We have a very special "Alumni Corner" in this issue of IMPACT. We caught up with recent graduates of the UVM Sustainable Innovation MBA (recently named the #1 Best Green MBA by the Princeton Review) Aditi Datta and Madeline Brumberg, both of whom leveraged their graduate work into internships with Vermont Works (a socially responsible venture capital fund), followed by careers with the Vermont Works initiative called the Vermont Innovation Commons. Aditi is the Director of Community Engagement, and Madeline is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for Vermont Innovation Commons.
IMPACT: Aditi and Madeline, thanks for speaking to us in what is the first-ever "team interview" for IMPACT. Please tell our readers a little about where you are from and where you did your undergraduate studies.
AD: It’s not usually the first thing I tell people, but I grew up in New Jersey in a small town with the cutest one-lane bridge I’ve ever seen. Sticking with the "small and cute" theme, I ended up at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs for undergrad. I had every intention of majoring in psychology or exercise science and graduating with a clear trajectory, but after realizing I would have to take Organic Chemistry, I decided to spend my four years in college pursuing a more passion-filled path. My parents put me in ballet class when I was four years old and I spent my first summer at Shakespeare camp when I was ten (also not something I usually tell people) — it was no surprise to them when I graduated in 2013 with a double major in English and Dance.
MB: I grew up in Ithaca, New York — it’s gorges (get it?) — where I rode horses, spent time outside, cooked with my family and played lacrosse. As a kid, I told people I wanted to be an "insect-er," so it’s safe to say I have always been into science. I don’t know how my interest in the environment started but by the time I graduated high school, I knew I liked science and I cared about the environment, so an Environmental Science major I became. I studied as an undergraduate in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at UVM where I majored in Environmental Science with a focus on ecological design, minored in green building and community design, and completed an Honors College thesis.
IMPACT: We are very happy that you both ended up in Vermont! What was it that inspired you to go to graduate school at UVM?
MB: Before going back to school, I had worked as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analyst for five years and, while I enjoyed the work, I wasn’t interested in gaining the skills necessary to excel in that career. I knew I needed a pivot and was looking for inspiration when I ran into a Sustainable Innovation MBA (SI-MBA) student at a birthday party. She described the program and the next day I set up a meeting to apply. In three short months, I studied for and took the GREs and applied for and was accepted into the 2018 class of SI-MBA. I decided to take the leap because I was excited to learn how to leverage business to change the world. I have a strong background in environmental science and social justice and felt like there was a divide between what was happening in the non-profit world versus the for-profit world. I felt like with an MBA, I could do my part to bridge that divide and help more businesses operate with non-profit ideals and more non-profits operate with more efficient strategies.
AD: After a couple of years in the "real world," working in marketing and brand strategy, I knew I wanted to go to business school to complement the creative degrees I received in undergrad. I had no interest in going to a traditional business school but felt particularly inspired when I found the Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA program at UVM (it wasn’t SI-MBA yet!). At a time when Patagonia and Seventh Generation were majorly disrupting their respective industries, I felt a renewed optimism that capitalism could be a force for good — and I wanted to be on the forefront of that cultural shift. The mission-oriented curriculum at SI-MBA, small class sizes and one-year commitment drew me in, but it was the prospect of being part of just the third cohort that hooked me. It’s not every day you get an opportunity to help shape the #1 Green MBA in the country!
IMPACT: Tell us about your experiences in this immersive, nine-month MBA program. What was the curriculum like?
AD: On the first day of orientation, the program directors told us that the next year was going to feel like drinking water from a fire hose, and they weren’t kidding. I remember walking into Madeline’s orientation week (she completed the program the year after me), just a few days after I had graduated, and stressing the importance of "you" time. I encouraged the new cohort to get out of the classroom, talk to one another about not-school-related things, read books just for fun and take advantage of being in Vermont. When you’re in class all day, every day, it’s really hard to digest all the information you’re receiving; I was thankful to hear that advice from alumni during my first few days and happy to pass it on.
In the classroom, we covered all the traditional business school courses through a triple-bottom-line lens (people, planet, profit), as well as more focused classes like Sustainable Community Development and Tech Commercialization. The best part of the SI-MBA program is that everything is done in teams. You get practice being a team player and a leader. You practice giving and receiving feedback from your peers, ultimately also graduating with a degree in collaboration, which has proven invaluable in my post-grad life. Completing a two-year curriculum in one year is mentally and emotionally challenging, but our tight-knit cohort of 23 supported one another through countless presentations, awkward networking events and much-needed spontaneous dance parties.
MB: I echo what Aditi says — the program is intense. It’s all day, every day for 12 months (including a 3-month internship). To start, you are learning a standard business school curriculum that is meant for a two-year program in one year, and then you are adding triple-bottom-line principles on top of that. Of course you learn about marketing, finance, accounting, etcetera, but you also get to learn things like Innovating at the Base of Pyramid, Strategic CSR and Leadership & Team Work. There is a large focus on teamwork, change management and interpersonal skills. Truly, the first quarter feels like therapy. You get to know yourself really well in order to be an incredibly effective team member and leader. It sounds like squishy stuff, but it has proven to be incredibly helpful in my working life after graduation. It helps during the program as well, because the program is an intense experience that requires a community to get through. Each class is made up of a cohort of students who take all classes together, participate in group work and support each other, so the community is built in.
