Getting to Know Our Faculty: Rick G. Vanden Bergh

Dr. Vanden Bergh came to UVM in the fall of 2000 after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley with a Ph.D. in Business and Public Policy and an MBA. Prior to academia, he worked in banking in Colorado, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Dr. Vanden Bergh’s areas of research include: firm strategy in the political environment and the effects of political institutions on business investment. For the past several years Dr. Vanden Bergh has been exploring issues in the energy sector including an exploration of how the political environment affects investment in renewable energy. Dr. Vanden Bergh was instrumental in designing the new Sustainable Innovation MBA curriculum. He teaches two courses for the Sustainable Innovation MBA program including a course on Business Sustainability & Public Policy.

What do you enjoy about teaching in The Sustainable Innovation MBA program?

The diversity of backgrounds of the students really contributes to engaging conversations in class.

What surprises you the most about the students?

Each year, I am surprised again by the student’s level of passion for solving super challenging problems. I think this level passion helps students to manage the intensity of the SI-MBA program and to maintain energy throughout the year.

While there’s a great deal to learn in your course, what’s the single biggest idea or concept you hope students take away to use in their business careers?

Think deeply about choices. Important business and/or public policy decisions involve both benefits and costs, and to fully understand these requires careful analysis.

What’s your media diet like lately? What are you reading, listening to, streaming, or watching?

I just finished reading Becoming Nicole by Amy Nutt and am reading two other books, Deep Work by Cal Newport and The Third Pillar by Raghuram Rajan. These days, two of my favorite podcasts are “Stay Tuned” with Preet Bharara and “After Hours” with Youngme Moon, Mihir Desai and Felix Oberholzer-Gee.

What do you do for fun when you’re not in the classroom?

When the snow flies, I ski (nordic and alpine) and snow shoe. Other times of the year, I like hiking, mountain biking and gravel-road biking. For passive viewing entertainment, I love to watch premier league and champions league soccer.

Anything else?

Be humble about your views/opinions and be open to hearing and understanding alternative perspectives. I find my own thinking is not well developed unless I can explain the argument of a person with a different perspective.

Getting to Know the Class of 2020: Dan Versace

Dan is a native of the small fishing town of Scituate, Massachusetts where his passion for the natural world began.  Dan graduated from Saint Anselm College in 2017 with a degree in Environmental Science and a minor in Politics. During his time there, he founded the Saint Anselm Environmentalists Club. He also started a divestment campaign with the goal of fully divesting the schools endowment from fossil fuels, a battle that he is still fighting today. Upon graduation Dan moved to rural Tennessee where he worked in the National Parks to research and mediate the invasive plant populations that are taking over hundreds of square miles in the south. Connect with Dan on LinkedIn.

Why did you choose to attend The Sustainable Innovation MBA program?

For me, this program is the perfect cross-section of business and environmentalism. As someone who came out of undergrad with a degree in environmental science and no formal business experience, this program allows me to leverage my prior knowledge of the problems facing our world into creative solutions that utilize the world of business. Not to mention the faculty here is comprised of some of the most influential people in the field of sustainable business which made the decision to apply and attend easy.

What has been your favorite part/element of the program?

Personally, my favorite element of the program is the people who comprise it. All of the students in my cohort are supportive and genuinely great people. Having the opportunity to discuss issues with intelligent and like-minded people is invaluable. Not to mention, the professors are all extremely supportive and really want everyone to succeed.

What are three things someone considering the program should be aware of?

1. When they say this program is intense, they’re not lying, but it is all manageable and the people around you always have your back and are there to help.
2. If you’re someone like me who had no previous business education, this program will supply you with the skills you need to understand and internalize all of the “hard business” aspects while also offering unique, disruptive skills that are so uncommon in other MBA programs.
3. Vermont is incredibly beautiful at all times of year, but the winters can be a little dark and snowy. Pack your skis and get ready for a fun winter.

How has The Sustainable Innovation MBA benefitted you so far?

This program has opened my eyes to opportunities that I had never thought of before.

What business, sector, or issue would you like to have an impact on after the program?

I would like to have an impact on the beer brewing industry, as a consultant to larger firms or by starting my own brewery here in Vermont.

Anything else?

This is an amazing program that I think anybody who has any interest in creating impact change on the world should definitely check out!

