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MBA graduates make some green while helping the environment

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Bainbridge's Cob House classroom on Cortes Island, British Columbia, is made of sand, straw, driftwood and clay. (Courtesy of Bruce McGlenn)

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Students at the Presidio Graduate School of Management learn to emphasize the "triple bottom line" of people, profit and planet. (Courtesy of Patty Nason)

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Gifford Pinchot founded the Bainbridge Graduate Institute with Elizabeth Pinchot and Dr. Sherman Severin in 2002. (Courtesy of Bruce McGlenn)

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Presidio graduate Lori Kandels has joined a growing number of professionals with business degrees in sustainable management. (Courtesy of Karen Preuss)

Janet Smartt just landed her dream job. But Smartt, a 33-year-old business student, isn’t going to a plum position at a Fortune 500 company; instead she accepted an offer to help the state of California in its marketing campaign to clean up the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Smartt, an MBA student at the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco, is part of a growing number of young professionals interested in environmentally conscious business practices. In recent years, her school, like two others nationally, has opened what it calls a “green” MBA program. And some mainstream programs are also incorporating courses on environmental sustainability into their traditional business curriculum.

“I feel like I’m getting a fantastic education on how to be a true leader in business and at the same time a leader of change,” Smartt said. Obtaining both business and environmental credibility will give her an edge. "You can play the game so you can win," she said, "but you can not just win financially, you can also win socially and environmentally.”

Gifford Pinchot, president and co-founder of the green MBA program at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, says traditional business schools have long neglected social and environmental concerns in favor of the bottom line. A third program is offered at the New College of California, in Santa Rosa, Calif.

In traditional MBA programs, Pinchot said, "graduates are less concerned about those issues coming out than they were going in. They not only didn’t focus on it, they beat it out of people.”

The two-year Bainbridge program, which is located outside Seattle, emphasizes the “triple bottom line,” teaching students to analyze the effect business decisions have not only on profit, but on the planet.

Josh Wright, a part-time student at Presidio, says none of the business graduates he’s worked with as a senior financial analyst for the Gap have ever brought up the issue of sustainability. “In general, it’s ‘how do we make the most money in the shortest period of time?’” he said.

But increasingly, companies are seeing business opportunities in the environmentally conscious sector. Wal-Mart has set a goal of reducing its solid waste by 30 percent in the next three years and recently asked more than 60,000 of its suppliers to improve efficiency and cut costs by reducing packaging. The retailer has already reduced packaging on its Kids Connect line of toys, saving about 1,000 barrels of oil and $2.5 million in freight costs in the process, according to Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg.

Wal-Mart’s increased focus on sustainability suggests that business people with environmental expertise will be increasingly in demand.

“We’re always looking for top people,” Lundberg said. “Certainly an educational background in sustainability would be a plus for any candidate looking to come to Wal-Mart.

Hewlett-Packard's Erin Gately started as a manufacturing engineer in 1991. After a stint in the marketing department, she became a product steward, working with the research and design teams to help make products more environmentally friendly. In 2002, the company paid for her to enroll in Bainbridge’s first MBA class.

Gately said when she returned to the company full-time in 2004, her improved business knowledge helped her promote the production of greener products.

“When I went back, it was a whole different experience for me,” Gately said. “Now I understood more where the marketing people were coming from and where the finance people were coming from.”

Gately has helped the company make its printers and copiers more energy efficient--and more profitable--because the company was ahead of the curve when new, tighter criteria for “Energy Star” designations were announced last year.

The increased emphasis on sustainability in the business world has prompted administrators at some other institutions to take notice. Marlboro College in Brattleboro, Vt., opens the doors to its new MBA program in September.

“This is not a loosey-goosey, feel-good, hippie green MBA,” said Richard Meima, program director at Marlboro. “We care about the same things as the hippies, but we’re preparing our students to do a lot of analytical work that requires quantitative skills and rigor because those are the skills that are going to be needed in this new wave of green investment.”

Meima says Marlboro’s program grew out of the demand from companies like Ben and Jerry’s and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters for business graduates with an understanding of social and environmental issues. “You could say there was a manpower shortage of the kind of people these companies want to hire,” Meima said.

“Businesses see opportunities and some real downsides if they don’t pay attention to this,” said Richard Brownlee, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, which has added environmental studies into its business ethics curriculum as well as courses in sustainable innovation and entrepreneurship. “They’re going to want to hire people that have a mindset that is a little more informed than previous people have been.”

Brownlee says the start-up schools like Presidio, Bainbridge and New College are a welcome addition to the business education community.

“The idea of finding different educational venues to approach this issue is wonderful,” he said. “You talk about innovation and entrepreneurship, that’s what you see. I say good for them. Go for it.”

E-mail: dcf2110@columbia.edu