Setting Objectives for Impact
In 2019, the French government announced that it had created Société à Mission, a new status for organizations tying their missions firmly to social impact. Passed as part of the PACTE Law, Société à Mission is similar to B Corp status in the United States. It can be earned only by those organizations that have dedicated their missions and all operations to achieving positive societal impact and protecting the environment.
Currently, more than 200 organizations in France have earned this status, from larger corporations to smaller startups. Among this group are a small number of higher education institutions, including Grenoble Ecole de Management. (Toulouse Business School also recently secured the designation.)
Grenoble is using the Société à Mission framework as the means to formalize its attention to societal impact throughout its teaching, research, and outreach, explains Julie Perrin-Halot, the school’s associate dean and director of quality, strategic planning and international development. “It’s easy for schools to head in a hundred different directions, but this status is really helping us focus and recenter,” she says.
The school has set the following five objectives as part of its 2020–2025 strategic plan. Each objective is tied to one or more of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals:
- Act ethically and defend the physical and moral integrity of people; refuse any behavior or speech that violates the rights, health, and dignity of each individual (SDG 3).
- Defend the right to be different, encourage diversity, and oppose all forms of discrimination (SDGs 5 and 10).
- Promote access to quality education for all, and work for inclusion and equal opportunities (SDG 4).
- Promote solidarity and the principles of economic peace, and fight all forms of corruption and violence (SDGs 11, 16, and 17).
- Fight against global warming by preserving natural resources and biodiversity, in particular through designing zero-waste campuses (SDGs 12 and 13).
AACSB Insights recently spoke with Perrin-Halot about the origin of these objectives. She discusses what it took for the school to become a Société à Mission organization and how the school’s new status will drive its strategic direction in the years to come.
When did Grenoble’s administrators first consider pursuing Société à Mission status?
We had already decided five years ago that we wanted to be not just a business school, but a school for business and society. We started to ask questions such as, How do we orient the activities of the institution to serve a purpose for society? How can we address all the challenges that the world is facing today?
More recently, as we began creating our 2020–2025 strategic plan, the question became, How do we dig deeper into this? It was just at that time that France developed Société à Mission. We thought this status would be a fantastic way to give ourselves a framework and objectives to work with.
How did you prepare for the process?
First, we had to get legal support to make sure it was compatible with our status in France as an école supérieure de commerce, or ESC. Then, our board of administration had to vote to approve it and validate societal impact as our raison d’etre, so that we could include it in all of our official documents.
We shared our plan with our international advisory board and executive committee; and we held information sessions with our alumni, faculty, and students. We communicated with our closest corporate partners, especially those involved in preparing our new strategy, to explain exactly what we wanted to do. We wouldn’t feel right doing this if we weren’t being completely inclusive.
What did the school already have in place that supported its pursuit of this new legal status?
We already had created a kind of sustainability charter, a declaration of our position on various issues such as equality and diversity. We ask every new student and everyone we hire to go online and sign this document electronically. In 2020, we updated this document to integrate the topic of climate change into it more clearly. We began calling it our Sustainability Manifesto. We were able to pull our five objectives from this document.
How will the school track its progress?
We have formed a committee made up of internal and external academics and experts. They will monitor progress we make against our objectives and release an annual report.
Several years ago, we also created what we call our sustainability committee, which now has about 150 members, including students, staff, and faculty. This committee is divided into six working groups that will figure out how we can dedicate what we’re doing to our five objectives. They include a pedagogy and research group, a diversity and inclusion group, a mobility group, a zero-waste group, and a governance, strategy, and commitment group.
Students are adamant about making sure they’ve got the skills to address sustainability issues in the organizations where they’ll work. That’s how we’ll have the greatest impact in the long run—through our graduates.
The name of the sixth group translates to something like “local roots.” It will focus on how we interact with the local community. In Grenoble, the environmental party is really strong, and the city has become one of the greenest cities in France. The “local roots” group will help us connect what we’re doing with everything that’s happening in the city.
