Getting a Real-World Education in Business Sustainability

Brian Vance, Paul Farella, Fiona Baker and Becky Holt were part of a
group of MBA in Sustainability candidates touring the Franklin
County Community Development Corporation’s Venture Center on
their learning journey.

MBA in Sustainability candidates will be leaders in a new epoch where the common good is a priority for business, said Terry Mollner, chair of the socially responsible investment management firm Stakeholders Capital. “You are coming into an era in which we’ll just falter and burn up, or we’ll change everything.”

Mollner was speaking to Green MBA students during their recent learning journey to Greenfield, Massachusetts. Each semester, the program’s Ecological Economics class goes on a learning journey to see how theory learned in class is applied in the business and nonprofit world, said Polly Chandler, chair of AUNE’s Department of Management. And it’s more.

“In some ways, this is the first time the students get to talk to professionals in the field as colleagues,” Chandler said. “They begin to see themselves as sustainability colleagues with the site hosts. It’s exciting to see them envision themselves working with these people rather than just reading and talking about them.”

Boosting new business in Greenfield
Chandler and Jeff Rosen, adjunct faculty member in the Department of Management, chose Greenfield so the students could visit a thriving center of sustainable business development, the Franklin County Community Development Corporation (FCCDC). The organization’s Venture Center has incubated many small companies in its twenty-three year-history and now hosts ten. Its Western Mass Food Processing Center helps small food entrepreneurs get a purchase in the marketplace. One of its clients, Real Pickles, which makes organic, fermented products, was on the tour.

AUNE students first toured a biodiesel plant under construction by Northeast Biodiesel, another FCCDC client, which will convert used vegetable oil from restaurants into biodiesel. Obstacles have stretched the 3.5-million-gallon-a-year project out nearly a dozen years. But the first biodiesel will be made this spring.

“Some things that are worth doing aren’t always so easy,” said Lynn Benander, manager of Co-op Power, the cooperative of four hundred and twenty families and small businesses building Northeast Biodiesel. “But we’re in it for the long haul. Our goal is to make a more just and sustainable future.” Within ten years, Co-op Power plans to pay off its investors and own the majority of the plant.

Co-op Power also works on energy efficiency, solar electric projects, group purchase of fuel and green-job training. “We build community-owned, sustainable-energy business with local capital and local jobs to fill local needs,” Benander said.

Students also toured Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics Cooperative, a former Venture Center client that installs solar arrays.

“It was evident that people are investing in sustainability and are seeing its integration into business as necessary step for their companies and our planet,” said MBA candidate Becky Holt after touring the companies.

Investors who take a chance
Over lunch, Mollner joined several other investors for a panel discussion with the students. One was Christopher Sikes, CEO of Common Capital, Holyoke Massachusetts, who told the students that communities are starved for capital because there are few ways that individuals can invest in local projects and earn a market rate of return. He held up the FCCDC as an example of how a community can take control of its economy.

John Waite, FCCDC’s executive director, said the next step for agencies like hisâ€after getting businesses off the groundâ€is to help them move from the entrepreneurial stage to the managerial stage where they can manage growth and employees effectively.

FCCDC is one of several organizations involved in nontraditional lending in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. Such loans are more available now than they were five years ago, said Tom Willets, a trustee of the Lydia B. Stokes Foundation. The foundation invests up to twenty percent of its endowment in businesses that help build community food security. Such loans “don’t get the traditional high rate of return but they are helping to bring up agricultural and community involvement to a dynamic level,” Willets said.

The MBA in Sustainability’s first learning journey took place in fall 2010. Since then, candidates have visited such businesses as NRG Systems, Seventh Generation and Green Mountain Power in northern Vermont, and TAZA Chocolate in Boston. On April 12, they will visit businesses in the Boston area.

Find more information about the learning journey.
Learn more about the MBA in Sustainability.