A new business school model teaches students to look beyond the bottom line
What if Dilbert's ruthless corporate bean-counter boss were transformed into a socially responsible exec who cared as much about the environment as he did about the year-end P&L statement? The comic strip might be a lot less funny, but it would reflect an innovative new model in the business world -- the 'green' M.B.A.
According to a recent study by the international nonprofit Aspen Institute, most M.B.A. students care even less about the environmental and social impact of commerce after they graduate from business school than they do before they enter. 'Traditional business schools have been teaching that it is immoral to be moral,' explains Gifford Pinchot, a longtime socially responsible business consultant. 'They teach that protecting the environment or caring for communities -- unless it directly benefits stockholders -- is stealing from stockholders to pursue your personal agenda.'
After years of training executives (many with an M.B.A. from places like Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton) in the basics of socially responsible business, Pinchot and his wife and business partner, Elizabeth, decided to set their sights higher: In 2002 they founded the Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI), a school dedicated to teaching business in the context of environmental and social responsibility.
Located a short ferry ride from Seattle on Bainbridge Island, BGI offers an M.B.A. program in sustainable business practice. (The New College of California in Santa Rosa and the San Francisco-based Presidio World College are the only other schools that offer similar degrees.) BGI's curriculum, Pinchot notes, takes a 'triple bottom line' approach to business, teaching students to create organizations that grow social and natural (or ecological) capital as well as financial capital.
'Our grand project is to give people all of the M.B.A. skills that Dilbert makes fun of, while emphasizing the sustainability and entrepreneurship they need to help make a positive impact on people and the planet,' says Rick Bunch, BGI's executive director.
Courses include the core financial and management fundamentals taught at traditional business schools, complemented by offerings such as 'Economics, Sustainability, and Human Welfare,' 'Operations and Industrial Ecology,' and 'Vision, Ethics, and Leadership.'
Even though the socially responsible business world -- think Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia, Seventh Generation -- is nothing new (it brings in about $226.8 billion annually), 'green' thinking in the world of business education is, Bunch notes.
Business ethics are generally presented as 'things society will do to get in the way of your ability to make a profit,' Bunch says. 'About ten years ago things began to change when people like [energy efficiency pioneer] Amory Lovins started preaching that sustainable practice makes economic sense, that 'If you use less electricity, you save money. If you use fewer chemicals, you pollute less, you save money.' '
Student Kevin Hagen, a 41-year-old Seattle-area energy efficiency consultant, came to BGI after years as an engineer and manager in the aerospace and energy industries. A self-styled 'closet Republican' -- most of BGI's 50 students are politically liberal, though Hagen insists he's not alone -- he turned down Harvard Business School a decade ago, a decision he does not regret. 'If I had gone that route then, I'd be a very different person today,' he says.
Hagen argues that sustainability is neither a left- nor a right-wing issue and says that BGI's curriculum has armed him with the numbers to make a convincing case to a business community wary of environmental claims. 'The bridge between activists and businesspeople has to be built,' he says, 'and it's happening right here in the classroom.'
The need for this bridge is clear. In its 2003 survey, Beyond Grey Pinstripes, the World Resources Institute found that fewer than half of the top U.S. business schools offered any courses linking social and environmental concerns to business, and the courses that are available are virtually all electives. One of BGI's primary goals, Pinchot and Bunch say, is to influence other business schools to incorporate sustainability and social justice into their curricula.
One method they're using to spread the gospel is bringing in adjunct faculty from other institutions to develop and teach BGI courses. And there is no shortage of takers. The list of adjunct professors the school has assembled reads like a who's who of green business luminaries, including Lovins, evolutionary biologist Elizabet Sahtouris, and industrial ecologist and longtime MIT researcher John Ehrenfeld.
'There are many faculty members in traditional business schools who care about environmental and social responsibility but find themselves restrained,' Pinchot says. 'BGI offers them a chance to teach with their values fully expressed.' And, he adds, their hard work is already paying off. 'Our adjunct faculty say they're going back to their schools and teaching very differently based on their experience with us.'
So keep checking the funny papers -- Dilbert's dog-eat-dog cubicle world could soon become a lot more sustainable.