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Fridays from the Frontline: Interning with Dow Chemical at the intersection of sustainability and business

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The summer internship is a significant piece of the business school journey.  From searching for a fitting role to landing the position and then doing the actual work, the internship offers valuable real-world business experience from beginning to end, and prepares business school students for post-MBA professional life.

Matt Pundmann, a second-year Johnson MBA student and Environmental Finance and Impact Investing Fellow, took to the Johnson Cornell blog to discuss his summer internship, from finding one to fit his seemingly atypical interests to lessons learned throughout the experience.  Read on for his rundown of his summer internship with Dow Chemical’s Plastics & Specialty Packaging business with a focus on sustainability.

The following piece has been republished in its entirety from its original source, the Johnson Cornell Blog.

Interning with Dow Chemical at the intersection of sustainability and business

by Matt Pundmann, Two-Year MBA ’19

Last year, I came to Johnson knowing that I wanted to make a shift in my career and incorporate sustainable principles into the business realm. This role would ideally be within a large organization where sustainability is at the core of its mission and where larger issues, beyond how to use less water or electricity, were being tackled. It turns out that seeking and obtaining an opportunity with this level of specificity are two very different tasks.

To conquer this dilemma, I devised a comprehensive job search process—creating an alert on LinkedIn and Indeed for jobs that had “sustainability” or “sustainable” in the job title—to identify opportunities that provided the desired platform to have an impact. In hindsight, I do not recommend my “process” as a best practice, but I fortunately stumbled upon the Business Sustainability Leadership Program with Dow Chemical. I guess you sometimes get lucky.

While Dow Chemical might not be the first company that comes to mind when thinking about organizations that take sustainability seriously, it has been publishing sustainability reports for two decades and its 2025 Sustainability Goals ask some radical questions about its role within society.

The internship and project

My main project for the summer was to define the value for different stakeholders involved with the Hefty® EnergyBag® Program. The Hefty® EnergyBag® Program is a new process that diverts hard-to-recycle or non-recycled plastics (like a chip bag) from the landfill in a consolidated manner, thus creating a feed-stock for processes that can utilize these materials. While Dow created the initiative and has invested heavily in it, the success of such a program is dependent on the buy-in and engagement from a system of stakeholders (Reynolds, communities, consumers, haulers, material recovery facilities, and end-markets). Unfortunately, it was unknown how the Hefty® EnergyBag® Program would impact stakeholders with limited vested financial interests. It was my job for the summer to define the value for stakeholders—particularly recycling facilities or material recovery facilities.

To gather the requisite insights for this analysis I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Omaha, Nebraska, to see the Hefty® EnergyBag® Program in action, interview 20+ stakeholders from across the country, and collaborate with some of the foremost experts on end-of-life management issues for plastics at Dow. While I won’t go into the specifics on what we found, I can say that I am excited to watch and read about the continued expansion of the Hefty® EnergyBag® Program into the foreseeable future.

Lessons for the future

Beyond the day-to-day impact of my work, I learned a few incredibly valuable lessons that I would like to pass on:

Support  from leadership is incredibly important

Obviously this concept goes way beyond sustainability, but it was particularly true last summer with Dow and its sustainability efforts. Whether it was a happy hour with the CEO or an impromptu lunch with a colleague, sustainability was always top of mind for every employee that I met at Dow. I fundamentally believe that the consistent support and communication on the importance of making Dow a sustainable company is the primary reason why Dow is starting to tackle some of the most difficult issues around sustainability. Additionally, it was this support that reinforced my desire to work for a company where sustainability is part of its ethos.

There are no easy solutions

Selfie with other Sustainability Interns and Dow’s former CSO Neil Hawkins

The solutions needed to address the sustainability problems of tomorrow go well beyond replacing lightbulbs or decreasing the amount of packaging on a product. The solutions involve systems thinking, collaboration, and out-of-the box ideas that not only take account for but also go beyond the current infrastructure. This is what made working on the Hefty® EnergyBag® Program so powerful last summer—Dow and Reynolds are engaging every stakeholder within the system to spur aligned and collaborative innovation. Additionally, on a more personal note, these types of efforts are also the most interesting to work on.

Hours worked does not equal impact

In my head, there was always a positive linear relationship between the number of hours worked and the impact or value out of a job, but the summer forced me to reanalyze my perspective. Every employee that I met at Dow took an immense amount of pride in their job while still maintaining a balance. This shared norm empowered me to identify incredible impact in my own job while not burning the proverbial midnight candle. Looking forward, it will be important for me to remember how the norms of an organization impact my actions, and that I really like having the opportunity to have fun on weeknights. (Did you know Midland, Michigan is an awesome biking city? Well, now you do.)

Going forward

All this is to say that I accomplished my goal last summer. Not only did the direct tasks of my job revolve around sustainability, but I was working for an organization that was asking the toughest questions. I can only hope the next step in my career has a similar platform to make an impact.

Before I close, I wanted to give a special thank you to my colleagues, mentors, and friends back at Dow. While there are too many to name individually, the personal impact and value of the summer was a direct result of the engagement, passion, and capabilities that each one of them brought to work on a daily basis. If you are reading this, thank you for making this summer the experience that it was, and I look forward to continued interactions and collaboration with you, and Dow, in the future.

Jonathan Pfeffer
Jonathan Pfeffer joined the Clear Admit and MetroMBA teams in 2015 after spending several years as an arts/culture writer, editor, and radio producer. In addition to his role as Contributing Writer at MetroMBA and Contributing Editor at Clear Admit, he was also a co-founder of the Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast. He holds a BA in Film/Video, Ethnomusicology, and Media Studies from Oberlin College.