by Carolyn Shea
"Business as usual is indeed not sustainable"
– Lord Nicholas Stern, former World Bank chief economist, 2009
With the economy in tatters, it was only a matter of time before the media started pointing fingers at who was responsible for the mess. A big, institutional target was identified in March, as news of the exorbitant bonuses paid by bailed-out insurance giant AIG hit an outraged American public—on the heels of tax-funded rescues of other ailing companies. The culprit? America’s elite business schools.
The New York Times pointed out that many of the architects of the current crisis learned their trade at the top-ranked programs. A Bloomberg News columnist called for shutting down the “master of business administration factories that helped land the global economy in the current mess.” And Forbes published an op-ed by the dean of Villanova’s business school, who contended that “radical change—in the form of reinventing, reframing and rebuilding the education of our future business leaders—is now necessary.”
With such current events as the subprime mortgage failures, the government bailout of banks and automakers, and the growth in green business forming valuable lesson subjects, students in the program were given a holistic understanding of corporate social responsibility, ethics and sustainability.
According to management science professor Glenn Landram, the program emphasized the “triple bottom line” standard of accounting in its study of business. Also referred to as TBL, 3BL, or “people, planet, profits,” this expanded criteria takes into account an organization’s social and environmental performance—along with its financial returns—to measure its full impact on society and the environment.
Landram and finance professor Zoë Van Schyndel developed a curriculum designed to foster critical thinking about business leadership. Students learned how companies spot and respond to opportunities, deliver goods and services to markets, and develop internal processes and organizational structures. They scrutinized business practices from the perspectives of finance, marketing, management, economics, history and ethics. Comparative studies of different companies, like Dell vs. Apple and Nike vs. Adidas, exposed students to varying practices and situations, as well as the quandaries faced by managers.
Students all worked on group and individual projects. One student, Antoinette Johnson, a senior who owns a drive-through espresso stand in Puyallup, worked on a group project called “Is Green Black?” She and her partners conducted an in-depth analysis of “greenwashing” practices across four different industries—paper products, cleaning products, consumer electronics and oil—to see how advertising about products or policies falsely identified as being environmentally friendly affected companies’ balance sheets. “We developed a scale to determine the level of deceptive marketing that the companies were engaging in,” she says, “and analyzed company history, including financial performance, new products, media attention and much more.”
Another student, Thomas Kolb ’04 (right), came back to Evergreen specifically to take the program because he wanted to start his own sustainable business. He created a self-defined project based on his idea and enlisted two other classmates to help. With the work they completed, his Bombus Bicycle Collective will soon start fabricating handbuilt bicycles and refurbishing old ones. During the winter quarter, they produced the company’s Web site and in the spring, Kolb made his first frame. “I feel like I need to get better with the numbers part of the game and refine the bikemaking process, but I feel like it’s already started,” he says.
In the spring, students did a complex capstone project that challenged them to apply what they had learned. In teams, they managed simulated businesses making and selling athletic shoes to demonstrate their ability to synthesize the fundamentals of business in making strategic decisions. “This brings home all the things we studied,” says Van Schyndel.
Johnson, who plans to pursue an MBA or enter a chartered financial analyst program after graduation, says she enrolled in the three-quarter program to “gain better understanding and a broader perspective on emerging issues in the relationship between business and society. I have definitely gotten this and much more,” she says. “It’s been extremely interesting to be in a business program during these economic times, discussing and learning about how all the parts of the crisis are interrelated and affect one another.”
After all, recognizing and respecting the world’s interrelationships is what sustainability is all about.
Helping Businesses from the Ground Up
Ben Anderson is studying sustainable business and economics at Evergreen, but he’s not waiting until he graduates to jump into the world of commerce.
“I’ve always been passionate about entrepreneurship,” says Ben, a one-time lemonade-stand operator, bicycle repairer, salesperson, and landscape-business owner. “My dad says I have a hundred business ideas every day.”
Anderson, a junior who was enrolled in Advanced Foundations of Successful and Sustainable Entrepreneurship during the fall quarter, is the co-coordinator of the Center for Sustainable Entrepreneurship (CSE), a student-run organization he helped establish in 2007.
According to Anderson, the group was launched to give students the tools and guidance needed to start a business or organization. The CSE endorses a paradigm in which business people work not just toward gaining wealth, but also for the common good. In this model, businesses make a profit and maximize the positive impact of their day-to-day and long-term operations. Since becoming a registered student organization in 2008, the CSE has been an active and visible force for connecting the college and the larger community and providing resources to students who dream about someday owning their own businesses.
The CSE provides numerous resources to students interested in starting a business (or nonprofit organization), including books, magazines, pamphlets, and opportunities to talk with business owners and nonprofit leaders. Its weekly meetings frequently feature speakers who share their experiences and expertise like Roma Bert, co-owner of Olympia’s Gravity Beer Market, which carries specialty brews, and Sarah Reilly ’01, a member of the Evergreen Alumni Entrepreneur Association who is part owner of Darby’s Café in downtown Olympia. “They demystify what running a business is all about,” says Anderson.
With the Thurston County Economic Business Council and the local Washington Small Business Development Center, the group also holds ongoing workshops on pertinent topics such as writing a business plan.
In February, they sponsored a free, one-day forum called “The New Economy: Green and Sustainable Solutions,” which assembled regional leaders to talk about renewable energy, socially responsible investing, and green careers. The forum was coordinated with the Advanced Foundations of Successful and Sustainable Entrepreneurship program.
In May, the club participated in the Synergy conference by hosting several events, including a talk by Kevin Wilhelm, the CEO of Seattle-based Sustainable Business Consulting and the author of the new book, Return on Sustainability, a call to action for companies to address climate change.
All CSE events are open to the public, as well as the Evergreen community. “We try to be as inclusive as possible,” says Anderson. “One in 10 Evergreen graduates go on to become entrepreneurs. We’re here to help the ones who want to do that.”