IMPACT: Are there any faculty members in your program who were particularly important to you, and why?
MB: One of the awesome things about SI-MBA is that all of the professors who teach in the program are super committed and available for help at any time. They are all excited to meet outside of class, help with projects, assist in job searches and generally look out for your interests. I have particularly loved that Charles Schnitzlein, a finance professor and new SI-MBA director, comes to our monthly alumni meetups. I really can’t stress enough, however, how much every single professor has really been available any time I have reached out during the program and since graduating.
AD: You’d be hard pressed to find a group of professors, directors, deans and administrators who care more about the success of each and every student. Most of the SI-MBA professors are also juggling undergrad classes, research and publications as well as personal lives, but they were always available to us. Whether it was a quick meeting to review homework or a coffee-date-turned-therapy session, the entire SI-MBA faculty went above and beyond to make sure we not only survived the program, but excelled.
IMPACT: That helps explain why the program is doing so well. Let’s pivot to your professional careers. Tell us about Vermont Works and the Vermont Innovation Commons/Cambrian Rise projects.
AD: I first met Bob Zulkoski through his role on the SI-MBA Board of Advisors — he was/still is extremely inspiring. He and Frank Koster had just begun the Vermont Works journey, so I offered to help with marketing (not actually expecting anything) and he offered me an internship. I split my time between my Practicum Project at 1% for the Planet and my "side hustle" at Vermont Works. That summer, I helped plan and execute the first Vermont Investors Summit, which we hosted in the newly built Community Sailing Center. (By newly built, I mean they received a certificate of occupancy for the first floor just a few hours before our event was supposed to start.) I took a year-long hiatus from the Vermont Works team to work at Select Design; however, I nudged Bob and Frank every couple of months to make sure they thought of me when the Vermont Innovation Commons was ready to hire someone.
As employee number two of The Commons, I’ve had the privilege of designing my role and shaping our office culture. My first order of business: convincing Madeline to join me on this wild and crazy journey. Working towards a physical space, The Commons is on a mission to make Vermont a viable place to live, work, learn and play through purposeful collaboration and resource sharing. What that means right now is that Madeline and I are traveling around the state, networking for a living. (Where we get to run into lovely people like Dan Harvey from the UVM Office of the VP for Research!) We have a lot of work to do before The Commons is up and running, but I’m excited to be on this rollercoaster ride with Madeline and the rest of the team.
MB: As Aditi says, she recruited me to be part of The Commons team. I too joined as a summer intern and once I graduated from the SI-MBA program, I moved over to full-time at The Commons as the director of strategic partnerships. It’s a fun position because I get to run around the state pursuing the mission of The Commons. Simply put, the mission of The Commons is to create a Vermont that has a viable future through increased business development and company scale ups. We hope to accomplish this through increased connectivity, capital and mentorship. That all sounds good, but what does that mean we do? It means that I get to co-create solutions with people. (In the SI-MBA program, we talk a lot about how to co-create with stakeholders and I am applying those teachings every day at The Commons.) How can we increase Vermont’s connectivity within its borders, region and nation? What is a creative way to bring in additional capital to our entrepreneurs and growing businesses? Where can we find a deeper bench of mentors and experts to expose to entrepreneurs? How can we work together towards a future solution? These are the kind of questions that I get to tackle every day! As our SI-MBA professor Joe Fusco always says, find the problems you want to solve. And that’s what I’ve done.
IMPACT: It’s an exciting time to be working in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region, and the two of you are playing an important role, thank you. Let’s leave academia and careers. Tell us what you like about living in Vermont.
AD: Living in Vermont has really opened my eyes to new experiences, but the best one thus far has been hanging out with alpacas. A friend recently acquired four alpacas (wild, I know) and now I am mildly obsessed. Did you know they have rectangular pupils?!
I never imagined I’d be living in Vermont, but I know how lucky I am to live here. If only I had waited a few years, maybe the state would have given me $10,000. :-)
MB: As part of our work this summer, Aditi and I are going to be driving around the state to engage a variety of different communities. I am so excited to make Aditi be my photographer in front of every general store that we see. I am obsessed with general stores and want to go to everyone in the State! When I am not finding general stores, I am listening to a soundtrack of Lizzo, walking my dog, scouring the state for restaurant deals and soaking up the Burlington summer.
My final thought is that I am lucky to be able to stay and make a life in Vermont. I know many of my classmates wanted to stay but didn’t find the opportunities they wanted here. I hope that through the work that Aditi and I are doing we will be able to create more opportunities for grads like us to stay here and thrive here.
IMPACT: Aditi and Madeline, thanks for sharing your stories with our readers. We are thrilled that you’ve leveraged your UVM MBA’s so well and we wish you the best of luck with the Vermont Innovation Commons.