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.
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.
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
Author’s Note: In our Sustainable Innovation MBA program, we talk a lot about sustainability! But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus the discussion on the “innovation” side of things. After all, in frontier market contexts where the opportunity to “leapfrog” technology exists, sustainability and innovation really do go hand in hand.
Last week I had the distinct pleasure of representing The University of Vermont’s Sustainable Innovation MBA program at CoinDesk’s Consensus 2019 Blockchain Conference in NYC. In attendance were founders of blockchain startup companies, software developers, institutional investors, regulatory agencies, blockchain journalists, and academics from around the world. The topics covered by keynote speakers, panelists, and facilitators of hands-on workshops were vast, and I could not help from allowing the imaginative techno-futurist within me dream of the type of social good that could come from a decentralized “Web 3.0.”
Before I lose my audience with
heady predictions of a decentralized web future, I suppose I should first share
why I attended this 3-day conference in NYC to begin with – that is, to expand
my network within the blockchain development community and learn from industry
leaders about how this new technology, blockchain (or “distributed ledger
technology”), can be used in business to address the social and environmental
challenges that exist today, particularly in frontier market contexts. And for
what it’s worth, I’ll share with you what I see in my crystal ball later.
Wait Wait, Slow Down…What is Blockchain?
Put simply, blockchain, or “distributed ledger technology”, is a type of distributed database stored on a continuous ledger. Participants in a blockchain network can securely store their data on the continuous ledger such that no central authority or administrator can tamper with that data, adding the qualities of both transparency and immutability. This is where blockchain differs from a traditional database. At the end of the day, the real value that blockchain technology offers is trust.
Applied Learnings from Consensus to Practicum
This summer, I will be working with
classmates Esteban Echeverria and Henry Vogt on a practicum project with local
consulting firm Resonance Global. With a global presence in over 60+ countries,
Resonance assists clients in deploying market-based solutions to unlock
opportunity in frontier markets. My practicum team’s task for the summer is to develop
a proprietary analytical framework for assisting Resonance’s clients to make
better decisions about when and how to use blockchain technology in areas
relevant to their work, and then expanding that framework to identify greater
client opportunities for Resonance. As such, my attention during Consensus was primarily
focused on seeking practical business use cases for blockchain technology as
they might apply to solving problems in developing economies around the world.
The vibe of Consensus 2019 differed from last year in that there were “more suits and fewer costumes” among attendees (more on that here). Blockchain consultants from Deloitte, IBM, Tata, and Microsoft all had exhibit booths and lounges showcasing the practical applications of blockchain technology for industry. This year’s Consensus Magazine was titled “From ‘Crypto Winter’ to #DeFi: A Year of Loss, BUIDLing, and Opportunity”. While the ICO boom of 2017-2018 brought a lot of enthusiasm and startup capital into the blockchain and cryptocurrency space, it was clear that 2019 was to be the year of fundamental development, where applications for real business use cases will be piloted and scaled. As things turn out, this was great for me, one of the “suits” in attendance with an academic badge seeking to cut through the hype and learn!
I picked up a signed copy of “Blockchain for Business: Discover How Blockchain Networks Are Transforming Companies, Driving Growth, and Creating New Business Models” from Jerry Cuomo, IBM Fellow and VP Blockchain Technologies, where he penned “Matt – It’s a Team Sport!” I watched a luncheon video by Accenture showcasing its Tech4Good program, featuring its work with Grameen Foundation in economically empowering women at the BoP, among many other technology-driven projects for social good. I learned how ChainLink’s blockchain middleware application solves the smart contract connectivity problem by securely entering real world events onto the blockchain for seamless payments processing. I listened to Deloitte’s approach to advising clients on deploying blockchain projects from ideation to fundraising, structuring, building, and operating. I built my own simulated blockchain network on Amazon Web Services hosting platform in a 2-hour workshop session. Most importantly, I connected with several knowledgeable blockchain industry players with whom I can contact over the summer as my practicum team seeks the expertise needed to develop our blockchain framework for Resonance.
Crystal Ball Time: Blockchain and “Web 3.0”
Let’s take a brief walk through internet history. Remember when Al Gore invented the internet? Me too…(just kidding). Today, we can now look back on the internet era of the search engine, originally used for the sharing and distribution of academic papers, as “Web 1.0”: the Googles, Microsofts, and Apples of the world. Then came Mark Zuckerburg with “the Facebook” – insert “Web 2.0”, an internet driven by user-generated content, data collection, and digital marketing targeted towards an ever-more differentiated consumer who relinquishes data privacy in exchange for the service of algorithms directing her to exactly the right product or service in an increasingly mass-customization-driven market.
