Addressing challenges, finding opportunities where business and sustainability meet

Students writing on whiteboard
During SGE Boot Camp, students talk about macro sustainability issues; Left to right: Christina Chan, Taylor Fox, Keith Liao, and Anjan Mahrok (all Class of 2019)

In 2019, the idea of corporate sustainability is more of a necessity than a luxury. Most often defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs,” sustainability is a practice that can no longer be ignored—we’re already feeling the environmental, economic, and societal impacts of global climate change. For businesses, this translates into a need to embrace and implement sustainable business practices in a way that benefits efficiencies, growth, and long-term shareholder value.

“Politically, you can choose to believe in climate change, or you can choose to reject it. But scientifically—it’s there,” says Mark Milstein, clinical professor of management and director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Johnson. “Whether or not you want to believe in it, it’s going to affect everything from transportation to the sourcing of materials to supply chains.”

Sustainability as a catalyst for business

Johnson’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise is just one example of Cornell University’s larger commitment to sustainability. Established in 2003, the center is dedicated to helping businesses tackle social and environmental challenges through innovation, market development, and entrepreneurship. “The focus is really around looking at social and environmental problems as latent market opportunities,” says Milstein. In other words, climate change has created the need for new products, services, and technologies to help counteract its effects.

Rather than encouraging companies to approach these problems from a philanthropic standpoint, Milstein and his colleagues are “trying to engage companies at the core of what they do, which is delivering innovative, valuable products and services to the marketplace.” By viewing these social and environmental problems as business opportunities, companies “can both solve a problem and potentially earn revenue at the same time, which is, at the end of the day, what a company needs to be doing,” says Milstein.

“When I was looking at MBA programs, a large factor in my decision was whether the program offered a focus on sustainability and Johnson, with its unique immersion experience and the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, is really the best at bridging the gap between theory and practice in the sustainability space,” says Elise Barry, MBA ’19.

Students interacting during an icebreaker
During the first day of the SGE immersion, students do an icebreaker activity called Categories

The benefits of integrating business education and sustainability

A hallmark of Johnson’s Two-Year MBA curriculum is its immersion learning program. All students complete a semester-long immersion of their choice in areas ranging from strategic operations to digital technology. It could be argued that Johnson’s Sustainable Global Enterprise (SGE) immersion is one of the school’s most popular offerings, as it allows MBAs to dive into an emerging, exciting area of business that also positively impacts the environment and society. The SGE immersion gives students the opportunity to work on sponsored projects that challenge them to solve real problems that companies are currently facing in the marketplace.

Students collaborating
SGE immersion teamwork; Left to right: Fuyuto Onuki, Venktesh Katkar, Matt Pundmann, and Maya Wolf (all Class of 2019)

“All of the projects are focused on some sort of strategic opportunity around addressing sustainability in a business context,” says Milstein. While Two-Year MBAs comprise a majority of the cohort, the SGE immersion is also open to One-Year MBA students and other graduate students at Cornell.

“The SGE Immersion is unique in that it accepts graduate students from other schools at Cornell, which means you get diversity of thought in the groups. This improves the solutions the teams develop and means you get to learn a lot from your teammates throughout the project,” says Barry, who participated in the SGE immersion last year.

The SGE immersion successfully “blurs the lines between applied research, teaching, and engagement with organizations,” says Milstein. Once students are assigned to a project team and company that aligns with their interests, they meet with a designated company representative to better understand the challenge at hand. Students then undertake a process to independently and objectively assess what the real issue could be within the organization. Once they feel the problem has been correctly identified and framed, students begin to collect archival data related to the issue. Next, they conduct interviews or distribute surveys in order to establish their own primary sources of data before they complete their work in May with a final report and presentation for the company.

Team of students presenting
Initial team presentations; Left to right: Matt Pundmann, Natalia Gonzalez, and Elise Barry (all Class of 2019)

“The SGE immersion is not for the faint of heart,” says Matt Pundmann, MBA ’19, who went through the immersion last year. “It’s an intense four months that immerses you into a sustainability-oriented consulting project and has all the highs and lows associated with such a program. If you are looking for an opportunity to work with a diverse set of students on a complicated problem with a sustainability-oriented lens, then the SGE immersion is an unparalleled opportunity.”

Since the SGE immersion’s inception in 2006, students have tackled more than 100 projects spanning a wide range of industries including consumer products, banking, and manufacturing.

“We’re working on a project with Subway, right now. We’re trying to help the organization figure out how to lower their waste profile, both in terms of the customer experience and in terms of prep,” says Milstein. “The goal is to lower the waste stream so that the company can have a better waste footprint, operate with lower costs, and maybe even attract more revenue in terms of customer base.”

A few years ago, students worked with Target to develop a strategic plan to increase sales of organic and natural products, which are the fastest growing categories in retail. A key takeaway was that “while the company was looking attracting new customers through marketing and promoting these products, the bigger opportunity was to simply increase share from the people who were already shopping at Target,” explains Milstein.

The research conducted by the team found that existing Target customers didn’t have enough awareness of the variety of organic and natural products being offered in Target’s stores and, as a result, they weren’t using the retailer consistently for these types of purchases. “It was really a project that got to the heart of product positioning and promotion with your customer base,” says Milstein. “You can see where some improvement on the marketing side would actually help drive revenue for the company overall.”

Mark Milstein talking with students
Students discussing a draft presentation with Mark Milstein during the Ghost Deck Fair
Student interacting with Dean Vishal Guar
Taylor Fox gets feedback from Dean Vishal Guar during the Ghost Deck Fair

Lessons in leadership for years to come

On one level, the SGE immersion is designed to help students gain the professional skills necessary to deal with the open-ended, ambiguous problems they’re likely to face in the real world. “We’d rather prepare students now with the managerial skills needed to define, scope, research, and analyze data, so that when they get to their internships, or they get to their full-time opportunity, they’re not spinning their wheels trying to figure that out at a time when it counts a lot more for their professional well-being,” says Milstein.

Barry recommends the immersion for students who are interested in sustainability and the future of business, as well as excited about digging into complex challenges. “After the immersion, you have both the theoretical foundation and practical experience working on a sustainability project to be able to go into a sustainability role or integrate a sustainability lens into a more traditional role.”

On a deeper level, the immersion is designed to introduce students to the types of decisions companies need to make if they’re going to successfully create revenue-generating opportunities related to sustainability. “We get a lot of students who are passionate about social and environmental issues, but that passion alone doesn’t justify action by a company,” says Milstein. “The company’s going to get into something because it’s going to save or make them money. Unfortunately, just because we’d like something to be a certain way socially or environmentally isn’t justification enough for an organization to do that.”

Barry’s biggest takeaway from the SGE immersion was how important it is for companies and organizations to take a hard look at what their core competencies are and understand what areas of sustainability are most applicable for them to focus on. “The beauty of sustainability is that it is such a diverse field, so, no matter what your company or organization does, there is certainly a way for it to be engaged in sustainability,” she says.

Milstein firmly believes that sustainability as an issue for business is more than a passing fad and that it has increasingly become one of the basic tenets of competitiveness. Companies that fail to adapt will have a hard time surviving in the long run, he says.

“These challenges aren’t going away any time soon. They’re going to dominate the careers of the students that we’re currently teaching,” says Milstein. “Managers have to know this and be literate in it in order to be valued as serious leaders in society.”