A Career Future for ‘Green’ MBAs

by Jenny Jackson, MBA Baruch College, Zicklin School of Business

An emerging class of enthusiastic MBA students interested in the field of sustainability is growing with vigor. New York City is host to programs at its top graduate institutions: NYU with an MBA specialization in Social Innovation; Columbia University with its Social Enterprise specialization and home of the Earth Institute; Bard College with the newest Sustainability MBA program; and our own alma mater, CUNY’s Baruch College with a Sustainable Business MBA focus. Students, now more than ever, are looking for a career that not only earns a living, but is good for both society and the environment.

Zicklin MBA's at the 2012 Net Impact Conference in Baltimore.  Photo Courtesy of Anelisa Lauri

Zicklin MBA’s at the 2012 Net Impact Conference in Baltimore. Photo Courtesy of Anelisa Lauri

Will these students be able to find a job in sustainability? Yes, it is absolutely possible, but their search will require dedication and ingenuity. My fellow students interested in the field, are feeling unsupported and left to their own devices. To them, I say: Fear not, move forward, aim high. You didn’t get to this point in life without a special drive for great achievement. In case these soaring words of encouragement aren’t of much help, then hopefully the following advice will at least point you in the right direction for your career search.

From research on Fortune 500 companies, I found that 24 out of the top 25 companies have commitments to sustainability initiatives. The one company out of 25 without a sustainability commitment, Freddie Mac, still hosts philanthropic programs, thereby showing commitment to the double bottom line. Using the Fortune 25, I developed a chart to show each firm’s social-sustainability initiatives, departments that house sustainability positions, types of positions currently held, and a link to the firm’s social responsibility report. See below for the link to this report.

These top 25 companies, however, are sprawled across the nation. So, for my fellow New Yorkers, I developed something special: “New York’s Sustainable 20.” A chart (also found below) that offers insight into the top 20 Fortune 500 firms headquartered in NYC with departments and positions focused on sustainability. Both charts point out where firms have entire hierarchies under a sustainability area and where middle-management positions, ones best suited for MBAs, are held.

These two charts are meant to educate students on what’s out there and how major firms are re-shaping business strategy around social responsibility and the environment. Sure, confidence in sustainability as a strategy has not come into full development yet, but sustainability as a business case is gaining ground. Market leaders such as Wal-Mart have shown us that big cost savings lie at the core of sustainability. While competition for sustainability related positions might be stiff, these charts should help students learn about today’s most relevant business objectives and reveal how firms are building out their sustainability programs.

As more students interested beyond the bottom line graduate and become leaders, it is only a matter of time until the business field experiences a new dawn in responsible practices. We are seeing great growth in firms entirely built on the foundation of sustainable business. Big names such as Patagonia, Stoneyfield Farms, and Seventh Generation are leaders in the field, but to date over 600 registered B corps exist. B corp, or benefit corporation, is a new legal structure companies can register for at the state level that protect the organizations socio-environmental mission, not just the bottom line. In these sustainable businesses, everyone is a CSR manager.

During my research I interviewed a number of professionals working in sustainable business. Best practices for developing a career in sustainability were compiled from these interviews. Here are some more words of wisdom that should save you time and offer tools to land a desirable career. If you’re on the fence about a career in sustainability, these points can also be  broadly applied across any field.

Words of Wisdom, Point 1: BUILD YOUR NETWORK. As if you haven’t heard this one enough! Let’s get focused on your sustainability network. A lot is going on right now in the community and business world around sustainability. Take advantage.

Before graduation, make sure you have taken some time to really get to know other professionals either interested in sustainability or working in the area in some capacity. Additionally, you need to become a face associated with sustainability; people at school should know you as green to the core.

Here are some essential opportunities: (1) Join your a local professional or school’s Net Impact Chapter, an international organization comprised of professionals (or aspiring professionals) dedicated to positive change through business. Net Impact is 20-years strong and offers its members robust career seeking resources. (2) Get involved with your school’s sustainability operations. At Baruch, we have the Recycling Committee Task Force. With involvement on campus, you can learn all about sustainability operations. Plus, you will get to know those faculty and administrators that are willing to support you in your career as a student and beyond. (3) Go to conferences (see figure 1). They will keep you up-to-date on today’s most pressing issues and allow you to meet like-minded people. (4) Attend local sustainability events, both on and off campus. One organization that meets monthly over breakfast is the Green Breakfast Club. Another group, the Sustainability Practice Network, meets during evenings in various locations throughout the city.

Celine Ruben-Salama, Baruch MBA grad and Director of Sustainability at American Express, suggests that when attending events, always exchange cards. Be diligent and follow up as soon as possible. Never ask for a job directly, instead try asking for advice, resume critique, an informational interview, or referrals. Check in from time to time with your most interesting contacts so they remember you. Eventually, when someone needs something related to sustainability, your name will come up, and opportunities will result.

Words of Wisdom, Point 2: GAIN CREDIBILITY. There are many ways to build credibility within sustainability. Start by joining your campus sustainability programs and building your resume by taking a board position or developing campus programs that pertain to your specific interests. For example, you could intern on campus in a sustainability capacity and conduct energy audits, or you could run for office on the Net Impact board. In addition, start adapting your classroom knowledge for the blogosphere. Make yourself googleable! If you are interested in green building practices, get LEED AP certified. Hone in on your specific area of interest, build out your expertise by gaining experience, and become a face associated with that area.