In a captivating panel discussion, futurist, economist, and writer George Gilder identified two key crises that represent an existential threat to continued prosperity: the collapse of internet security, and “the scandal of money” (I would personally argue for the climate change crisis to take precedent, but for the sake of carrying this conversation forward, we’ll keep the focus on “innovation” here). He epitomizes these two crises with the examples of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal that undermined the power of democratic institutions in 2016, and the 2008 financial crisis where central banks intervened with monetary policy measures that arguably prevented a world economic collapse and maintained the status quo of power politics, respectively. All of a sudden, we realize the need for a new, decentralized digital architecture for the secure transfer and ownership of assets. Enter the “decentralized web”.
Bitcoin has captured the world’s
imagination over the last 10 years in that it has made many of us rethink the
very idea of money. While Bitcoin itself does not adequately meet any of the
three requirements for money – a store of value, medium of exchange, and unit
of account – it offers a new platform for value transfer in an increasingly
digitized world. As Ethereum co-founder and founder of ConsenSys Joseph Lubin
points out, the currency of the future is likely to be reduced to two things:
data, and human attention. Lubin believes through this understanding that “we
are going to change the nature of value”. The innovation that could bring this
new conceptualization of currency into reality? Tokenization. Lubin points out
that unlike Web 2.0, Web 3.0 will likely consist of several interacting,
decentralized protocols on top of which more agile application layers will
So, what does the future hold? Is
this whole cryptocurrency and tokenization thing just a fad? Can we digitize
real world assets to fundamentally change how we perceive peer-to-peer value
transfer? Will Bitcoin ever return to its 2017 high of $19,665? The heck if I
know the answers to any of these questions, but after attending Consensus 2019,
I am well convinced that blockchain technology will likely play a pivotal role
in the evolution of technology towards a more secure and decentralized future,
and the implications for social good to come of that future would be boundless.
On May 10 I walked into Kalkin Hall, mentally rehearsing the practicum pitch I would present that afternoon. As I entered the building that had been my second home for the last nine months, it dawned on me that this was the end of nine-month, 45 credit-hours, academic sprint, most of which was spent this building. My nerves quieted and I felt deep appreciation for what I had accomplished up to that point. It’s hard to overstate the amount of time, effort, and determination that was required to get to where my classmates and I now stood. Looking around the room, I saw people that not so long ago had been strangers. But that day I saw 40 friends that shared a common bond born of shared struggle, successes, personal and professional growth, and way too many hours together. These are the kinds of people you want on your team and I’d support them in any way possible in the years ahead. And the best part, I knew the feeling was mutual.
With my presentation scheduled for later in the afternoon, I took a mental note to really take in the day and be present for my classmates’ presentations, something easily forgotten when you’ve seen the same people collectively present around 100 times. And boy I’m glad I did. Kicking off the day, the Ashoka team presented their plan to turn support services for social entrepreneurs into a financially sustainable business model. And with that we were off and running.
With not a small amount of
jealously, I listened to my classmates present plans to address an array of
complex issues: using cover cropping to address pollution and financial
challenges associated with Vermont’s dairy industry with Ben & Jerry’s; creating
a closed-loop business model for Burton’s soft goods; addressing legal and
environmental implications of 3D printing with the Environmental Law Institute;
transforming Interface into a carbon negative company; creating an emerging
market strategy to help Just Foods address malnutrition; building the business
plan and securing financing for Green Man Acres, a regenerative, diversified student-owned
Vermont farm; reducing the environmental footprint of the outdoor adventure travel
industry with REI; building niche market demand for artisanal Manchaha rugs
through storytelling with Jaipur Rugs; creating a business tool to identify blockchain
applications with Resonance; developing policies and strategy to incorporate
environmental, social, and governance criteria into the investing strategy of
the FIS Group; developing a smart phone application for checking the
environmental footprint of consumer purchases through a student-designed
entrepreneurial venture called Karma Score; and removing plastic packaging from
packaged goods at Seventh Generation. As my turn to present got closer, as usual,
I had to turn up the mental pep talk to prepare myself to meet the high bar set
by this intrepid cohort of MBAs. To that end, my partner and I presented our
plan to develop an emerging market strategy to drive demand for mobile network
services in rural areas, working with Vanu in Rwanda.
With the day drawing to a close, a bittersweet relief settled in. Our coursework was done, but so was our time all together. There’s no doubt the bonds that have been forged this year will remain far into the future. I feel lucky to have spent these last nine months with these extraordinary individuals and can’t wait to see the final results of these projects in August, and the accomplishments, successes, and positive impacts this cohort will have as they embark on their careers after graduation. Now, let the practicum work begin!
The Sustainable Innovation MBA Class of 2018 is entering the home stretch.
On May 11, the cohort, faculty, and sponsoring companies gathered on UVM’s campus for what has become an inspiring demonstration of how the students have “put it all together.” Students spent the day “pitching” the scope and framework of their practicum projects — a capstone of The Sustainable Innovation MBA experience. Practicums call upon all the skills, insights, experiences, and learning the students have acquired over the past nine months.
