Disrupting the MBA
- By jon reidel
Better world meets better bottom line
By Jon Reidel G’08
Photograph of Mumbai by the Washington Post/Getty Images
When Sanjay Sharma began his new job as dean of UVM’s School of Business Administration in 2011, he knew his first order of business would likely define his deanship. He needed to scrap a traditional thirty-eight-year-old MBA program and replace it with an entirely new model that addressed twenty-first century business challenges.
The school’s previous MBA program had been designed in the early 1970s for mid-level managers at area companies such as IBM, General Dynamics, and GE Healthcare—but by 2011, those participants were a dying breed. IBM had gone from a peak of 8,500 employees in 2001 to about 4,000; GE Healthcare purged 10 percent of its workforce in 2012. With such a limited pool of potential students, says Sharma, “it was not financially viable to run a forty-five-credit program.”
The school initially concentrated on improving the old program, which was marketed to local residents and UVM employees who wanted to earn their MBAs in the evenings. But without the additional students from major local companies, the program couldn’t attract significant numbers. “The future looked bleak,” says Sharma.
To determine how to revamp the MBA, Sharma convened an ad hoc committee that analyzed other programs, conducted an internal review, and interviewed business leaders to discover what they wanted from graduates. Eventually Sharma and his team decided that they should develop a specialized program focused on the world’s greatest sustainability challenges, as well as related issues such as the environment, ethics, poverty, and inequality.
Sharma had a deep interest in the topic. His scholarship explores environmental strategy and corporate sustainability, and he authored the book Competing for a Sustainable World. But he knew it was risky to launch a program with such a defined specialty. “As a faculty member, I loved the idea of focusing on sustainability, but as a dean I was wondering if we would attract enough students,” says Sharma. “Philosophically, I believed in it, but I just didn’t know if it would work.”
WALKING THE WALK WORLDWIDE
The first nine months of UVM’s Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA) program teaches students how to address the world’s most serious sustainability challenges. The final three provides an opportunity to prove their skills in the field to leaders of some of America’s top companies.
The final SEMBA practicum, a full-time capstone experiential project, takes students around the world to address issues related to the environment, poverty, water access, ethics and inequality. This year’s cohort partnered with the likes of Facebook, Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, Lancer, Diva, Cemex, and Native Energy.
Practicums focused on a wide range of issues including how to make the internet affordable to underserved areas of India; helping people living in poverty in Mexico create sustainable housing by equipping them with technical, educational and financial skills; addressing the household cleaning needs of low-income communities in an affordable and environmentally-safe way; and drafting a business plan for what a “farm of the future” would need to be sustainable.
The practicum team of Jennifer Kalanges, Lydia Carroon and Jess Monago spent nearly three weeks in India conducting field research for Facebook in support of its Connectivity Lab initiative, which seeks to connect the 4.2 billion people who are without access to the internet or have poor connectivity. Using new technologies developed by its Connectivity Lab, Facebook seeks to leapfrog existing methods and offer ultra-high-speed and low-cost connectivity for the “last mile” in dense, urban slum environments and remote rural areas in the developing world. The UVM students in India this summer focused on one of those projects known as Terragraph, exploring the best means to bring connectivity to the nation’s urban slums.
“This project puts SEMBA students at the forefront of one of the most important frontiers of both business and sustainable development: how to enable internet access for everyone,” says UVM professor and SEMBA co-director Stuart Hart. “The work they did will figure prominently in developing the strategy used by Facebook to make universal internet access a reality.”
Taking the leap to establish the innovative program, recently named the fourth best green MBA nationwide by the Princeton Review, is among many advances in the trajectory of the Grossman School of Business across the past several years.
Sharma’s first step with SEMBA was to recruit Stuart Hart, a leading authority on the ways poverty and the environment affect business strategy. Hart’s 1995 article “A Natural Resource-Based View of the Firm” is the most highly-cited academic work in the field of sustainable enterprise, while “Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World” won the McKinsey Award for Best Article in the Harvard Business Review in 1997.
“He’s the equivalent of Michael Jordan in basketball,” says Sharma. “He’s a superstar in his field and puts us at the forefront of business sustainability.” Sharma reasoned that Hart’s presence would give the program instant credibility and attract other top-flight candidates.
Hart also had extensive experience in starting similar programs: At the University of Michigan, he developed the Corporate Environmental Management Program, a joint effort between the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources; at the University of North Carolina, he created the Center for Sustainable Enterprise; and at Cornell University, he developed the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise.