If passion and risk tolerance permits, start your own business. Not only will you gain expertise, but you will also develop a multitude of essential business skills not easily learned in the classroom. Ecopreneurship is one good option. Getting experience with eco-start-ups either by helping another or starting your own, will jump start your ‘career in sustainability.

Words of Wisdom, Point 3: TEST THE FIELD You might need to explore several different areas in sustainability before you find the right  path for you. So, can I say it enough? Get involved! Attending conferences and local events are easy ways to gain insight, and will be optimal places to find internships and opportunities for collaboration. Ruben-Salama says, “Take things on the side.” Meaning, if an opportunity for career development presents itself, take it. For example, I met the Executive Director of the Fair Trade Organization, Global Goods Partners, whom I asked to interview for a business plan assignment. She in turn asked me to design and implement GGP’s trade show booth for the New York International Gift Fair. This furthered my desire to learn about fair trade sustainable development while allowing me to build on my professional experience as a visual merchandiser. Plus, I met some really amazing people working in the fair trade field. Be open to these opportunities whenever they arise.

Another great way to test the field, especially when you are not exactly sure what type of career opportunity will perfectly suit you, is to do what Alex Michalko, Duke MBA grad, and Corporate Social Responsibility Analyst at REI did. Post undergrad, Alex took three different short-term internships. At the third internship in land conservation, she was offered a well-suited position. While this may take a longer period of time, maybe 3 to 6 months, it will serve you well in the long-term. Instead of jumping right into the first opportunity, you can be sure of the right fit.

You may find that your current organization has a green-related team, whether that be a recycling team, or a committee that meets to talk strategic sustainability direction for the firm. Join those volunteer teams and you’ll be better situated for promotion later on or transitioned into a position in sustainability when it is created at the firm. Regardless, you will have your involvement on your resume for your next position.

Words of Wisdom, Point 4: FIND A GOOD FIT FOR YOUR VALUES. Perhaps your first job post-MBA won’t be as sustainability director, but if you share the same values as the organization employing you, you will be better situated to shape your career. Remember to be entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial. Show your true dedication to positive change wherever you find yourself.

It may so happen that you find yourself in a position to seize an opportunity when meeting a potential employer with shared values. Such was the case with Riikka Jalasvirta, a graduate student in London, who had a chance encounter with US Ambassador to Finland, and environmental activist, Bruce Oreck. A conversation led to an offer to bring Riikka on at the embassy in Helsinki as the League of Green Embassies Coordinator. Riika was to spearhead this program and help build it out across the US State Department. Riikka, right in the middle of her studies, agreed because, as she said, she and Ambassador Oreck had shared values. An example of pristine networking? Check. Shared values? Check. Resume builder? Big check and a few stars.

Another way of framing this piece of advice is to look for firms that are trailblazers in sustainability. Look for suitable job opportunities in those firms that you could fill. Firms such as Green Mountain Coffee or Stoneyfield Farms may have limited opportunities in the CSR department, but are committed to sustainability in all capacities across the company. Additionally, from my research, I have learned that sustainability jobs are often promoted from within. Get your foot in the door and show that you are committed to sustainability. Perhaps you can join a recycling team or other green-related effort. Then use your interpersonal relationship skills to strategically move you through the firm.

Words of Wisdom Point 5: FIND YOUR COURT OF EXCELLENCE. No one is more of an expert at helping career searchers understand this than Dr. Mrim Boutla, co-founder of More Than Money Careers. Dr. Boutla suggests that prior to job searching, you must first understand what type of job is best for you. She says, “Be like Shaq: find your basketball court.” Equating Shaq’s expert command of basketball and horrible failure on the volleyball court, she helps job seekers to understand what characteristics are fundamental for their own job satisfaction. Understanding one’s own career needs will guide you onto your court of excellence.

After identifying your court, Boutla insists that you tap into your personal network. If your personal network does not consist of any professionals working in your desired field, then grow your network. Find the organizations that will plug you into career opportunities. Also tap into social media. Join the Twitter handles for your companies of interest and job boards that advertise your dream jobs. Sounds simple, right? For more information visit Boutla’s siteMore Than Money Careers where she and Dr. Mark Albion guide you to getting hired. You may also want to check and see if your graduate career office hosts a More Than Money Careers service.

Now, take a deep breath, be patient, and focus on the long-term. Spend time really getting to know the field that may work best for you. Since sustainability exists cross-functionally across firms, do some soul searching and decide exactly which type of role is going to get you out of bed every morning.

To recap what you need to be doing — Talk to professionals working in sustainability. You can use the New York Sustainable 20 as a guide. Talk to professionals working in capacities or for firms that pique your interest. Research sustainability related initiatives. Read social responsibility reports. Attend informative events. Take academic opportunities that will move your career forward. Take pro-bono opportunities to develop your skills, experience, and resume. Decide where to build your repertoire to get the most in return. You don’t have to do it all, but do what you can. Be resourceful. Be confident. You can do this, and your local sustainability networks can help!

Figure 1

Sustainability ConferencesNet ImpactGreen NYCWall Street Green Summit

BSR Conference

Columbia Social Innovation Conference

NYU’s Social Enterprise Bootcamp

NYU’s Sustainable Real Estate Conference

GreenBiz’s Verge Conference

Feast on Good Conference

CR Magazine’s Commit! Forum

NYC Climate Week

Sustainable Brands Conference

Enterprise 2.0 Conference

International Conference on Corporate Social Responsibility

Citizenship and Sustainability Conference

Renewable Energy Finance Forum – Wall Street

Corporate Community Involvement Conference

Green Festival – San Francisco


Opportunity Green Business Conference



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