Every two years, an independent third-party organization will audit us on that progress as a way for us to maintain our Société à Mission status. In a sense, we’ve set ourselves up for something that has a lot of requirements, but we thought it would be a great way to go full throttle toward what we want to achieve.
What feedback have you received from students?
Last fall, a group of students formed an ad hoc association that they call GEM in Transition. They came to speak to our executive committee about climate change. They told us, “This is so important to us now. We need to know how you’re going to put climate change into our curriculum, and we want to help you do it. Let us be decision makers with you.” We knew then that we absolutely had to create an objective around climate change.
The students are adamant about making sure that, when they graduate, they’ve got a toolbox of knowledge and skills to address these issues in the organizations where they’ll work. That’s how we’ll have the greatest impact in the long run—through our graduates.
While “hyflex” courses at Grenoble can reduce travel, the school must account for the environmental impact of online technology. (Photo by Bruno Moyen)
What feedback have you received from alumni? What did they want to see happen because of this status?
After we announced this, I started receiving messages on LinkedIn from alumni saying, “I want to do something like this in my own company, can I learn about how you’re doing it? Can I get involved? Can alumni chapters do anything to forward this?” That’s really heartening—the more people involved, the bigger the impact.
Over the next few years, what benchmarks will the school be working to reach as it works toward its five strategic objectives?
One thing we’re doing is re-examining salaries at our institution to make sure that we’re reaching equality there, using various salary indexes in France related to gender and diversity as our benchmarks. We want to meet and go beyond the minimum standards.
Another question that we’re discussing right now with HR is, How do we ensure that within everybody’s job descriptions there is something related to our objectives? We want all faculty and staff to have time that they can dedicate to these subjects outside of their regular daily jobs, and we want to make sure that this time is recognized and valued.
In terms of teaching and learning, we will look at how our five objectives are fully integrated across the curriculum. We plan to train our teachers so they can ensure that every class focuses in some way on issues related to our objectives. We also want to set similar targets related to the research funding that we get, the work that our foundation does, and the partners we work with.
What actions does the school plan to take toward mitigating climate change?
One of our benchmarks is to make the institution fully carbon neutral by 2030. For example, before the pandemic, we did an enormous amount of travel. We certainly don’t want to call off our internationalization activities, because we can create global citizens only by sending students out to be immersed in other cultures.
But at the same time, we have to think about how we can make these activities more carbon neutral. How do we think about internationalization in a new way? How do we travel differently, travel closer to home, or maybe travel less frequently? For example, I’ve heard that some schools are asking students who are studying abroad for a year to not travel back, even for Christmas, to reduce the number of flights.
We have to think about how to make our internationalization activities more carbon neutral. How do we think about internationalization in new ways? How do we travel differently, travel closer to home, or maybe travel less frequently?
Grenoble also is building a new campus in Paris, and we want the campus to be completely carbon neutral. In addition, we’re going to retrofit what we’ve got at Grenoble, so our buildings and our spaces and everything we do inside our own four walls is completely compliant with our climate change objective.
But there are many situations affecting the climate where the right choice isn’t clear. Remote course delivery will help us reduce our travel, but we’ll use more online resources, so how do we compensate for that? What’s worse, printing a document or saving it in the cloud? It takes energy to store just the files we have in our email inboxes, most of which we never even go back to—some argue that we should just clear out our email boxes altogether. We will have to dive into these issues and decide how we can do things in ways that are more sensitive to people and the planet.
What have you learned in this process that you think will serve the school?
I think one of the most heartening lessons we’ve learned is that this isn’t a controversial topic. When we said that this was the direction we wanted to go, the overwhelming majority of people jumped on the train and said, “Absolutely, I’m on board.” It really pulled people together and gave us a common north star.
It also has been a nice takeaway to realize that what we started to do years ago has turned into something worthwhile that permeates our culture and our activities. It has been a great learning curve, one that supersedes a lot of the divisions that we often see in institutions, where the administration is on one side, the faculty are on one side, the students are on another side. This experience has shown us that we’re all in this together. I think that’s important. When schools can bring everyone together, that’s when they find their strength.