UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Sustainability course immerses students in real-life lessons in North Carolina, Ethiopia


This year 15 second-year MBA students spent their final “module” of studies engaged in sustainability projects in Eastern North Carolina and Ethiopia for the Sustainability Leadership Capstone course. Sustainability Immersion

They took no other courses so that they could make a full-time commitment to applying the knowledge and skills they attained during their two years at UNC Kenan-Flagler to their projects and teammates.  

The Sustainability Leadership Immersion “operates a bit like an ‘un-class’ in that we reverse a lot of traditional teaching methods,” says Lisa Jones Christensen, assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship and lead instructor. “I’m very happy with how student thinking and action evolved over the mod—there was a lot of listening, coaching, service and reflection,” Christensen says.

The students work in a consulting capacity on real-life projects, says Tracy Triggs-Matthews, assistant director for the Center for Sustainable Enterprise and a co-instructor. “A lot of the projects are ones in which the students’ recommendations for these organizations can make huge differences in how many people that they can serve.  We are way past theory and into real-time impact with this course.”

The class, which has been offered for four years, is a customized experience that differs for each new group of students. This year they worked on economic development in low-income areas in Rocky Mount and Bertie County, N.C. They found the best ways to expand broadband Internet access, entice investment and evaluate entrepreneurial efforts already underway. Marketing professor Nick Didow, another partner in teaching the course, has long-standing ties and relationships in Eastern North Carolina, and a history of making big sustainability-related changes at scale in the economically depressed areas of the state. 

“Nick brings his contacts together to meet with students and suggest projects,” says Jones Christensen. “His depth of commitment to the area and people is part of what makes the sustainability capstone work.”

Students built on these local experiences and then traveled to Ethiopia with Christensen, Triggs-Matthews and adjunct professor Chris Wedding. They worked to improve the business model efficiency and practices of two non-profit organizations.  The Ethiopia experience was effective because of a new partnership with Cherokee Gives Back, the non-profit arm of the Raleigh-based Cherokee Investment Partners. 

“There’s a lot that we intentionally leave open so that the students have to discuss and struggle to figure out how to answer questions that don’t necessarily have definitive answers,” says Triggs-Matthews. “Working outside of the classroom in Eastern North Carolina and then in Ethiopia, where culture, language, systems and processes  are totally different, reinforces the idea of tackling business challenges with open eyes, ears and heart. ”

Christensen spotlighted structural racism as a lens to consider many sustainability issues. “One goal is to have the students be more self-aware in leadership positions, and aware of how complex and complicated issues around sustainability are,” Christensen Jones says. “This course encourages making principled decisions in ambiguity, which is a key leadership capacity every person needs to develop.  I feel very lucky to get to know students the way I do, and to break a lot of rules about education so that they can develop those skills. We have to do things differently, because if we do the same things we are currently doing, we will get the unsustainable outcomes we already have.”

Not only do these types of unique, hands-on learning experiences enhance students’ education within the classroom and differentiate UNC Kenan-Flagler among its competitors, they also provide life-changing opportunities for self-reflection and self-growth as they complete their MBA studies.

On the last day of the course, students presented their reflections on the Sustainability Leadership Capstone and how they changed during the seven weeks.

Peter Brinkerhoff (MBA ’13) spoke of the hardships the students witnessed in Ethiopia. “Poverty, natural disaster, destruction – if we keep our distance, we won’t see the hope and good that can come out of that,” he says. “We didn’t keep our distance – we observed and listened and saw the hope. These communities are so tightly knit by suffering yet they use that brokenness for good.”

Students cited Christensen’s role as a mentor and leader during the course. “Lisa, you’ve been a guiding light and you’ve helped to remind me why I came to business school in the first place,” says Bay Love (MBA ’13). “During this course, I became more comfortable with myself than I usually am; I connected to a greater depth, and laughed more.” And Mary Grace Hicks (MBA ’13) was amazed to watch how Lisa found each person’s unique talents and helped us be better, brighter versions of ourselves.”

Christensen will continue to make adjustments to the course, an experience that keeps her motivated in her sustainability work. “I want to keep students entering the same conversations about sustainable communities and involved in improving those conversations,” she says. “Most sustainability issues take a long-term approach, and it cheapens the process not to build on it each year.”