­ity issues somewhere in the world. For instance, in the 2014-2015 school year, some students worked with PepsiCo in Guatemala to develop a new business focus around affordable nutrition. Others partnered with a private equity firm in New York to create an investment plat­form focused on sustainable businesses; still others helped Novo Nordisk in Africa create solutions around inclusive health. At the end of the practicum, students delivered a detailed action plan for their sponsoring organization, pitching it to a panel of executives, entrepreneurs, and financiers.

During its first year, the program also incorporated original case studies based on real-life examples provided by SEMBA’s industry partners. For example, Novelis, the largest rolled aluminum company in the world, made the decision to stop using bauxite and start making aluminum out of already existing aluminum. This “total corporate transformation,” as Hart calls it, result­ed in a 95 percent reduction in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

To teach the Novelis case in their classes, SEMBA faculty looked at it from multiple angles. “Faculty from different disciplines talked about the same case, which had a knitting effect that helped them all understand it,” says Hart.


SEMBA also was designed so that leaders from its industry partners could teach courses, serve on the board of advisors, and mentor students. In addition, the school brought in more than ten executives in residence—both executives and entrepreneurs—to offer students practical insights into leading a sustainably focused business.

“There’s a framework and set of beliefs around how you lead a value-creat­ing enterprise sustainably and entrepre­neurially in a way that unlocks human potential,” says Casella Waste Systems’ vice president Joe Fusco, who teaches a leadership course. “The definition of leadership today is liberating people around you to solve problems at a masterful level. Today’s and tomorrow’s problems call for a leadership approach that is willing to abandon top-down, command-and-control problem solving. The old approach asked you to manage one capital—financial capital. The new approach says you have to manage a lot of different capitals—people, finite resources from the Earth, financial capital, social capital, and asset capital. Leadership is the only true competi­tive advantage that a company or an organization has. Everything else can be duplicated by your competitors. These are the skills we teach in this program.”


With real-world experience and deep knowledge of sustainability issues, SEMBA graduates are poised to fill a niche, says Hart. “Companies need peo­ple who can set up profitable businesses in sustainable domains that address sus­tainability issues such as clean energy, clean water, climate change, education, and healthcare,” he says.

In fact, Hart predicts that about half of the SEMBA graduates will end up in companies where they’ve completed practicums—while the remainder will launch startups. What he doesn’t expect to see is UVM’s students taking tradi­tional jobs in marketing, investment banking, or corporate finance. Instead, they’ll be entrepreneurs and change makers. “They’ll launch new ventures that are inherently clean or that are serving the poor, or they’ll work at corpo­rations like PepsiCo that are undergoing transformation,” he says. “Those are our sweet spots.”

Fusco believes corpora­tions need problem solvers who know how to create value in a world with constrained resources—not “people who are great at manipulating spreadsheets.” He adds, “We have to reinvent the way businesses are imagined, led, and organized.”


As the first cohort of SEMBA students graduated in May, Sharma and his col­leagues reflected on the fact that they’re attempting to create the very thing they’re teaching their students how to build: an entrepreneurial business that is sustainable over time. Only one year in, the program still must prove that it can survive over the long haul.

“If you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t know if your enterprise is going to work, but that’s the nature of entrepreneur­ship,” says Hart. “You project yourself into the unknown, but that’s the only way that anything new and innovative ever happens. It’s far easier to do an incremental tweak of something that’s already there. It takes guts to start from scratch and go all in, and we’re all in.”

As with any startup, the first few years will be critical as the program learns what’s successful, refines its product, and builds its reputation. But Sharma is convinced that SEMBA is the right program for a business school to be offering in the 21st century. Businesses will be dealing with sustainability chal­lenges, he says—“and they want gradu­ates who know how to solve them.”