Getting to Know the Class of 2020: Taran Catania

Prior to coming to The Sustainable Innovation MBA, Taran had been in Washington, D.C. working as a legislative representative for national conservation organizations and later as an environmental staffer in the U.S. Senate. Taran also served two years on the executive board of DC EcoWomen, a nonprofit connecting and empowering women for environmental leadership in the nation’s capital. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Why did you choose to attend The Sustainable Innovation MBA program?

Coming from the environmental policy world of Washington, D.C., I wanted to use a business degree to find a different way to take on the world’s most pressing environmental challenges that better utilized my strengths. What sold me on The Sustainable Innovation MBA was knowing I did not have to settle for a traditional MBA with one environmental or social justice course relegated to the end of the program. I knew I wanted to break the mold in the work I was doing, and that I wanted to learn conventional skills but apply them in unconventional ways. When I learned that this is what this program is doing, itself, in the breaking the mold of what an MBA has always been, something simply clicked for me.

What has been your favorite part/element of the program?

It was my mom who advised me to think twice before going to an MBA with a demoralizingly cutthroat culture in which, when your calculator died during an exam, the student next to you would merely smirk and turn away. I took this advice and evidently ran with it: at The Sustainable Innovation MBA, we embrace and support each other as classmates. Not only do we pump each other up for tests, collaborate on study guides and flashcards, and share pencils when the occasional Scantron bubble answer sheet appears… but I’ll admit that just a few weeks ago when I forgot my calculator during a finance quiz, Chuck (our finance professor and academic director) lent me his.

What are three things someone considering the program should be aware of?

1. You will be drinking through a fire hose. The program moves fast, and you have to move fast with it. There will not be a lot of time to stop and absorb — instead, you have to absorb on the go. This pace might not be for everyone, but if you manage your time well and remember to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, you’ll do just fine.

2. Your classmates will be some of the best people you have ever met, and they will be a key part of why you feel so at home in this program. The diversity of backgrounds brings significant value into the classroom, and you’ll find you learn just as much from your classmates as you do your professors.

3. Perhaps most importantly, be ready to dive into your own vulnerability. Part of the beauty of The Sustainable Innovation MBA is that this program forces you to really look at yourself, examine what is particular about you and how you see the world, and how all of those things show up and shape how you’re a teammate or a leader. If you’re not ready for or at least open to this level of self-awareness and self-management, the program will be a struggle for you.

How has The Sustainable Innovation MBA benefitted you so far?

Although some of the concepts are intuitive, the business vocabulary and frameworks we learn are immensely helpful — whether analyzing an entire industry in Business Strategy for a Sustainable World to segmenting a market and deciding on a target audience for a product launch in Sustainable Brand Marketing.

What business, sector, or issue would you like to have an impact on after the program?

I hear this story repeated often: good people that are drawn to meaningful, cause-driven work (who are willing to take a pay cut and still give 110%) end up leaving these progressive movements because of poor management or disingenuous leadership. I am lucky enough to have had both challenging boss experiences and extremely empowering boss experiences. I tried to remember these lessons when I became a boss myself: to be authentic, to embrace vulnerability, and to empower my team to take risks even if it means inevitable, occasional failure. While I’m still figuring out exactly how I want to bring this into the next step of my career, I know what a powerful impact a positive leadership experience can have on employee retention. Especially for these environmentally-driven causes that simply cannot afford to lose good, mission-driven, hard-working people, I want to be a part of the solution.

Anything else?

I cannot say enough good things about the competitive broomball team we formed at the beginning of the year through UVM intramural sports. It was often the highlight of my week, and provided me with (a) a chance to get to know my classmates outside of the classroom, and (b) an opportunity to wear my sloth onesie costume as our goalie. Although we finished #2 in the final playoff standings, I’d like to think we were #1 in everyone’s hearts.

Getting to Know Our Faculty: Dita Sharma

Dr. Pramodita (Dita) Sharma, Ph.D. (University of Calgary) is the Sanders Chair & Professor of Family Business at the Grossman School of Business, University of Vermont. She holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany. Her research on succession processes, governance, innovation, next generation commitment and entrepreneurial leadership in sustainable family enterprises has been honored with several international awards. Editor of the highly ranked Family Business Review, she is amongst the most frequently cited scholars in family business studies. She teaches Entrepreneurial Family Business in the MBA program.

What do you enjoy about teaching in The Sustainable Innovation MBA program?

The passion of students to launch and work in a mission-focused company, making our world a better place to live in.

What surprises you the most about the students?

