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Olga Hawn: Sustainability is a wise business strategy

5/25/2017

Olga HawnProving to businesspeople that it pays to be green and socially responsible is the lifework of Olga Hawn, assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship and the Sustainability Distinguished Fellow at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Her path to studying sustainability began when she was growing up in Russia. Hawn’s parents are adamant about growing their own fruits and vegetables as well as recycling and reusing everything they can. Their commitment to using resources efficiently and not being wasteful became deeply ingrained in Hawn as a habit and a point of view.  

She became deeply engaged in efforts to help the planet after she studied in Denmark, where she learned about corporate social responsibility (CSR) and realized how it could help Russia by boosting the economy and improving life for its people.

Hawn’s first contribution to the field was volunteering to help translate the United Nations Global Compact  – which offers 10 principles for helping companies foster a culture of corporate responsibility – into Russian. But after completing the translation and talking to the first companies interested in signing the UNC Global Compact, Hawn quickly learned that convincing Russian companies to sign it without having a business case for CSR would be very difficult.

This revelation led Hawn to pursue a master’s in management research from the Saïd Business School at Oxford University, where she studied how Vodafone engages its stakeholders to make practical business decisions that earn profits and make a difference. While at Oxford she also met her husband, a North Carolina native.

The desire to understand the conditions under which sustainability strategy pays led Hawn to the U.S., where she earned her PhD in strategy at Duke. Her first job as a strategy professor at Boston University taught her that sustainability needs to be portrayed and taught as a strategy –that there are some instances when it doesn’t work and others when it improves firm performance through various mechanisms. Understanding these conditions and mechanisms is key to business people and drives Hawn’s research.

When UNC Kenan-Flagler asked Hawn to join the faculty, one of the big draws was the School’s interest in her research and its long tradition of teaching and researching sustainable business practices through the Center for Sustainable Enterprise, which dates back to 1999.

She also appreciated the culture. “Everyone is so friendly here – the Carolina Way is meaningful,” she says. “I live it, too.”

Hawn’s research lies at the intersection of strategy and organization theory, business and society. She has been tracking the “normalization” of sustainability in business through the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI). By studying investor reaction to companies being placed or taken off the index, she found that over time investors react more positively to the association with the DJSI.

In another study looking at cross-border mergers and acquisitions of firms from emerging markets, Hawn finds that those firms that pay little attention to sustainability are two times less likely to seal the deal and, if they do, it takes longer. But those with a positive record on sustainability are seven times more likely to complete the deal.

“What all this shows is that companies from emerging markets are ready to play by the rules of the international community,” says Hawn. “They are not going to come in and hurt the environment in the host country, and they won’t just fire people and ship jobs abroad. This is reassuring for host country stakeholders.”

Her passion for research has gained recognition. Hawn serves on the board of the Strategic Management Journal (SMJ), which presented her with the outstanding SMJ editorial board member award in 2014. Between 2012 and 2016, Hawn earned a number of awards, including best paper from the social issues in management division of the Academy of Management and a nomination for the most promising scholar under 40 from the Academy of International Business. For three consecutive years, she won outstanding paper awards from the Alliance for Research on Corporate Sustainability (ARCS).

Ultimately, Hawn wants to explain the “different shades of green” in business today. She is interested in sustainability strategy holistically – from the drivers of adoption of a strategy, to the different degrees of implementation, to the various outcomes.

Hawn also teaches what she preaches. In 2016, based on this structure, she designed a Sustainability Strategy course which she teaches to Undergraduate Business, MBA and PhD students. It immediately received won honorable for the Page Prize for Sustainability Issues in Business Curricula. In 2017, students nominated Hawn for Weatherspoon MBA and PhD teaching excellence awards.

Hawn wants students to see under what circumstances it pays off for a company to be socially responsible and how to build these ideas into organizational culture. Her research shows that promises that companies make in sustainability have to follow closely with their actions, or otherwise the market value suffers. Hawn emphasizes these points when mentoring students and counseling them on pursuing careers with impact. She teaches about the mental barriers that CEOs face regarding sustainability and how they can help CEOs overcome them.

Some of the highlights from Hawn’s class include case studies on how Clorox and Wal-Mart go green, suicides at Foxconn and greenwashing by Fiji Water, a visit to Burt’s Bees, which has a zero waste policy among many other sustainability initiatives, learning how to calculate a carbon footprint of a company, looking at current sustainability research and how-to guides that provide managers with step-by-step instructions on addressing sustainability challenges.

In addition, students participate in a simulation, where as senior or middle managers, they face a sustainability challenge: their clients inform them that they are going to buy only green moving forward. The students must get everyone in the company on board to respond to this challenge and learn about various techniques at their disposal and how hard organizational change is.

Hawn doesn’t just pay lip service to these issues in her classroom and research – it’s a lifestyle choice. A mother of young boys, Hawn sings praises to biodegradable diapers and teaches her sons to garden and appreciate nature by hiking with their dog. They so rarely use a car that her sons think of it as a special occasion.

Showing her kids the world is important to Hawn. They annually visit her native Russia as well as Holbox Island in Mexico, and they will spend two months in Singapore during the summer. “We want to experience places as locals would,” adds Hawn.

As a mom who studies sustainability, Hawn is optimistic about the future – partly based on observing her students, who are passionate about doing their part to save the planet.

“They believe in the greater good they are providing,” adds Hawn. “Whether we will thank the millennials or older generations for their actions, there is no way back in sustainability, only forward.”