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MBA & Sustainability Spotlight: Cornell Johnson

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We continue our dive into the MBA and sustainability with insights from Glen Dowell, the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management & Senior Director of MBA Programs at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. Read on for how the leading business school incorporates sustainability into their curriculum, events and more.

Clear Admit: How does the curriculum for full-time MBA students support leadership in sustainability, or how is it evolving to do so?

Glen Dowell: Our sustainability curriculum has two pillars: specific course and programmatic offerings and infusing sustainability into as many courses as possible.

Sustainability-Focused Classes:

Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion
The immersion program is central to our first-year students’ experiences, and the Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion has, for nearly 20 years, trained students to engage with sustainability in a strategic manner. Our aim is for students to consider how companies take on challenges in sustainability and create and capture value by tackling these challenges. Students in this immersion undertake live engagements with sponsor companies in sectors ranging from technology commercialization at startups to Fortune 50 companies. The immersion consists of a practicum and Sustainable Global Enterprise in Practice, in which students engage in simulations, exercises, and discussions to develop their knowledge and perspective around these issues.

Strategies for Sustainability
In addition to being required for the SGE immersion, this course is the introductory MBA class in business and sustainability. In 2022-23, over 140 students enrolled in the two sections of this class. The course introduces students to concepts and frameworks in business and sustainability and involves cases, exercises, and lectures on topics such as systems thinking, life cycle assessment, and sustainability and innovation.

Advanced Topics in Sustainable Global Enterprise
This case and lecture class deals with implementing sustainability initiatives in companies. It introduces frameworks and theories around organizational change and uses case studies of companies that have attempted (with varying degrees of success) to implement sustainability initiatives.

Topics in ESG Investing
This elective introduces students to the vast and complicated landscape of environmental, social and governance investing strategies. Taught by an industry expert with decades of ESG investing experience, it uses cases and core investment frameworks to help students understand the strengths and weaknesses of ESG investment approaches.

Leaders in Sustainable Global Enterprise
This speaker series brings in practitioners from corporations, government and civil society to introduce students to cutting-edge sustainability issues.

Big Red MicroEnterprise (BRM)
This program connects local, sustainably oriented, and low-income entrepreneurs with Cornell Johnson MBA students who want to impact the Ithaca community by promoting small businesses and local economic development.

Green Tech Innovation in Practice
Focused on developing the next generation of clean energy, climate technology and sustainability-oriented startup leaders, this workshop course empowers doctoral and master’s candidates from across Cornell’s colleges to dive into hands-on, innovation-driven startup creation.

Finance & Sustainability Colloquium
Students participate in interactive sessions with leaders from the private, public and nonprofit sectors who are on the cutting edge of the finance-sustainability domain.

Social Entrepreneurship
This class provides participants with a pathway to understanding their role in making an enterprise more socially valuable. It explores the rising interest in practicing capitalism to benefit society and taps into the inherent desire to do well and to do good in business. Students learn to identify their core passion and how to make that the centerpiece of their entrepreneurial path.

Design & Innovation
This hands-on course uses the United Nations sustainable development goals as a framework to introduce students to design tools and cultivate a mindset for creative problem-solving in order to discover and frame new opportunities for impact. The design mindset enables a shift from a 20th-century, market-based perspective to a more sustainable, human-centered approach. Students learn and apply the principles of design, design thinking and human-centered design.

Philanthropic Leadership
This course prepares students to systematically plan for volunteer leadership through board service and financial giving. Topics covered include motivations for board service and philanthropic giving; the role of philanthropy in society; nonprofit board structures, governance and risk mitigation; and impact and other forms of giving. Students research local nonprofit organizations; complete a board practicum; and, thanks to a grant from the Philanthropy Lab, award about $50,000 to local organizations.

CA: What additional resources, such as clubs, centers, etc., are available for those who want to pursue careers in sustainability?

GD: Environmental Finance and Impact Investing Fellows Program
This program trains Johnson students for emerging opportunities at the intersection of sustainability and finance, including project finance, which addresses climate change, ecosystem services and poverty alleviation. Through courses and an applied capstone project, EFII Fellows are trained to invest in, manage or regulate businesses or projects with financial, environmental and/or social goals. Fellows gain experience in topics including finance and analytics, markets and regulation, science and technology, and sustainability.

Cornell Energy Club
In this professional organization focused on the energy industry — from traditional energy to renewable energy and energy efficiency — graduate students educate one another and the student body about industry trends and events; build relationships with companies and governmental agencies; and ultimately obtain leadership positions at top-tier energy-related firms and organizations.

Sustainable Global Enterprise Club
This organization caters to students pursuing sustainability careers and those who want to stay connected to the sustainability community.

Community Impact
This student organization is committed to strengthening Cornell and the Ithaca community through volunteering; learning from the relationships among for-profit, nonprofit and public sectors; and promoting socially responsible business.

Johnson Board Fellowship
This experiential leadership program provides Johnson MBAs with professional development through service on nonprofit boards of directors. As non-voting volunteer board and committee members, they develop the knowledge and skills necessary for successful board service as future business leaders. Board Fellows strengthen the ties between Johnson and the greater Ithaca area by contributing to the health of a vibrant local nonprofit community

For the infusion into other classes:
All of Johnson’s nine core classes include content relating to sustainability. For example, in accounting, faculty incorporate sustainability reporting topics and “green bonds” discussions. In finance, students learn about and discuss stakeholder theory, while in microeconomics, they learn how externalities drive sustainability issues.


Cornell Business Impact Symposium
With a focus on the positive impact the private sector is having on social and environmental challenges, this symposium provides an opportunity for students to engage with professionals, expand their professional network and learn about career opportunities.

Cornell Energy Connection
Cornell’s premier student energy event highlights the sector’s most pressing issues. Students hear from industry leaders about how the industry is responding to dynamic market and political forces.

CA: How is your business school embracing sustainable practices in terms of campus life? Are there any environmentally friendly features you would like to highlight about the facilities?

GD: Cornell has robust composting and recycling programs, and many events are reducing their carbon footprint by incorporating more vegetarian food and beverage options and, where feasible, using reusable dishes rather than disposable/compostable options. Johnson is presently undergoing a carbon footprint analysis for operations to supplement Cornell University’s information and provide more school-specific data.

CA: Do you have any future plans related to sustainability that you’d like to share?

GD: We continue working to embed sustainability topics into Johnson programs to drive home the lesson that sustainability is not a separate issue, but a lens through which all business decisions must be considered.

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.