October 22, 2008

Johnson School Center Promotes Sustainable Entrepreneurship

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Cornell students are often reminded to turn off the lights, conserve water, drive less and recycle this newspaper. But at the end of the day, for most, environmental preservation is little more than an intermittent flicker in one’s mind.
In an op-ed column in the Financial Times, Prof. Stuart L. Hart, chair of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at the Johnson Graduate School of Management, argued that sustainability should not be treated so half-heartedly. Central to the article is Hart’s claim that the “greening trend” of business schools is merely “greenwashing.” Hart reprimanded schools that advertise sustainability education despite the fact that they lack substantive curricula and professional support beneath the “veneer.”
The University’s answer to the sustainability gap is the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, of which Hart is a member. The center was established through a $5 million grant by Samuel C. Johnson, of SC Johnson, in 2004. Dr. Mark B. Milstein currently serves as director.
The center manifests itself through the elective Sustainable Global Enterprise concentration, one of eight concentrations that MBA students can take in their second semester. Annually, 15-30 MBA and other graduate students engage in projects sponsored by companies with a focus on linking “entrepreneurship with socio-environmental issues.”[img_assist|nid=32872|title=Ivory tower|desc=The Johnson Graduate School of Management’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise promotes social responsibility in industry.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
According to Milstein, there are three areas where “innovation, entrepreneurship and sustainability come together.” These are environmental management, including risk management and compliance; corporate social responsibility, including shareholder management and philanthropy; and sustainable enterprise, which focuses on creating new industries.
But Milstein emphasized that the SGE education is not merely a “feel-good” measure: much of the curriculum is geared towards the ultimate goal of raising the bottom line. Milstein pointed to the specific examples of teaching students how to minimize the costs of complying with environmental restrictions and how to publicize initiatives to maximize the return from environmental investments.
Addressing the idea that companies may care more about boosting profits than saving the environment, Milstein said, “As a management scholar, that company’s not wrong.”
But will this profit-oriented environmental approach produce graduates who are better equipped to perpetuate greenwashing than to solve real environmental problems? While Milstein acknowledges the cynicism, he points to the third emphasis of the SGE program as a win-win situation. Namely, students are taught how to identify environmentally-driven demands to create new, environmentally-safe industries.
SGE also serves the purpose of attracting what Hart identified as a “new breed of MBA student … demanding that more attention be given to the world’s social and environmental challenges.”
The Center was first established partly in response to a report by Beyond Grey Pinstripes, an organization then led by the World Resources Institute and the Aspen Institute, which ranks business schools for sustainability education biennially. In the 2003 report, the Johnson School had fallen to the second-tier of nine schools, below six first-tier schools. Since then, numerical rankings have been made available, and Cornell has risen to 9th in 2005 and 7th in 2007.
The University’s Office of Environmental Compliance and Sustainability manages Cornell’s Climate Action Plan. OECS Sustainability Coordinator Daniel Roth applauds the SGE program.
He said, “I think that business students are eager … They’re making their decision on what business school to attend if they have these kinds of programs … Students want it. The industry wants it.”
The SGE program is not directly affiliated with the Climate Action Plan.
Milstein sees the SGE program as one of the “value propositions at Cornell… a draw for alumni and students and professionals who otherwise wouldn’t be drawn to Cornell.”
The next big event for the Center is the New Impact Conference, which gathers over 2000 academics and professionals, to be held in Ithaca next November.
The most recent batch of students in the SGE immersion will graduate in 2009.
Ryan Kelley JGSM ’09, said that the SGE program taught him how to help companies see the monetary value in sustainability.
“The course work fosters innovative thinking that internalizes social and environmental considerations to shatter the perceived trade-off of traditional business approaches,” he said.
Lilian Ng JGSM ’09, recalled how the SGE program allowed her to focus on the “Base of the Pyramid” — the four billion people who live on less than $2 per day.
She said, “This experience sets me apart because it allows me to combine a business proposition with potential impact at the [Base of the Pyramid] level.”
Mike Pezone JGSM ’09 who also focused on Base of the Pyramid studies, has participated in numerous international projects to reduce waste and tackle global development challenges. He said that while other immersions at the Johnson School were specifically geared towards certain fields, the SGE immersion had “less concrete employers in mind.”