University of Vermont

Business School Launches Innovative MBA Program in Sustainable Entrepreneurship

Kalkin Hall
(Photo: Sally McCay)

One of the first steps taken by a special committee charged with designing a new MBA program that would gain national recognition was to look at the strengths of the university and surrounding area. UVM’s reputation as a leader in sustainability and the state’s history of producing national caliber entrepreneurs and businesses immediately came to the forefront, resulting in the creation of an MBA program in Sustainable Entrepreneurship (SEMBA).

In order to leverage expertise in these areas, the one-year, full-time program is interdisciplinary, drawing from scholars in the Rubenstein School of Environmental & Natural Resources, the Gund Institute, Vermont Law School, and the School of Business Administration, among others. Leaders from sustainably-focused businesses such as Ben & Jerry’s, Burton Snowboards and Green Mountain Coffee are part of an advisory board that will also work with students and faculty.

“The world has big sustainability challenges, and this program is one of the only ones in the world designed to address them,” says Sanjay Sharma, dean of the School of Business Administration. “When we talk about sustainability challenges such as clean water, clean air, health and hygiene, poverty, communication, access to markets, education — governments have worked in these areas for a long time, but we also need to leverage the resources and power of business in order to tackle these problems in a significant way.”

A complete redesign of the traditional MBA program puts sustainable business and entrepreneurship-focused curriculum at the core of the 45-credit hour program culminating with a three-month practicum, where students start or expand a sustainable business. Students automatically become part of the Vermont Business for Social Responsibility (VBSR), a non-profit, statewide business trade organization focused on advancing business ethics that value economic, social and environmental bottom lines.

Core courses include "Corporate Social Performance & Sustainability," "Entrepreneurship Business Planning," "Foundations of Strategy," "Systems Theory & Dynamics," "Social Entrepreneurship," "Building the Brand of a Sustainable Enterprise," "Innovation, Product & Service Design," "Entrepreneurship Leadership," "Ecological Systems," and a capstone course.

“The Rubenstein School might focus on the science of clean water, while Vermont Law School’s focus might be on environmental regulation, but we are bringing all of the different stakeholders and elements together,” says Sharma. “There are sustainable MBA programs with theoretical courses that provide an understanding of sustainability, but none that offer a hands-on entrepreneurship program with a practicum focusing on how you go about establishing a sustainable venture.”

Sustainability and profitability

Since its launch over the summer, SEMBA has received strong interest and hopes to produce a cohort of no more than 60 students for the fall of 2014 (applications are being accepted through Jan. 1). One of the goals of the program is to graduate at least 50 students for three consecutive years in order to be ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Tuition was set comparatively low for MBA programs with out-of-state tuition set at $65,856 and in-state at $26,343. The first 30 qualified out-of-state students are eligible for $20,000 scholarships.

Associate Professor Willy Cats-Baril, director of SEMBA, expects three new faculty members to join the program next year with expertise in entrepreneurship, sustainability and management to reinforce the program’s strong managerial focus. Some existing members of the faculty already have expertise in sustainable entrepreneurship including professor and former dean Rocki-Lee DeWitt, who says the program is uniquely positioned within a state that cares deeply about sustainability.

“In my experience, when you design graduate programs, you have a range of alternatives,” DeWitt says. “You can go business heavy and sustainability light, with the logic built around assumptions of maximization of shareholder wealth and not accounting for externalities. But for us in Vermont, we have an opportunity to really make this be sustainability heavy and business heavy and question the assumptions that have been made about the roles of business in society and move the conversation forward. It will take a special student who wants to have their business career say something different.”

Cats-Baril says the program was designed to significantly impact students’ understanding and approach to management and decision making in order to solve critical sustainability issues, but also to ensure that their entrepreneurial ventures are profitable.

“Very few programs take a holistic approach and look at all of the stakeholders involved in running a business that is sustainable, profitable and addresses all of those different constituents,” says Cats-Baril. “We want to provide them with the necessary tools to make business an integral part of the solution to serious world problems such as unequal prosperity, climate change, access to clean water and air, and inexpensive and renewable energy sources. I think the program fits well with what Vermont is about. There is a perfect alignment between the values of the program, the values that UVM stands for and the values of the state.”