Learning to Lead With Sustainability Impact

Article Icon Article
Friday, April 21, 2023
By Michele Hujber
Photo by iStock/jittawit.21
Today’s business schools are responding to students’ desires to make a difference in the world regardless of the career paths they choose.
  • Courses and initiatives featured in AACSB's 2023 Innovations That Inspire program show how business schools are helping students embed societal impact goals into their careers, for the long-term.
  • Business schools are equipping graduates with the broader mindsets, skills, and principles needed to become impactful, well-rounded leaders tomorrow.
  • Urgent societal challenges like climate change and sustainability must become an integral part of business curriculum so future leaders can create change.

More than half of business school students are “very” or “extremely” concerned about the impacts of global warming, according to a 2022 report from Yale University and the Global Network for Advanced Management. Prospective students are evaluating how the schools' curricula will help them turn their concerns into meaningful careers that promote sustainability and prepare them for the world of work.

Students worldwide could find many such programs among the schools in AACSB’s Business Education Alliance. Each year, AACSB calls on its member schools to submit their innovative practices around a given theme. The theme this year is “The Innovative Business Schools of Tomorrow.” 

Highlights from the 2023 selections include EMLYON’s Act for Climate course, King Talal School of Business Technology’s Agenda 2030/SDGs Club, the Amrut Mody School of Management’s Innovative Interdisciplinary Foundation Studios, and Colorado State College of Business’s Impact MBA Corporate Sustainability Fellowship.

Connecting the Dots in Complex Situations

Many business students who worry about climate change and are anxious to make a difference do not have the tools to do so. Act for Climate, a mandatory course for first-year Master of Management students at EMLYON Business School in France, helps fill that gap.

Act for Climate starts with an introduction to the science of climate change. It then challenges students to devise ways to deploy climate change tactics within a business environment.

A key message for students is that they can impact climate change regardless of their job title.

The students learn that even when the effects of climate change are clear, differences among stakeholders can impede change. "There are relationships that can limit the action," said Xavier Blot, associate professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at EMLYON. "So our students analyze situations and then reconnect the dots at that level.”

A key message for students is that they can impact climate change regardless of their job title. "They don't have to be a chief sustainability officer to have an impact," Blot said. "They need to embed sustainability in all their jobs." For example, finance specialists need to follow regulations supporting their organization's sustainability framework, while someone in purchasing might need to consider the carbon performances of suppliers.

“Our students in business schools are in the right place to tackle climate change,” Blot said. “Our work is to understand organizations and to know how we can mobilize within them."

SDGs Permeate Campus and Courses

Imagine a university campus where solar panels generate all its electrical power. Where an intentional shortage of parking lots discourages cars on campus. Where every course states which United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) it addresses.

This no-nonsense approach to sustainability is the reality at King Talal School of Business Technology (KTSBT) at Princess Sumaya University for Technology (PSUT) in Amman, Jordan.

Students work on Jordan’s major sustainability issues in every class. These issues include poverty, food and water scarcity, and fair access to education.

Students know from the start that the school focuses on sustainability. "We let them know in the entrance interview that the school cares about the environment, climate change, and the atmosphere," said George Sammour, dean and associate professor at KTSBT. “They know that if they get into this university, they will be part of our ecosystem.”

Recently, the school started aligning all course syllabi and learning outcomes with the SDGs. Thus, students work on Jordan’s major sustainability issues in every class. These issues include poverty, food and water scarcity, and fair access to education.

Sammour estimates that more than 35 percent of the school’s business students are very interested in sustainability. A group of these students formed a club, resulting in the Agenda 2030/SDGs Club. One of their projects—to capture and reuse water dripping from air conditioners—is helping to ease water shortages on campus.

Sustainable development is an important concern within the PSUT strategic plan, as newly appointed president Wejdan Abu Elhaija has emphasized. And soon, KTSBT will offer a Master’s in Sustainability Management. The school conducted a survey of employees at nongovernmental organizations, financial institutions, and other businesses in Jordan, and found keen interest in the program, particularly among senior management. This master's program will be the first such program in Jordan.

New Ways of Thinking, Doing, Connecting, and Becoming

Business school students in 2023 are entering a world that has new and urgent problems. "The graduates coming out from all our institutions, not only in India but around the world, need very different kinds of mindsets, skills, and principles," said Pankaj Chandra, vice chancellor of Ahmedabad University.

To help prepare business students, the Amrut Mody School of Management (AMSOM), located in Ahmedabad, India, offers four essential experiences.

First, ways of thinking. These are the traditional student activities, such as reading, writing, or listening to a lecture.

Second, ways of doing. These include fieldwork. "When you go to an underserved community, you start to think about solutions," Chandra said. "You build empathy and compassion, which are very critical elements for designing solutions."

Third, ways of connecting ideas from different disciplines. “Most education, not only in India but around the world, does not facilitate connecting ideas from different disciplines,” Chandra said.

Fourth, ways of becoming. "If education does not change me as a human being, if it doesn't transform me in my mind and heart, it's no education at all,” Chandra said.

Each studio is interdisciplinary and experiential and builds research thinking. Faculty from many disciplines designed and teach the courses together.

These four experiences are integral to a University Common Core Foundation Studio Program all university students take in their first year. The program delivers:

  • Skills: data science, communication
  • Perspective Building: behavior, constitution and civilization, and
  • Areas of Innovation: materials, biology and life).

There are four studio courses: Water, Climate Change, Democracy and Justice, and Neighborhoods. Each studio is interdisciplinary and experiential and builds research thinking. Faculty from many disciplines designed and teach the courses together.

AMSOM students focus on business while also connecting with people from other disciplines, such as engineering or sociology. "They are realizing that these people have some very interesting perspectives that will change the way they think,” Chandra said. “When they go to work in corporations and social organizations, they will have people to draw upon or engage with from very different walks of very different persuasions and disciplinary training.”

Gaining Confidence for High-Powered Sustainability Roles

After two semesters in Colorado State University’s Impact MBA, students complete a 400-hour corporate sustainability fellowship. They work for startups, multinational organizations, city governments, and nonprofits. Their projects have involved implementing waste reduction practices, creating annual impact reports, completing corporate carbon management plans, and more.

The fellows are learning to influence change in how businesses impact the environment. "A fundamental shift must happen in business for us to have a more sustainable and just future," said Grace Wright, special assistant to the dean for sustainability initiatives and faculty lead for the fellowship program. "The students in our program will be the leaders that help accelerate that shift."

The Impact MBA staff, led by program director Kathryn Ernst, works with companies to scope sustainability projects and matches the right student for the placement.

The fellowship instills the confidence students need for a high-powered sustainability role. “This confidence allows fellows to strive for roles or salary ranges they might not have had before,” Wright said.

Business Schools Play an Essential Role in Sustainability

“Business is the driving force because business touches everything we do," Wright said. "If you want scale and depth of impact, businesses are a place to do it. It's not the only place, but it is an important place."

“Young people have always been demanding courses that integrate sustainability, but now there's a market for these skills,” Wright added. "And business schools are responding, and curriculum is catching up."

Michele Hujber
Chief Content Writer, Hujber Public Relations, LLC
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
Subscribe to LINK, AACSB's weekly newsletter!
AACSB LINK—Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge—is an email newsletter that brings members and subscribers the newest, most relevant information in global business education.
Sign up for AACSB's LINK email newsletter.
Our members and subscribers receive Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge in global business education.
Thank you for subscribing to AACSB LINK! We look forward to keeping you up to date on global business education.
Weekly, no spam ever, unsubscribe when you want.