For UVM, Hart had something different in mind from those previous initiatives, which he refers to as “saddlebag” programs. “If you open up a saddlebag, it might have some cool stuff inside, but if you take the saddlebag off the horse, you still have the same horse,” he explains. “You haven’t fundamentally altered the animal. We’re trying to alter the animal.”
To strengthen the program even further, Sharma recruited additional top faculty members, funding some of their appointments through a large donation from alumnus Steven Grossman ’61. Grossman’s gift covered the creation of three endowed chairs: one in sustainable business, which went to Hart; one in finance, which went to Charles Schnitzlein; and one in entrepreneurship, which was filled by Erik Monsen.
Sharma also was able to pull in existing faculty. While some felt they didn’t have relevant expertise and chose to stick with teaching in the undergraduate program, close to half came on board for SEMBA. Associate professor David Jones, whose scholarship focuses on how workers respond to an organization’s socially and environmentally responsible business practices, was named co-director of the program along with Hart. Longtime faculty member William Cats-Baril, an associate professor for information and decision sciences, became the inaugural SEMBA director.
Other professors joined SEMBA from the university’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, Department of Community Development and Applied Economics, and Vermont Law School. The multidisciplinary nature of SEMBA’s faculty enriched the program, says Sharma, and helped it gain acceptance across campus.
A hallmark of the program is its three-month practicum, in which students go around the world to work with companies like Keurig Green Mountain (formerly Green Mountain Roasters), Burton, Novelis, PepsiCo, Ben & Jerry’s, Facebook, Casella Waste Systems, CEMEX, Native Energy, and Seventh Generation.
During the practicum, two- and three-person teams develop business and action plans for new sustainable business initiatives, or work within a corporation that’s aiming to embed sustainability as part of its core strategy. (See sidebar on page 37.)
With real-world experience and deep knowledge of sustainability issues, SEMBA graduates are poised to fill a niche, says Hart. “Companies increasingly need people who can develop and launch new businesses in domains that address sustainability issues such as clean energy, clean water, climate change, education, and healthcare,” he says.
In fact, Hart notes that, while a few SEMBA graduates will aim to start their own companies upon completion of the program, about half will end up in the companies where they’ve completed practicums—with the remainder taking advantage of the growing network of companies and ventures associated with the program’s advisory board and growing Change Maker Network. What he doesn’t expect to see is UVM’s students taking traditional jobs in marketing, investment banking, or corporate finance. Instead, they’ll be entrepreneurs and change makers. “They’ll launch or help finance new business initiatives and ventures that are inherently clean or that are serving the poor, or they’ll work at corporations or consultancies that are undergoing transformation,” he says. “Those are our sweet spots.”
Sharma and his colleagues reflect on the fact that they’re attempting to create the very thing they’re teaching their students how to build. “If you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t know if your enterprise is going to work, but that’s the nature of entrepreneurship,” says Hart. “You project yourself into the unknown, but that’s the only way that anything new and innovative ever happens. It’s far easier to do an incremental tweak of something that’s already there. It takes guts to start from scratch and go all in, and we’re all in.”
As with any startup, the first few years will be critical as the program learns what’s successful, refines its product, and builds its
reputation. But Sharma is convinced that SEMBA is the right program for a business school to be offering in the twenty-first century. Businesses will be dealing with sustainability challenges, he says—“and they want graduates who know how to solve them.”
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in BizEd Magazine.
The Long View
In his new book on the history of UVM business education, Malcolm Severance ’49 begins his story with alumnus John H. Converse’s $50,000 gift in 1899 and concludes with alumnus Steven Grossman’s $20 million gift a year ago. The former enabled UVM’s establishment of just the fourth university business program leading to a bachelor’s
degree in the country; the latter is helping vault UVM business education nationally.
It would be difficult to name someone more qualified to write A Pursuit of Excellence: A History of the University of Vermont School of Business Administration than Severance, who has been a student, faculty member, administrator, department chair, and member of the UVM Board of Trustees. He even lived in Converse Hall as a young professor with his wife, Gladys Clark Severance ’49, who had two of their three children at the hospital next door while serving as “house parents” at the all-girls dorm.
“Is this book the history? No, it’s a history—Malcolm’s history,” says Severance, going strong at age ninety-one. “I wanted to tell a compelling story, not give an official history of the program. I spent five years researching it and tried to put things into context in relation to what was happening in Burlington, the state, and other institutions.”
Severance considered wrapping up the project a few years ago, but waited until
2016 to include two final chapters: one on current Dean Sanjay Sharma and another on Grossman and his transformative $20 million gift. Since then, the Grossman School has been named one of the “Best 295 Business Schools” in the United States and the fourth “Best Green MBA” program in the country by the Princeton Review.