Because of the nature of student who gets attracted to this program, their responses to family business dilemmas are uniquely different from what I hear from other students at UVM or beyond.

While there’s a great deal to learn in your course, what’s the single biggest idea or concept you hope students take away to use in their business careers?

What’s my “A” (assumption)? Everything we write, say or think has at least one underlying assumption. Making it a habit to ask and answer this question, shortens the pathway to have an impact in life and career.

For any organization, look for its founding mission, evolution, and who controls the ownership — management/governance now (that is, in whose hands is the remote control). That clarity can help to connect with them as humans and having an influence without authority.

What’s your media diet like lately? What are you reading, listening to, streaming, or watching?

The Origin of Species.

What do you do for fun when you’re not in the classroom?

Walk, hike, yoga.

The Value of Soft Skills in an Increasingly Automated Workforce

This post was written by Kate Barry ’20. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

How do you stay competitive in a job market that is becoming increasingly more automated? This is a question on many people’s minds in all areas of the workforce today. Tiger Tyagarjan attempts to answer this daunting question in his article from the Harvard Business Review, “To Prepare for Automation, Stay Curious and Don’t Stop Learning.”  Tyagarajan cites a number of possibilities for workers to stay ahead of the curve when faced with an increasing automated workforce, a concept we have talked about in depth in our Sustainable Brand Marketing class this module.

When first faced with the uncertainty of job security in the future, one may have a knee-jerk reaction to fight against the development of artificial intelligence, or maybe try to out-smart it, by developing more highly-technical skills. Both of these options, I believe, will eventually be losing battles as technological advancement will roar on whether or not we are fully ready for it. Perhaps, as Tyagarjan suggests in his piece, instead of fighting the advancement of artificial intelligence, humans can differentiate themselves by embracing their “humanness” through the development of soft skills.

Soft skills are the tools someone uses to interact with others in an effective manner, a concept entirely dependent on self-awareness. They include one’s emotional intelligence, their level of empathy, ability to work in a team, etc. These are the skills that will differentiate humans from artificial intelligence in the workforce moving forward.

Thus far in The Sustainable Innovation MBA program, there has been a large emphasis on the development of soft-skills between our Teamwork for Sustained Innovation class, The Leadership Seminar, and copious amounts of group work. Some of the hesitation in regard to entering into a non-traditional MBA is the larger mix of skills learned beyond the traditional aspects of a business education.  While I have gained a great deal of value and personal development through our work so far, it’s hard to know what the business world is looking for when hiring. It is reassuring to see that the business community values the importance of soft skills, and their many applications in the workplace.

So, how do you stay competitive in a job market that is constantly becoming more automated? Lean into your humanness, strengthen your self and other-awareness, and in the words of Joe Fusco, “have a love affair with the truth.”

Photo by Owen Beard on Unsplash

Getting to Know the Class of 2020: Jared Alvord

Jared graduated from the University of Vermont in 2010 with a degree in Environmental Studies. He has been in the solar industry since then, working on projects ranging from residential to utility scale. In 2017, Jared founded Mad River Solar, a small utility scale solar and battery storage development company. Jared lives in the Mad River Valley of Vermont with his wife Emma, and dog Maggie. He is an officer on the local volunteer fire department, and a member of the towns Development Review Board. Jared is an avid outdoorsman, and loves to hike, ski, fish and hunt. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Why did you choose to attend The Sustainable Innovation MBA program?

The Sustainable Innovation MBA fit directly into my vision for the type of business leader I wanted to be. I needed a program that would teach me the invaluable MBA skills needed to scale my solar business, while bringing along with it an innovative new way of thinking about the future of business.

What has been your favorite part/element of the program?

The program is tailored to bring you the skills of tomorrow, while giving you the base that every business leader needs to succeed.

What are three things someone considering the program should be aware of?

1) The program is intense being focused into one year, so plan for this. 2) While the program brings you innovative and disruptive skills surrounding sustainability, you still gain those base MBA skills needed to succeed. 3) Burlington, Vermont is cold and snowy in the winter, so bring your skis!

How has The Sustainable Innovation MBA benefitted you so far?

I have already taken some of the skills learned in the program back to the solar company that I own. This program has direct real world value.

What business, sector, or issue would you like to have an impact on after the program?

The energy industry through the deployment of renewable energy.

Anything else?

One of the best parts of the program is the diverse and ambitious class. Our class has become very close friends in a short period of time.

