Bard College Bets on Sustainability

When students act as business consultants, there’s value for the sponsors, the students, the school, and the wider region.

In 2012, Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, made a big change to its MBA. Because more businesses were investing in sustainable processes, Bard faculty believed that by focusing the school’s MBA on sustainability, they could give graduates an edge in the job market.

“Numerous studies have shown that companies that have strong platforms of corporate social responsibility, ESG [environmental, social, and governance], and sustainability outperform companies that do not,” says Eban Goodstein, director of the Bard MBA in Sustainability and the Bard Center for Environmental Policy.

The MBA in Sustainability is a hybrid program, but the majority of its content is delivered via online instruction. Students participate in monthly weekend residencies, which combine intensive face-to-face interaction, community building, and career networking. Each cohort typically attracts about 20 students.

Two features of the MBA curriculum include the school’s yearlong experiential NYCLab and a capstone project. In the NYCLab, students spend the entire first year working on a team-based consultancy project to address sustainability issues at client companies. Clients have included large corporations such as Unilever and Siemens, smaller companies such as Clif Bar, nonprofits such as the National Wildlife Federation, and government agencies in New York State.

During their consultancy projects, students take concurrent courses in topics such as sustainable management, personal leadership development, economics for decision making, accounting, operations, finance, and data analytics.

In their second year, students complete eight courses, including those in marketing, entrepreneurship, change leadership, and globalization. At the same time, they take on capstone projects, in which they have a choice: They can develop business plans or start actual businesses, they can complete research projects, or they can work as “intrapreneurs” at their current organizations.

For instance, Chelsea Mozen was part of the inaugural MBA in Sustainability class in the fall of 2012. For her capstone project, she worked with Etsy, an online marketplace where artisans can sell their goods, to develop Etsy Solar, a program that offers expert advice, a rebate, and other incentives to help Etsy’s nearly 2 million artisan producers bring solar energy to their homes or studios. Today, Mozen is Etsy’s senior manager of sustainability and energy.

For her first-year NYCLab experience, Mariana Souza joined the Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps, which placed her with Baxter International, a healthcare company based in Chicago. For her second-year capstone, Souza formed a sustainability consulting firm with two other students. Their clients included utility company Con Edison, consultancy firm SustainAbility, and vitamin company Pharmavite. Souza is now a senior associate at KPMG, where she works as a consultant for the power and utility sector.

The first sustainability practitioners were essentially self-taught, says Laura Gitman, who is vice president at the sustainable business strategies nonprofit BSR and who runs the NYCLab. Now that sustainability has taken hold within organizations, individuals must formalize their knowledge around environmentally conscious business practices. “I often joke that I wouldn’t hire someone with the same background I had when I got my MBA,” says Gitman, referring to her early lack of formal training in sustainable business practices. “Now organizations recognize the value of interdisciplinary skills and experiences.”