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How You Can Lead the Way in Sustainable Business With an MBA

“Many companies are actively integrating sustainability principles into their businesses," according to a recent McKinsey survey, and they are doing so by pursuing goals that go far beyond earlier concern for reputation management -- for example, saving energy, developing green products, and retaining and motivating employees, all of which help companies capture value through growth and return on capital,” proclaims McKinsey & Company. Indeed, sustainable practices are less of a nicety and more of a necessity in today’s business world. This makes employees with sustainability knowledge an especially hot commodity. If you’re looking to arm yourself with this sought-after skill set, the right MBA program can give you a critical inside edge. Here’s a closer look at why sustainability matters, and how an MBA can position you to lead in today’s sustainability-conscious business landscape.

Sep 12, 2019
  • Education
How You Can Lead the Way in Sustainable Business With an MBA

If you’re looking to arm yourself with this sought-after skill set, the right MBA program can give you a critical inside edge. Here’s a closer look at why sustainability matters, and how an MBA can position you to lead in today’s sustainability-conscious business landscape.

The sustainability mandate

The words “sustainability” and “survival” are increasingly appearing together. Investis Digital says, “Corporations have to go all-in with sustainability/ESG if they want to survive,” while the JLL Green Blog argues, “Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword -- it’s a business mandate.” In an article for Entrepreneur India, meanwhile, Sustain Labs Paris founder Miniya Chatterji declares sustainability to be “the need of the hour for businesses.”

All evidence points to the fact that sustainability matters. Which begs the question: why? Professor Knut Haanaes asserts, “As the expectations on corporate responsibility increase, and as transparency becomes more prevalent, companies are recognizing the need to act on sustainability. Professional communications and good intentions are no longer enough.”

There are countless examples of industry-leading companies across various different markets stepping up their sustainability efforts, from Pepsi and Patagonia to Novo Nordisk and Nike.

Hannaes also points out two major obstacles facing businesses when it comes to sustainability: the gap between knowing sustainability is important and actually incorporating it into business models and the gap between viewing sustainability merely in terms of the competitive advantages it offers instead of as a holistic compliance imperative.

The good news? The desire to make the world a better place is innate in many of today’s future business leaders. Take, for example, the case of Ehsan Amozegar. The native Iranian, who had been imprisoned for his membership in the Baha’i community, left his home country with the desire not just to be an entrepreneur, but to be an entrepreneur who could create sustainable businesses. While he already had an MS in sustainable engineering, Amozegar turned to the US’s Rady School at the University of California, San Diego to help turn his dreams into reality.

According to Amozegar, the Rady School was exactly what he needed to take the next step. “There are amazing people and faculties in Rady. I want more students who have a vision of changing the world to pass the outcomes and insights we gain to people around the world,” he says. Next, Amozegar was accepted to the EDF Climate Corps, a one-of-a-kind fellowship program aimed at cultivating the next generation of sustainability professionals.

Ehsan Amozegar/The Rady School

The role of leadership in sustainability

The move towards sustainability is strong, and people like Amozegar are eager to be on the frontlines. This doesn’t mean that it’s not without its challenges, as Hannaes explains. Best-suited to navigate these pitfalls are business leaders with sustainability knowledge and skills.

A report published in the MIT Sloan Management Review further makes the case for top-down leadership as essential for sustainability success. “While sustainability’s so-called novice practitioners thought of the topic mostly in environmental and regulatory terms, with any benefits stemming chiefly from brand or image enhancement, practitioners with more knowledge about sustainability expanded the definition for sustainability well outside the ‘green’ silo. They tended to consider the economic, social, and even personal impacts of sustainability-related changes in the business landscape. Simply put, they saw sustainability as an integral part of value creation,” its writers conclude.

A second MIT Sloan Management Review report highlights seven behaviors of top sustainability performers, including moving early and acting without all the answers; balancing a broad, long-term vision with more immediate victories; adopting both top-down and bottom-up initiatives; de-siloing sustainability and instead integrating it throughout the company’s culture and operations; measuring everything (and devising new ways to measure, if necessary); valuing intangible benefits alongside more tangible ones; and prioritizing internal and external authenticity and transparency.