The three-month practicum project is a full-time, hands-on experiential engagement with either existing companies or new ventures from the US and around the world focused on real challenges and opportunities in sustainable entrepreneurship. Practicum projects are composed of teams of 2-3 Sustainable Innovation MBA students each. Projects run from May until August, and culminate in a final report and presentation right before graduation.
Students pitched scoping for projects at companies such as Keurig Green Mountain, Griffith Foods, Essilor, Seventh Generation, and Caterpillar.
The deliverable for the practicum is a detailed and comprehensive business/action plan for the host organization.
Robert Hacker ’18 joined The Sustainable Innovation MBA program upon completing his undergraduate degree from James Madison University. He was interviewed by Isabel Russell, an undergraduate at UVM.
Why did you choose to attend The Sustainable Innovation MBA program?
I chose to attend The Sustainable Innovation MBA program to gain the tools necessary to make an impact on the world. More specifically, I attended this program because I wanted to learn how I could use business as a tool to increase the impact I could have with my environmental biology degree.
What has been your favorite part/element of the program thus far?
My favorite part of the program thus far is my practicum project and my classmates. My practicum project is with Propagate Ventures, an alumni-founded (Editor’s note: Harrison Greene ’16) agroforestry and permaculture start-up, which allows me to use my biology background and my newly gained skills from The Sustainable Innovation MBA. This cohort is a great gathering of people with diverse backgrounds with a similar impact oriented mindset, which is a awesome environment to be a part of every day!
What are three things someone considering the program should be aware of?
1. This will be one of the busiest, most informative years of your life.
2. Good time management skills are so important in this program.
3. You may never want to leave Vermont after the program.
How has the Sustainable Innovation MBA helped you?
I have learned so much in the past months, from financial skills to people skills. My classmates have taught me just as much as my professors, and I am lucky to be able to learn so much from my them, since I am one of the younger members of the class.
Accessing Information through Mobile Technology Gives Smallholder Farmers Much-Needed Support
Walking through the streets of India, it’s hard not to notice the plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables that line the sidewalks, pretty much everywhere you go. Just a short 30-minute drive out of the city center lands you in acres of cultivated fields where many of these crops originate.
Roughly 50 percent of India’s workforce is devoted to agriculture. This demographic is common in many other emerging and frontier countries where a dominant proportion of the population relies on farming for its livelihood. Smallholder farmer is a title given to people who own less than five acres of arable land. The vast majority of smallholder farmers live in a cyclical pattern of poverty as they struggle to access markets and sell their products at the best price. Lack of market access means that farmers often lose money, even in a high growth season, and a perfectly good harvest goes to waste. With such a fragmented system in rural areas, it is extremely challenging for farmers to generate a profit to support themselves and their families.
Lack of market access means that farmers often lose money, even in a high growth season, and a perfectly good harvest goes to waste. With such a fragmented system in rural areas, it is extremely challenging for farmers to generate a profit to support themselves and their families.
Smallholder farmers are not insignificant. Collectively, they represent 500 million farms around the world and employ approximately 2 billion people. They are responsible for about 80 percent of the food consumed in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As the global population size charges toward an estimated 9 billion by 2050, the demand on smallholder farmers to increase crop yield will only continue to rise, along with the critical need to mitigate post-harvest losses. Analysts predict that food access will need to increase by 70 percent to feed 2 billion additional people on the planet, and production in developing countries would need to almost double. Food security is a global issue, and one that requires partnerships across all sectors to solve.
Six years ago when Sanjay Sharma took over as dean of the Grossman School of Business, he set his sights on an ambitious goal: to become the top MBA program in the country for sustainable innovation.
That dream became reality on Oct. 31 when The Princeton Review ranked the University of Vermont Grossman School of Business’ Sustainable Innovation MBA program No. 1 on its 2018 list of “Best Green MBA” programs. UVM took over the top spot from the University of Oregon, which dropped to No. 4 behind second-place Yale and Portland State, followed by No. 5 Stanford.
The decision to replace a traditional 38-year-old MBA program with the nation’s first one-year AACSB-accredited MBA focused entirely on sustainable innovation seemed risky, but according to Sharma, was perfect timing. A growing demand by companies seeking managers to convert global sustainability challenges into business opportunities for triple bottom line performance – a measure of a company’s financial, social and environmental impact – was undeniable.
“We were fortunate that the Vermont brand and UVM’s strengths and identity resonated with the sustainability ethos,” says Sharma. “While it was a major risk for the school, we decided to take a big leap and go ‘all in’ because we were convinced that the future of business education was to educate managers for tomorrow so that they could develop profitable business solutions to societal needs and demands for the next 50 years.”
