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A Sustainable MBA Tackles 21st-Century Issues

The University of Victoria’s MBA in Sustainable Innovation focuses on developing ethical leaders who can adapt in a quickly changing world.

If there is anything the COVID-19 pandemic has proved, it’s that the world needs sustainable solutions designed for the challenges we face today. At the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, we have created a new program designed to help business leaders develop those solutions in an ethical fashion.

Consultations with leaders in the business community reinforced our belief that emphasizing sustainability was no longer a choice; it was essential for ensuring the future of business. In the fall of 2020, we launched our MBA in Sustainable Innovation. Rather than build a specialized MBA, we’ve integrated sustainability and innovation throughout all the courses in our program.

Building our MBA with sustainability and innovation as foundations rather than add-ons was a logical continuation of our conviction that these precepts are fundamental to everything we do as business educators and leaders. The pandemic only highlighted how crucial it will be for us to develop business leaders who are responsible, ethical, and self-aware—who can take a purpose-based approach to business. These are the leaders who will create solutions, disrupt mindsets, and champion sustainable innovation. 

Specializing in Sustainability

The new MBA focuses on tying business outcomes to social and environmental issues as well as economic ones. We want to give our MBA graduates not only a new way of seeing the world, but also the practical experience to tackle emerging issues.

While mastering core MBA subjects, students explore the integration of sustainability and innovation into these topics. They take specialized courses on subjects such as innovation and design, strategic collaboration, social entrepreneurship and technology, and the interconnected organization. Throughout the program, students engage in a responsible and ethical leadership course and a career development course. They also complete capstone consulting projects.

We built the curriculum around four key learning principles: student-centered pedagogies, a “knowledge-building” learning environment, formative assessments and feedback, and mentorship. Learning occurs through group discussions, simulations, case studies, applied projects, and opportunities for self-reflection. We maintain a low student-instructor ratio and emphasize problem solving and student-led learning rather than lectures.

The pandemic highlighted how crucial it will be to develop business leaders who are responsible, ethical, and self-aware—who can take a purpose-based approach to business. 

We also provide students with opportunities to work with employers whose values align with the program. These opportunities come through co-op experiences and consulting projects—many of which are provided by our alumni. For example, students have completed capstone consulting projects focused on developing sustainable energy for First Nations communities, finding solar opportunities for residential real estate, improving healthcare systems, managing multinational corporate performance, and analyzing the international market for natural plant-based beauty products.

The Student Profile

Just as important as designing the right curriculum is finding the right students. We want to enroll individuals who are committed to the greater good, who understand the societal responsibility associated with their industries, and who look beyond considerations of salary compensation.

To appeal to prospective students whose values match the program’s ethos, we invite applications from passionate individuals who see themselves as “visionaries, disruptors, problem solvers, and accelerators.”

Applicants must take the GMAT or GRE and have professional work experience, but what we look at most closely is the candidate’s motivation for applying to the program. Students are required to provide two personal submissions—one written essay and one video—describing why they want to join the UVic MBA in Sustainable Innovation and outlining their future career goals.

Students can follow one of two program formats, each with the same curriculum. The 16-month Daytime MBA, which generally attracts students with less work experience, is ideal for those seeking new career paths. The 24-month Weekend MBA, which allows students to continue working full-time, enrolls students with more extensive work experience across a variety of industries.

Students in both program formats come from a range of academic and professional backgrounds, but they have two things in common: They have a shared interest in learning about business through the lens of sustainable innovation, and they value the critical importance of responsible and ethical leadership in the 21st century.

Impact of the Pandemic

The launch of the new program was complicated by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused us to shift all our courses online, in accordance with provincial and federal safety guidelines in Canada.

To maximize the effectiveness of digital education, we provided faculty and students with technological training and support. In fact, because we have relied so heavily on technology during the pandemic, we have had meaningful discussions with faculty and students about the rapidly evolving role of technology in education.

To solve the problems of our current decade, we will need responsible business leaders who can implement creative innovation and sustainable practices.

“We have had to embrace technology in a way we never have before in delivering our program,” says Ian Robertson, director of administration for MBA programs. “Our educational experience will be permanently changed and enhanced by the new ways of teaching and learning that the pandemic has provided us.”

Online education has had an added benefit for students. “In the new wave of living and learning online, I am continually surprised by what can be accomplished with a laptop and a little imagination,” says MBA student Jason Fitzpatrick. He appreciates the chance to gain not only traditional business skills, but also the digital skills that will set him apart as a business leader. He adds, “From virtual brainstorming, rethinking online learning, and communicating online, I feel like I'm sharpening my skills to stand out.”

The Need for Responsible Leaders

Although the MBA in Sustainable Innovation began its inaugural year in a virtual setting, it has gotten off to an overwhelmingly positive start. Between 2019 and 2020, we saw a 48.5 percent increase in inquiries for the Daytime MBA and a 55 percent increase in inquiries for the Weekend MBA, which had a waitlist for the 2020 cohort.

And the widespread challenges posed by the pandemic have only further emphasized the reason we need such a program in the first place. In order to solve the problems of our current decade and those to come, we will need responsible business leaders who can implement creative innovation and sustainable practices. We have put sustainable innovation at the core of our program so these leaders will put sustainability and innovation at the heart of their businesses.

Ruth Ormiston is the external relations co-op student for the Gustavson School of Business and a master’s student in English literature at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.