Innovations That Inspire

Impact MBA Corporate Sustainability Fellowships

Recognition Year(s): 2023
School: College of Business, Colorado State University
Location: United States

The project-based Impact MBA Corporate Sustainability Fellowship Program pairs students with innovative businesses to address sustainability challenges and drive transformation in the workplace.

Kathryn Ernst, Director of Impact MBA, College of Business, Colorado State University

Call to Action

The Colorado State University (CSU) Impact MBA advances the notion of business as a force for good and equips students with the skills and competencies needed to implement and manage corporate sustainability initiatives within firms. The need for student and employer programs focusing on employability within corporate sustainability is clear. Market pressure, investor expectations, new U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission guidelines, and numerous other business and environmental forces have converged to make sustainability and social responsibility a part of almost all roles and workplaces.

However, demand for competent, business-focused sustainability professionals has outpaced supply, with an estimated supply 2 percent under demand, and a growing gap emerging, according to LinkedIn. Industry stakeholders note the importance of graduates who understand environmental, social, and governance (ESG) application within workplaces, change management, and the day-to-day implementation of sustainability initiatives in organizations. Students are also demanding integrated approaches to sustainability education and sustainability experiential learning.

The Impact MBA emphasizes experiential and applied learning as a core pedagogical approach. From the beginning, our program leaders have believed that case studies and one-off electives do not sufficiently prepare students for the complex dynamic of addressing sustainability in firms. In addition to social and sustainable business-specific curriculum in every class, we wanted the Impact MBA to ensure that students engage in a process of applying curriculum in the real world and learning from people outside of the classroom.

Innovation Details

The Impact MBA Corporate Sustainability Fellowship program is designed to equip students with the skills to drive social and sustainable business transformation in their workplaces. This program places students in 400-hour, project-based fellowships within firms after they have completed one year of coursework, ranging from greenhouse gas management to marketing for sustainable ventures.

Student fellowships have encompassed a company’s first sustainability audit and goal setting, to developing scope 3 greenhouse gas strategies, to assessing the return on investment for various sustainability initiatives. Many internship or fellowship requirements at other institutions require that students seek their own placements. When building this fellowship program, the Impact MBA staff decided on a path they felt would lead to a world-class program. They source, scope, and place all students individually with a paid fellowship opportunity, ensuring all positions are academically rigorous, are project based, and enable significant MBA-level learning outcomes for the students.

As a result of this program, students gain hands-on experience in sustainable business management approaches and strategies they can leverage for improved employability post-program. Businesses are able to initiate sustainability work with the extended employee capacity, develop innovative business solutions to sustainability challenges, and recruit and retain sustainable business professionals. The impact to businesses is significant: businesses with authentic ESG commitments are more resilient, subject to reduced legal and supply chain risk, have higher employee retention, and benefit from favorable market perception.

Innovation Impact

The CSU College of Business is committed to rethinking how we utilize our curriculum to make a difference in our community and industry. This program has provided over 22,000 hours of sustainability work to 50 companies in two years. The companies range from large multinational corporations, such as PepsiCo and Ball Corporation, to mid-size businesses, such as Lightning eMotors, Eileen Fischer, and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. About one-third of the companies are small businesses reached through a partnership with the Colorado Green Business Program and the EPA’s Pollution Prevention Grant.

Intensive upfront work by Impact MBA staff and faculty, along with competent and professional students, results in high employer satisfaction. This year, employers rated their experience with their Impact MBA fellow at a mean of 9.64 on a scale of 1 to 10. They rated the students on assessment measures including preparedness (9.65), professionalism (9.73), initiative (9.57), and execution of responsibilities (9.75)

Business schools must also continue to rethink how they can better prepare students for the jobs of the future. After implementing this fellowship program, the salary rate of graduates increased by 55 percent since the prior salary measure.

Finally, business schools must figure out how to keep their curriculum relevant in a rapidly changing world. While many competitors may not have immediate and significant market feedback on program content, placing students in fellowships mid-program means that the Impact MBA staff learn very quickly about gaps that might exist in the curriculum and adjust to make sure students are equipped for success in the field.

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