The “Best Green MBA” rankings are based on students’ assessments of how well their school is preparing them in environmental/sustainability and social responsibility issues, and for a career in a green job market. The Grossman School of Business’ Sustainable Innovation MBA was also included in The Princeton Review’s list of the 267 Outstanding On-Campus MBA programs. This list was based on data from surveys of 23,000 students attending the schools and of administrators at the graduate schools.
Worldwide practicums with top companies, access to exclusive job network set program apart.
A number of aspects of UVM’s Sustainable Innovation MBA set it apart from other programs. The course curriculum, based entirely on sustainability and innovation, is delivered by world class faculty in this arena under four modules: foundations of management; building a sustainable enterprise; growing a sustainable enterprise; and focusing on sustainability.
Following coursework, students engage in a three-month practicum – a capstone experiential project to address issues such as poverty, climate change, and the environment – with companies like PepsiCo, 1% For the Planet, Philips, Ingersoll Rand, Burton, Keurig, and Facebook. Students traveled to India, Mexico, Ghana, Brazil, Denmark, China, Kenya, and Guatemala to complete practicums, which have led to sustainability and innovation-related jobs at Ben & Jerry’s, King Arthur Flour, Pottery Barn, Seventh Generation and others.
Students also have access to a new career management system called “Launch” designed to propel them into careers in renewable energy, clean tech, affordable health care, inclusive business, entrepreneurship within larger companies, start-ups, and other innovative ventures. The program’s Changemaker Network, composed of more than 125 companies and individuals focused on sustainable business, puts students in direct contact with mentors who help them land jobs within the program’s condensed 12-month format.
“We devote one hundred percent of our energy to creating a robust back end that injects people into an opportunity network that helps students realize their personal and professional dreams,” says professor and Sustainable Innovation MBA co-director Stuart Hart, the world’s leading authority on the implications of environment and poverty for business strategy. “If you are a student interested in figuring out how to use the power of business and enterprise to make a positive impact on the world, that’s all we do.”
The Princeton Review ranking comes on the heels of a No. 8 ranking by Corporate Knights – a Toronto-based media and research company focused on clean capitalism – in its “Better World MBA Rankings.” The UVM program moved up two spots from last year and is now ranked third among U.S. schools, trailing only Duquesne University and MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
Corporate Knights ranks programs based on the number of core courses, institutes and centers, and faculty research produced in the last three years related to sustainability, including corporate responsibility, human rights, and ethics.
“We are excited to teach and help launch the next generation of innovative leaders who will create the kinds of transformative sustainable business models and strategies that the world demands,” says professor and co-director David Jones. “We are also honored to have our unique MBA program recognized by these organizations after just our third cohort of graduates.”
This spring, a global manufacturer of industrial refrigeration equipment asked me and another MBA candidate — eager, passionate students with a slew of newly minted sustainable business pedagogies in our quiver — to explore emerging market opportunities that also tackled global social and environmental issues. Our project was a result of the company’s strategic focus on tackling major world issues that go beyond eco-efficiency, such as food loss.
My classmate Brett Spusta and I began the project with two parameters: we’d be exploring the issue of food loss and we’d be doing so in Brazil. Beyond that, it was up to us to narrow the scope of our research, develop a team of research partners on the ground, ask the right questions and formulate strategies that could produce cold chain innovation, create meaningful social and environmental impact and be scaled.
It was an MBA student’s dream come true.
What began as a cumbersome undertaking crystallized into a specific, surprising and insightful set of actionable recommendations tailored to Brazil’s unique market.
Editor’s Note: This post is taken from the text of a news release issued by Global Evolution. Global Evolution serves on our Advisory Board, and hosted a student practicum during the 2016-2017 academic year.
The leading emerging and frontier markets investment manager hosted two students in a practicum project to gain hands on experience with investing in emerging and frontier markets. The students, Mike Rama and Ted Carrick, worked closely with Ole Jørgensen, Global Evolution’s Research Director, at headquarters in Denmark. Together, they developed recommendations to enhance Global Evolution’s ESG model and offering in North America, where the company is currently expanding.
“Sustainable investing is in our DNA, and we are committed to supporting the best talent that is interested in our field,” said Robert Morier, managing director and head of North America for Global Evolution. “Working with the University of Vermont was a great way to do that, and we are excited to see how these students contribute to our industry in the future.”
Despite President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris Climate Accord on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, many American businesses are moving forward with green initiatives. That is because going green will likely be less of a financial burden to corporate treasury groups as time goes by, said author and former Executive Forum speaker Andrew Winston.
Winston noted that major companies like REI, Boeing, UPS Wal-Mart, Google, Microsoft and Apple all use substantial amounts of renewable energy, and are reaping the benefits. “It’s not a small experiment anymore; there are tons of big companies like this,” he said. “And all of them see it as a good deal because they’re saving money.”