Insight: Albert Kittell ’20

EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of Orientation Week, the Class of 2020 visited iconic, mission-driven companies here in Vermont for conversations about sustainability, innovation, and Business 2.0 with executives. We asked Albert Kittell ’20 about his take-away from a visit to Ben & Jerry’s headquarters.

Albert Kittell ’20

“After visiting Ben & Jerry’s South Burlington offices it became very clear to me, a native Burlingtonian, that the scope of the company’s influence was much greater than I realized. Ben & Jerry’s, since middle of the 1980s, have put in place innovative and lasting initiatives that often were the first, or among the first, in the world.  These included “Shared Prosperity,” social, and economic equality, and environmental issues. If an ice cream company can do all of that, then any business headed by similar type thinkers can help strike change in industry.”

Finding Impact in Public Market Investments

This post was written by Peter Seltzer ’19

Impact investing is the hottest trend in finance right now with now over $12 trillion in assets invested. Over the course of the last year I have spent a significant amount of time studying the industry, including being on the winning team of the Wharton Total Impact Portfolio Challenge (TIPC). Throughout the year, I have looked for the best ways to generate impact through public market investments and below is summary of my conclusions.

Invest in Companies with Embedded Sustainability Practices

In the TIPC my team encountered the question, how do you pick the best ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) or SRI (Socially Responsible Investing) fund to invest in? In our corporate social responsibility course, we learned that the companies with the most successful sustainability efforts are those that embed these sustainability practices into their core business practices. To maximize the collective impact of a public equity investment, you should invest in funds that hold companies that are embedding sustainability into their core business practices.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

To determine how well a company is embedding sustainability we used a framework developed by the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB) to determine what the most material sustainability issues are for the companies being held by a fund. If a company wants to embed sustainability into their core business, then they must perform well on the sustainability issues that are most material to their industry. Based on a scoring system we developed, we were able to quantify this embeddedness for public equity funds.

Balance Long-Term and Short-Term Needs

Public market impact investments are focused on the long-term collective changes that need to happen to create a more sustainable world. It is extremely important that these investments continue to occur. However, while we invest for the long-term, we cannot overlook the people who are suffering right now. It is great to invest in companies that are creating cheap renewable energy, but that does not immediately help the family that cannot pay their heating bill during these cold Vermont winters. Investors need to harness the financial power that is generated through their long-term investments to help address the short-term needs that are so often overlooked.

The most efficient way to create the direct impacts needed to address these short-term problems is through charitable donations. I know! Charity is a dirty word in finance, especially in impact investing. It certainly has its flaws, but it is the most direct way to balance long-term and short-term needs.

Behavioral economics will suggest that those that invest responsibly will be more likely to suffer from the effects of moral self-licensing, which in turn makes them less likely to donate to charity. I propose that those that participate in SRI or ESG investing, allocate a portion of the dividends they receive through these investments to charitable causes that support short-term needs. Typically, dividends will automatically be reinvested back into shares of the fund that distributed them, so this money never enters the metal accounts of an investor. Thus, allocating a portion of their dividends to charity will have no effect on a person’s mental accounting and eliminate any moral self-licensing effects of responsible investing.

In summary, the best way to create impact through a public market investment is to balance the long-term changes needed, by investing in companies that embed sustainability into their core business practices, with the short-term needs of today, by allocating a portion of a portfolio or fund’s dividends to charity.

Blockchain for sustainable business: new technology & culture in sustainable enterprise management

This post was written by Henry Vogt ’19

As corporations have begun to understand the necessity of embedding sustainability into their core strategy and competencies it has become apparent that holistic management of operations must be done in an intentional and transparent way. It’s increasingly clear that all aspects of an organization – from product design, operations, marketing, HR & more – must collaborate transparently to effectively manage a sustainable enterprise and realize ROI from their initiatives. Companies can promote growth, reduce risk and increase returns though processes that provide clear, concise and trusted information across all departments.  

Photo by Clint Adair on Unsplash

There is no doubt that a robust technological management system is the backbone for implementing a holistic sustainability management program – a system which allows for transparency and trust across all departments. Many organizations are positioned to take advantage of cutting-edge technological systems to give them a sustainable competitive advantage – as long as there is a strong aligned company culture.

