Sustainability and responsible business practices are having a bit of a moment. But UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School has been leading in this area for decades.
The track record of excellence in sustainability teaching and research date back to before the founding of the Ackerman Center for Excellence in Sustainability (ACES) in 2000, and is recognized by the Corporate Knights 2021 “Better World MBA Ranking” of No. 3 in the U.S. and No. 16 the world.
In recent years, demand from students, faculty and employers, including its extracurricular and career development programs, has only grown.
The rising interest is driven primarily by younger students who are concerned about the future of the planet and want to contribute profitable solutions for solving social and environmental challenges, such as the climate crisis.
“There’s a bigger interest in how business can be a driving force for positive change in the world,” says Jeffrey Mittelstadt (MBA ’07), ACES executive director and professor of the practice of strategy and entrepreneurship.
This reflects a change in mainstream business practices. Companies are moving away from the shareholder primacy model and embracing stakeholder capitalism, when corporations serve all of society. A turning point was the 2008 global financial crisis, but the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the shift.
ACES plays an important role in educating future business leaders who go beyond profit maximization, and integrate the concerns of employees, suppliers and society more widely into decisions, says Olga Hawn, ACES faculty director, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship and a Sustainability Distinguished Fellow.
Profit and purpose are not mutually exclusive, she says. “Companies face short-term pressure from quarterly returns, but sustainability is all about thinking about future generations.”
Pressure for change has come from shareholders in some cases, she says, with a growing focus on environmental, social and governance investing in the financial community.
When it comes to teaching responsible business practices, real-world learning is at the heart of the Business School’s approach, which integrates sustainability into the MBA programs and the Undergraduate Business Program, and offers a Sustainable Enterprise Enrichment Concentration for full-time MBA students.
Given that sustainability challenges require a global response, ACES encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration from not just UNC Kenan-Flagler but other UNC schools, too.
“We’ve had students from journalism, environmental and public policy studies getting involved,” says Mittelstadt.
Their teaching methods include role-playing exercises, with students stepping into the shoes of various stakeholders to understand their concerns and how corporate decisions have an impact on them.
One example deals with trade-offs in the electric vehicle revolution, including the carbon intensity of electricity generation and concerns over the sustainability and environmental impact of mining for lithium.
“I put the undergraduate students in uncomfortable situations where they represent a stakeholder they don’t necessarily agree with,” says Mittelstadt. This way, the students can develop holistic perspectives to guide their future strategic choices.
The teaching also is taken outside of the classroom, including through a partnership with the STAR (Student Teams Achieving Results) consulting program at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Student teams will address real business sustainability challenges for corporations.
“We are really looking to ramp up those opportunities,” says Tracy Triggs-Matthews, ACES associate director.
Beyond that, there is a whole host of extracurricular activities. They include a wide array of competitions such as the India Impact Challenge, where student teams pitch solutions to support climate-friendly economic development on the subcontinent.
In addition, there’s Launching Investment for Future Transformation (LIFT), a blended-finance challenge asking students to devise investment and finance solutions to drive social equity and economic mobility. It’s part of the Invest for the Future initiative, which creates opportunities for networking and experiential learning around sustainable finance and investment.
Invest for Impact is a competition that gives MBA students exposure to the field of impact investing and an opportunity to find novel ways to assess, finance and measure impact. Student teams hear pitches from real entrepreneurs looking for investment, and then choose a venture they would invest in and are judged by venture capitalists, other investors and entrepreneurs. “This is invaluable, real-world experience,” says Mittelstadt.
There also are Global Elective Immersions, where students visit companies in, for example, Canada and Iceland, Chile and Peru, and Ecuador and Bolivia, to learn about their sustainability challenges and network with senior executives. “The students learn about the trade-offs companies are having to make and how to overcome internal resistance to sustainability initiatives,” says Hawn.
Another golden opportunity is the undergraduate internship program, where students have curated sustainable finance and investment resources. This includes a series of story maps about teams that competed in the India Impact Challenge.
MBA students can join the Kenan-Flagler Net Impact Chapter, which provides education, opportunity and inspiration to drive social, financial and environmental change.
The curriculum is underpinned by a rigorous research program that contributes to society and environment. One example is a paper that explores what corporate America could expect from U.S. President Joe Biden on climate policy. It concludes that Biden will most likely achieve progress in environmental protection, given his mobilization of vast resources.
And given ACES’ decades of excellence, it has developed strong relationships with corporations who are increasingly hiring UNC Kenan-Flagler students for sustainability roles across most economic sectors.
“The competition for our graduates is incredibly intense, and it’s driving up pay,” says Mittelstadt.
ACES supports career development through personal coaching to match students with the right job opportunities. It facilitates a mentoring program for MBA students to advise undergraduates, in addition to an undergraduate internship program with top employers that is in the works.
One of the many benefits of having a track record of success in this field: There’s a very loyal network of successful alumni working in sustainability roles at big companies such as Citi and Bank of America.
“We have an amazing network of alumni and we connect students with graduates in a wide variety of industries,” says Triggs-Matthews, underscoring the bright future ahead for ACES and the School’s commitment to developing business leaders who make the world a better place.