Soft skills are also important, according to impact, sustainability, and CSR career coach Shannon Houde, who has identified five attributes necessary for successful sustainability leaders, including complex problem solving; critical thinking and innovation; creativity and adaptability; negotiating and influencing; and emotional intelligence.

The Rady difference

So sustainability will continue to be an increasingly important issue for businesses moving forward -- and the business world has a need for leaders with expertise in this area in order to spur progress. Just as Rady School of Management at University of California San Diego did for Amozegar, it promises to do the same for countless other future sustainability leaders.

Developed with creating ethical entrepreneurial leaders in mind and comprising five Centers of Excellence, the Rady MBA is uniquely committed to social innovation and social entrepreneurship, both of which go hand-in-hand with sustainability. For starters, it’s home to the Center for Social Innovation and Impact (CSII), which seeks to apply business and entrepreneurial thinking to tackling the biggest issues facing society today. Its Social Entrepreneurs in Residence program, meanwhile, gives students access to first-hand experience, insights, and inspiration from successful social entrepreneurs.

The Rady School

Speaking of social entrepreneurs, other Rady graduates have garnered international renown for their work, such as Suman Kanuganti, co-founder and CEO of Aira Tech Corp., which develops technology for connecting visually impaired people with sighted agents who can virtually assist them with everyday activities. Using a pair of smart glasses, an app, and a human-powered AI platform, AIRA creates audio augmented reality experiences by interpreting the world in real times to users, and gives them the power to make their own decisions with the same information sighted peers possess. It operates 24/7 and has connections with national blind consumer organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind, American Foundation for the Blind, and the American Council of the Blind. The company has so much potential it landed a spot on Time’s Best Inventions roundup in 2018.

Kanuganti says, “Aira is on a fantastic run since we started our journey. We have created beautiful and memorable experiences for our Explorers. We have built a group of extraordinary superhumans in the form of Aira agents. We have a team that is making possible what most of the world views as impossible.”

And the seeds of Aira’s success were planted at the Rady School. UC San Diego, the university Rady is part of, is the first Aira-enabled university in the United States. Inspired by a close friend who lost his vision, Kanuganti collaborated with his colleague Yuja Chang to develop the groundbreaking technology. The La Jolla, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Hillcrest campuses are now Aira Access Locations -- giving access to Aira and instructions on how to use it at no cost to campus community members. Also, Aira was chosen for the StartR incubation program at Rady and many of the personnel have worked at both the business school and the company.

Suman Kanuganti/The Rady School

Jimmy Cong, a vision-impaired UC San Diego student doing a double major in music composition and visual arts/digital media, has been using AIRA and says it helps him hugely with his studies and extracurricular activities. “I have DJed for countless events both around campus and off campus,” he explains. “Besides using Aira for traveling, reading inaccessible PDF documents, and navigating software applications, Aira has definitely helped me in using DJ equipment that is not accessible for those with low vision. Aira is basically like a friend with you 24-7. Aira makes it possible for me to regularly participate in class with the other students. That's the biggest thing.”

Kanuganti said, “As an alumnus, UC San Diego has a special place in my heart. We are based here in San Diego, and have received so much support from the university as our company continues to grow. We are quite proud to see UC San Diego become the first university in the Aira Campus Network.”

Despite advancements in sustainability and awareness of the value of sustainability leaders, a third MIT Sloan Management Review piece recently made an eye-opening assertion: that we’ve reached a crossroads with an uncertain future. “In one direction, corporate leaders in sustainability remain a minority, and are unevenly distributed across geographies and industries. In the other direction, a handful of standout companies are demonstrating that sustainability can be a driver of innovation, efficiency, and lasting business value,” it says.

An MBA from the Rady School can help aspiring sustainability leaders fill this void in order to fuel real and lasting progress -- both for their employers and the world at large.

The Rady School

Article written in association with the Rady School.

Joanna Hughes


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.