Enter Blockchain. Often when Blockchain is mentioned a reaction is one of eyes glazing over, a chuckle and some skepticism due to the mysterious, undoubtably complex connotations that surround this technology. This is understandable. Yet, the reality is that the concept of blockchain is relatively simple. Instead of a central authority verifying a transaction or data set, the verification is distributed and decentralized across a network. The verifications are on a ledger (think accounting), where changes and additions are append only – you can’t go back and change it. Therefore, the transactions become transparent, immutable and tamper proof. Implemented correctly, the potential applications spanning public and private sectors are almost categorically endless.

Has this created a hype bubble around blockchain? Undoubtably, yes. However, as the technology progresses and use cases and applications evolve, the hype around blockchain seems to be looking less like a bubble and more like a paradigm shift. With the possibility to make blockchains customizable – private, permissioned or public – companies can choose from an ever-growing panacea of platforms that can meet their needs. Additionally, companies must approach blockchain by first understanding the problem – then assessing why blockchain could be an effective solution. Just like any technology, blockchain is not a silver bullet solution. It must be asked – “Can this be solved by a traditional database, and does the need for transparency, decentralization, trust and immutability warrant a blockchain solution?”

While blockchain can incentivize effective management through transparency of operations, it is also essential that it be complimented by continuing to invest in human capital – the culture – of the company. Transparency can create accountability, competition and innovation – but the technology itself must not be the crutch. The culture and the affective commitment of the people in the organization will always be at the heart of a profitable, sustainable organization. While technology can be a powerful tool to implement solutions, the investment in human capital cannot be lost.

New technologies hold vast potential to disrupt and improve business and society – but without a mutually inclusive investment in culture any initiative will not reach its potential or may even cause inverse, negative externalities. When culture and values are complemented with decentralized, transparent technologies such blockchain, the future of managing successful sustainable enterprises holds immense potential.

A Very Special “Innovator-in-Residence:” Stuart Hart

This post was written by Esteban Echeverria ’19

It is May 8 — the last day of classes, and just like every three weeks or so, we have a speaker come to our class and talk to us for the whole morning. This time it is the one and only Professor Stuart Hart, and by now we should know him and his teachings pretty well.

Professor Stu Hart

For the ones who do not know, Dr. Hart is the backbone of The Sustainable Innovation MBA program. His research, in conjunction with other experts in the field, such as C.K. Prahalad, and Dean Sanjay Sharma, provide much of the material we study in our classes.

As we know Dr. Hart quite well by now, he decided to base his lecture on where we are now as a society, and where we are headed in the future, as well as some of his current research. After some 500 years of history, he explained the many phases of the most important economic systems the world has been going through— feudalism, mercantilism, industrial capitalism, institutional capitalism, financial capitalism. He finally mentioned the next phase that we are transitioning to— what he called the new sustainable capitalism. Each of phases have been going through a cycle of power and economic distribution that repeats itself, were we keep making the same mistakes, falling on the same bumps, and ending up in the same place, which is not exactly a good one.

We are now in a moment in history haunted by a severe climate crisis, as well as a social one, where inequality is hitting major milestones that are getting close to the point of no return. It is a point where the Milton Freedman’s “increase of shareholder value” corporate objectives, as well as the concept of tying the payment of chief executives and senior leaders to performance, are to be reviewed and thought over. 

It not only has led to multinational corporations practicing stock buyback and cut R&D spending as well as operational spending including employee pay, among other strategies to raise the prices of their own stocks, but also focus on quarterly earnings reports and quick fixes to their unsustainable models. The pressure of investors, analysts, and high frequency traders has let these companies forget about the long-term strategies required to sustain their operations, as well as promote the wellbeing of their stakeholders. Shareholder primacy, as noted in the past, is not a legal obligation, but the system as of now is fixed for this purpose. 

One of the objectives of The Sustainable Innovation MBA program is to create the new generation of businessmen and businesswomen determined to go about their decision making process taking not only financial, but also environmental and social aspects into account. As a student of this program, and part of this community, I would also like to act as a sustainability enabler, by attempting to contribute to corporate transformation from the inside out. Many of these public multinational corporations need to recognize their identity, strengths, and reason of existence, and use it as a tool to transform and modernize their operations and value propositions to ones that contribute to the wellbeing of the environment and society. By doing so, they secure their long term operations for the future.

Now that we have finished the lecture portion of this program, I am a step closer to become part of The Sustainable Innovation MBA alumni community, the one that is building the business leaders that the world needs. I recommend this experience to anyone that is trying to make an impact, and be part of the transformation we are going through.