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MBA & Sustainability Spotlight: NYU Stern

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As we continue our series that gives MBA programs the stage to talk about sustainability–how it’s incorporated into their curriculum, related resources for students, and more–we now hear from the NYU Stern School of Business. Clinical Professor Tensie Whelan, Founding Director of the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, sheds light on how the leading business school is supporting sustainability.

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

Tensie Whelan: The NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business (CSB) was launched in 2016 with a mission to unleash the transformative potential of business to solve societal challenges at speed and scale. Education is at the core of the mission, and Stern offers undergraduate, graduate, and executive-level courses and degrees that prepare students with the conceptual frameworks and tactical skills to apply sustainable solutions – skills that future leaders will be able to apply across industries, including finance, real estate, tech, marketing, and more.

For Stern’s two-year Full-time MBA in particular, students have a range of curricular options to gain foundational skills in sustainability leadership. In 2018, we introduced an MBA specialization in Sustainable Business and Innovation and since then,145 MBAs have earned these credentials. Students complete a total of nine credits, starting with “Sustainability for Competitive Advantage.” This multidisciplinary, foundational course gets students sharp on business’ role in navigating today’s societal challenges and introduces them to an effective, firm-wide leadership sensibility that drives competitive advantage by integrating sustainability across corporate functions. Our unique research on topics such as the business case for sustainability and consumer purchasing trends are incorporated into the curriculum and training.  Last year, MBA enrollment in the course more than doubled over the year prior.

Students then complete the specialization by choosing from a menu of more than 25 courses. These courses are also available to students who choose not to specialize but still want to examine the private sector’s role and along with the benefits of embedding sustainability into core business strategy. Course topics range from “Theory & Practice of Sustainable Investing” to “Accounting for Sustainability” to “A Financial Approach to Climate Change” and more. Stern’s locational advantage in the heart of New York City means business leaders from across industries are able to speak in CSB courses and offer real-world learnings. Last academic year, students engaged with business leaders from S&P, BSR, Starbucks, Williams-Sonoma, PepsiCo, Starbucks, Ceres Market, Unilever, UBS, and more in the classroom.

Students can also gain a global perspective through Stern faculty-led travel courses, like “Sustainable Business Innovation in Costa Rica” and “Doing Business in..” (DBi) courses with partner universities, like “Doing Business in Copenhagen: Regenerative Sustainability.”

Also, the NYU Impact Investment Fund (NIIF) marks its 5th year this year, having supported more than 175 students and investing $110,000 in four social ventures to date. NIIF is the first-of-its-kind student operated impact investment fund built on a cross-school collaboration among NYU‘s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Stern School of Business, NYU Abu Dhabi and the NYU School of Law. It provides experiential learning and acts as a springboard for preparing emerging professionals for competitive impact investing roles globally while providing much needed investment capital to early stage impact enterprises.

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

TW: In addition to Stern’s MBA specialization in Sustainable Business and Innovation and multidisciplinary courses, the Center for Sustainable Business (CSB) fosters a range of opportunities and resources for MBAs who want to pursue careers in sustainability.

Students can participate in Stern Solutions experiential learning projects hosted through CSB that allow them to partner with businesses to tackle real challenges in real time with a team of peers and a Stern faculty advisor. For example, in Spring 2022, I advised a group of MBA students as they engaged with Gran Plaza Cancun, a major shopping mall in Mexico to audit and analyze its sustainability efforts. The students presented recommendations on the return on investment opportunities through specific sustainable retrofitting plans, circularity in waste management, and community engagement and education.

The center also hosts an annual “Sustainable Business Case Competition,” sponsored by Eddie Stern, which identifies a real sustainability issue facing businesses today and challenges MBA students to pitch solutions based on research, data, and creative ideas. In 2022, as part of our Invest NYC SDG Initiative, we asked students to build the business case for banks to take a more proactive role in the decarbonization of NYC’s built environment. All teams were coached by industry insiders and then pitched a panel of experts.

CSB also enlists graduate students who contribute to projects on sustainable and regenerative agriculture, sustainable consumer goods marketing, private equity, financing the UN Sustainable Development Goals in New York City, food production, and more.

Additionally, students can join the MBA sustainability club, Social Impact and Sustainability Association (SISA), which hosts events, builds opportunities for networking, and supports case competitions.

And we of course offer robust career development programs for students interested in careers in sustainability, as well as traditional careers with sustainability credentials. Through our MBA Summer Fellowship in Corporate Sustainability and Human Rights program, coordinated in partnership with Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights, we place MBA students in summer internships with top global brands. We also maintain an extensive online Career Resources and Job Board for students and alumni, featuring more than 1,300+ live sustainable/ESG job and internship openings.

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?

TW: New York University has set a goal to cut carbon emissions in half by 2025 and a net zero target of 2040. Working toward this goal, between 2019 and 2021, NYU achieved a 12% reduction in both Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. The NYU Climate Action Plan was recently revised in 2021 and is publicly available here.

NYU’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction progress will increase resilience, lower maintenance and insurance costs, and make buildings quieter, healthier, and more comfortable for their occupants. And, because NYU currently accounts for almost 0.3 percent of all New York City GHG building emissions, our actions will have a measurable impact on helping New York City and New York State reach their climate targets. In 2007, NYU set out to reduce emissions by 30% within 10 years, but achieved this in half that time, by 2012.

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

TW: A recent initiative we are excited about is the new EmpowHER: Career Development Program for Women in Sustainable Finance, supported by Visa Foundation. EmpowHER aims to help a diverse group of values-driven professionals build their financial expertise and networks, creating the foundation for gainful career opportunities in sustainable investing. We recruited our first cohort of 17 MBA students in Fall 2022 and an impressive group of mentors, representing female leadership at top financial institutions.

CA: Anything else you’d like to add?

TW: In addition to education, research is also a core tenet of our work. We aim to demonstrate how sustainability strategies can improve business management and performance while addressing societal challenges.

For example, we developed the Return on Sustainability Investment (ROSI™) Methodology, which is used by corporate leaders and investors to bridge the gap between sustainability strategies and financial performance. We provide resources to current and future business leaders on how they can understand and implement ROSI.

Additionally, CSB in partnership with Circana (formerly IRI) developed the Sustainable Market Share Index™, an annual analysis of the latest national purchasing data for consumer packaged goods (CPG) products marketed as sustainable. The 2022 analysis found that products marketed as sustainable were responsible for nearly a third of the growth in CPGs from 2013 to 2022, and market share growth continues year over year.

More information on the CSB, including our research initiatives, is available here.

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.