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Shining the Spotlight


Climate change and sustainability in the classroom at business schools

Katie Kross,

Managing Director, Fuqua School of Business at Duke University
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In a recent interview for Infosys, Joel Makower of GreenBiz spoke with Katie Kross, Managing Director at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. Their discussion focused on the U.S. university system and its role in helping to create a pipeline of human capital to work in sustainability and ESG roles.

The Fuqua School has one of America’s leading MBA programs and Kross’s role is to help connect students with education opportunities, curricular, and extracurricular opportunities related to sustainability, energy, clean tech, climate as well as help put forward thought leadership initiatives. “We're really playing that connecting role between industry and business school students on the topics of energy and sustainability.”

Kross said that there has been a groundswell of student interest in sustainability issues in just the past few years. “I think that today's MBA students – most of them in our program are 27, 28, 29 years old – have been living with the reality of climate change as an issue for their entire lives and they understand that climate change and sustainability issues will have material impacts on their business careers, whether they are going to work in a traditional field of investment banking or consulting, or whether they actually want to be working in a career that has a direct impact on solving some of our energy and sustainability challenges.”

Kross often advises students to think broadly about sustainability: “Not everyone needs to work in a sustainability department within a company to feel like they are actually working on broader sustainability challenges. We need lots of folks working in clean energy across the entire energy sector, we need folks working in ESG investing, we need folks working in policy, in corporate sustainability.”

She added that students need to have a fundamental MBA skillset that includes strategy, finance, accounting, marketing, supply chain. “They also need to walk into these careers with some level of subject matter expertise.” For example, “how do they understand greenhouse gas reporting? To what extent do they understand how the energy system works? To what extent do they understand biodiversity risks or materiality assessment?

Kross is encouraged by what she sees happening in leading U.S. business schools. After pointing out that academia often waits for industry to develop best practices before those best practices show up in the classroom, she noted that “we have seen really bold and ambitious commitments by business schools to bring climate, especially about sustainability more broadly, into their programs.”  Those schools include Stanford, Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Columbia.

Issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion are taking on renewed importance at U.S. universities, and Kross said that “it's really incumbent upon companies and educators to make sure there's a place at the table for people of all colors in the sustainability conversation.”  This includes issues of environmental justice, energy justice and climate justice, but also the issue of diversity in the practice itself. “We don't have enough people of color working in corporate sustainability departments, in clean energy companies, in climate tech entrepreneur roles in climate tech VC roles. We definitely need a lot more, we need to cultivate an environment that's more welcoming and inclusive for more diversity in all of these fields.”

When it comes to the hiring process, Kross said that “companies need to come with their values first. They need to be communicating a message to current MBA students about, ‘here are the opportunities, you will have to align your social and environmental values with the work that we're doing. And perhaps it's not 100% part of your job, but there will be opportunities for you to engage on these topics if you're working with us.”