Sustainable Entrepreneurship: The MBA of the Future [An Interview with UVM Dean Sanjay Sharma]

Sustainable Entrepreneurship: The MBA of the Future [An Interview with UVM Dean Sanjay Sharma]
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By Christian Sarkar

How do you scrap a traditional 38-year-old MBA program and replace it with an entirely new model that addresses 21st-century business challenges? That's the question faced by Dean Sanjay Sharma when he took over at the Grossman School of Business at the University of Vermont in Burlington. In this interview, he explains why sustainability and entrepreneurship are keys to the success of future leaders in business and institutions everywhere.

How did you decide to change everything? What led to the decision to rethink the entire notion of the traditional MBA?

The business landscape in the next twenty years will look radically different from the way it looks today.

Gone are the days when an executive has to simply implement or manage a function based on efficient execution. Today's world is far more challenging. Most of what managers learn at b-schools is being upended in a continuous series of disruptive waves of technological and business model change, each more jarring than the next.

At the University of Vermont, we decided to challenge all our assumptions. We convened an ad hoc committee to analyze other programs, conduct an internal review, and interview business leaders to discover what they wanted from graduates.

We found that what was needed was a clean sweep, the creation of a specialized program focused on the world's greatest sustainability challenges, both environmental such as the lack of access to clean water, climate change, destruction of species, and social such as poverty and inequality.

We decided to design an MBA program that integrated and emphasized sustainability and innovation to educate managers as change agents and visionary leaders. Vermont has always had a strong tradition of independent thinking, collaborative action, respect for nature, and innovation and problem solving borne of necessity. Those, not coincidentally, are all traits of the executive of the future.

That does not mean that the core MBA toolkit goes away, managers still need the business fundamentals, but we redesigned all our traditional disciplines - accounting, finance, economics, statistics, marketing, operations, management and strategy -- to focus on what is needed to develop sustainable businesses of the future.

Our MBA is the one-year Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA) - and its purpose is to build, disrupt, innovate and reinvent sustainable business and enterprises in a world that demands it.

So, if you want to be a manager who spends most of her time attempting to extract greater efficiency out of the operations of an organization in a mature or declining industry, we are not your MBA. But if you seek meaning, a profitable way to create sustainable and responsible businesses in a turbulent world, then by all means, stop what you're doing and give us a good look.

Our MBA is for critical thinkers, disruptors, entrepreneurs, and creators of businesses that will solve the world's problems and make money at the same time.

That's a huge challenge you faced. How do you transform the traditional MBA program to build this new sustainable, entrepreneurial mindset?

An ad hoc committee of faculty spent almost a year thinking about what such a radically different program would look like. Our next step was to recruit someone who had given a great deal of thought to such programs and had experience in developing and launching such programs.

We raised money to fund a new chaired professorship and recruited Stuart Hart, then the SC Johnson Chair in Global Sustainable Enterprise at the Johnson School at Cornell University. He is one of the leading thinkers on ways in which firms can develop business strategies to tackle problems of poverty and the environment. I would go far enough to say that he is the Michael Jordan of sustainable business thinking.

At the University of Michigan, Stuart Hart 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. We were able to entice him to UVM because we wanted him to put flesh and detailed content on the outlines of the program we had designed by building the program he had always wanted to build but had not been able to in other institutions.

What is the philosophy behind the SEMBA?

The focus of SEMBA is to educate students to identify profitable business opportunities amidst environmental and social challenges that the world faces. This includes the commercialization of new green technologies and the tremendous opportunities to serve the unmet needs of the poor at the base of the income pyramid (BOP). The BOP exists not only in the developing world but also in developed countries such as the US where the poor live in marginal conditions without access to affordable health care, housing, and nutrition.

In fact, working at the BOP has the potential of generating new green technologies that can travel upward from low income markets to upper income markets as reverse innovation. An example is GE's cheap, portable ultrasound machine developed in India. This innovation, that costs a fraction of the price of large ultrasound machines, became extremely popular in China and then was adopted in developed countries in applications where portability is critical.

We know that emerging clean technologies, including distributed generation of renewable energy, biofuels, point-of-use water purification, biomaterials, wireless information technology, and sustainable agriculture hold the keys to solving many of the world's global environmental and social challenges. How do we unlock the global spirit of entrepreneurship within individuals and organizations? That's what we're about.

How much of this is theory and how much is real-world learning?

A hallmark of SEMBA is its three-month practicum, in which students go around the world to work with companies like Keurig Green Mountain, Burton, Novelis, PepsiCo, Ben & Jerry's, Novo Nordisk, Casella Waste Systems, AllEarth Renewables, Cabot Creamery, FreshTracks Capital LP, Seventh Generation, and Vermont Energy Investment Corporation.

During the practicum, two- and three-person teams create a venture plan by starting a sustainable business, expanding an existing one, or working within a corporation that's addressing sustainability issues somewhere in the world. For instance, in the 2014-2015 school year, some students worked with PepsiCo in Guatemala to develop a new business focus around affordable nutrition. Others partnered with a private equity firm in New York to create an investment platform focused on sustainable businesses; still others helped Novo Nordisk in Africa create solutions around inclusive health. (By the way, the CEO of Novo Nordisk was named the top performing CEO in the world in 2015 by Harvard Business Review).

At the end of the practicum, students delivered a detailed action plan for their sponsoring organization, pitching it to a panel of executives, entrepreneurs, and financiers. We're building and nurturing a virtuous ecosystem - students, business leaders, corporations, non-profits, partners, all with connections in the classroom and the field, the collaborative Base of the Pyramid (BoP) global network - which spans over twenty countries.

Everything we do is based on facing the realities on the ground - whether the ground is in Vermont or in Guatemala or Kenya.

What about corporate transformation? Aren't businesses having to learn new ways to enter and win in emerging markets?

Of course. During its first year, we incorporated original case studies based on real-life examples provided by SEMBA's industry partners. For example, Novelis, the largest rolled aluminum company in the world, made the decision to stop using bauxite and start making aluminum out of already existing aluminum. This "total corporate transformation" of building a closed loop above-ground mining operation resulted in a 95 percent reduction in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

We also designed SEMBA so that leaders from its industry partners could teach courses, serve on the board of advisors, and mentor students. In addition, the school brought in more than ten executives in residence--both executives and entrepreneurs--to offer students practical insights into leading a sustainably focused business.

Our mission is to transform today's business and create tomorrow's ventures.

How is this changing the traditional view of the MBA?

In our very first year we were ranked #4 in the Princeton Review's Top Green MBAs 2015, ranking above established programs that have been addressing environmental and social issues in MBA programs for decades. We believe this is totally unique. Our students are diverse - coming from a wide-range of industries and backgrounds. When they complete their one-year MBA at an affordable tuition level, I may add, they are transformative global thinkers, collaborative, game-changing leaders.

Thank you.

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Christian Sarkar is an artist, activist, and entrepreneur. He is the founder of the $300 House Project and manages a strategy and marketing consultancy in his spare time. He is the co-author of Inclusivity: Will America Find Its Soul Again? is dedicated to "saving capitalism from itself." Visit us at to join the debate. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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