Why I Left the Nonprofit Sector (and It’s Not the Reason You Might Think)

This post was written by Taran Catania ’20. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Whether I was working in field research for a local conservation group or serving as a legislative representative for a national environmental organization, I loved my time in the nonprofit sector. No matter where I was, I was surrounded by mission-driven people, my work gave me a sense of purpose, and I was always proud to answer the standard icebreaker “so what do you do?”

Nonprofit technician in the field: Taran Catania ’20 flags a Semipalmated Sandpiper as part of ongoing endangered shorebird research for New Jersey Audubon.

But then I left the nonprofit world – and not for the reasons you might think. The assumption when people leave the nonprofit sector to go to business school is that person wants to make more money. Now, don’t get me wrong: there are extremely good reasons the nonprofit sector should stop undervaluing and underinvesting in staff. But the short answer is no, I did not leave for that reason.

The real reason is: I was tired of fighting for change, but not seeing an obvious plan for its impact or scalability. I was tired of “doing good” by rules that limited how much good we could do. I wanted the chance to take risks for something I believed in.

During Dr. Erik Monsen’s Crafting the Entrepreneurial Business Model class, I was introduced to a TED Talk by activist and fundraiser Dan Pallotta called “The way we think about charity is dead wrong.” As Pallotta points out, nonprofits are rewarded more for not acting like businesses (such as severely restricting overhead spending – “For every dollar donated, 83 cents go to the cause!”) than for what impact they have. From inherent rules limiting nonprofits’ ability to competitively compensate staff, market and advertise to generate revenue, or access capital markets to spur growth, the nonprofit sector is at a disadvantage to the business world in almost every way.

To add further limitation, nonprofits are systematically discouraged from taking risks. Risk, which always carries some chance of failure, is a generally unacceptable use of charitable dollars. And as Pallotta puts simply: “When you prohibit failure, you kill innovation.”

In other words, there is a reason there is no “venture capital” of the nonprofit world. No one is looking to make large donations to a nonprofit that wants to take chances, invest in its own growth, and pursue unexplored, better ways to make and scale change.

But as we can tell from the growing list of Certified B Corps and the increasing buzz around Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the business world is evolving to pick up where the nonprofit sector leaves off. And it’s doing so with some creative, innovative risk-taking.

So until we can foster a nonprofit sector that operates under fewer limitations, fighting for social and environmental change from a business angle may offer greater opportunities to create positive, scalable impacts. (That is, as long as businesses commit to doing so meaningfully.)

In the meantime, I’ll be here reading anything written by Vu Le at Nonprofit AF, bicycle commuting in my Allbirds sneakers, and pursuing a Sustainable Innovation MBA to be a part of this business evolution.

My Experience as an International Student

This post was written by Melissa Chima ’20. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Where should I start? The university? The classmates? The program? The weather? The town? As an international student, the things I have experienced at the University of Vermont Sustainable Innovation MBA have been completely new. A couple of years ago, while working at a machine dealer for the mining and construction industry in Colombia I felt my life needed a change and a new purpose. I needed to have a positive impact in this world in crisis. Therefore, my search for a better future began and an instant match with The Sustainable Innovation MBA core values happened.

After the decision was made, I had to start a lot of paperwork and countless errands to be here: first, preparing for the TOEFL (The Test of English as a Foreign Language), taking it; approving it; preparing for the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), taking it, approving it; applying for the University; getting the visa, packing my life into two suitcases; and getting the right state of mind to adapt to this new birth. This last part, the “new birth,” has been surprisingly “not abnormal”. After all, it is easy to get used to new things when you are surrounded by an entire community of kind, accepting and lovable people. For me, a person with high score on the personality trait of introversion, speaking of how nice people are around here is quite a big challenge. But I must recognize that the value that I have found in my cohort and the faculty members is incommensurable.

What can I say about the town and consequently about the weather? Burlington, Vermont is…Burlington, Vermont. A quiet and calm environment for people seeking for a quiet and calm environment. The weather has been quite a subject for me. In my couple (or more) decades of life, I have been living in Barranquilla, a city located in the north coast of Colombia, where a word such as “seasons” does not exist. We only have hot, hot with wind, hot and rain, and “hot like hell” weather. Hence, the introduction to this magical experience of having seasons has been kind of unique. About my first encounter with the snow and the “extreme” cold I have to say we are getting to know each other, and so far, I do not hate them. The key is, as someone said at the beginning of my experience, to wear layers. A couple or millions of layers.

Finally, I must talk about the program and my experience. After my first two modules in the program, I am convinced that it is possible to implement business as a source for good. The goal then, is to use the power of business to make a positive impact on the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. With courses such as World Challenges, marketing, finance, CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and Leading for Sustainable Innovation, a-not-so-small-bag of tools have been added to my knowledge and development kit.

Currently, the second half of the experience is waiting for me, but I am completely sure it is going to be as great and rewarding as the first one. So far, I just have to thank the wonderful people that have been part of this experience and my personal journey.

On Motherhood and the Importance of “Balance” for Success in the Program

This post was written by Sara Farnsworth ’20. Connect with Sara on LinkedIn

As the only mother in the Class of 2020, I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on a key skill needed to achieve holistic success throughout the program —”Balance.” I came to The Sustainable Innovation MBA program after some 20 years in the work force, where I have worn many hats, from catering to property damage repair and managing a business. But, my most important job is that of Mom. What is it like to be a single mother and dedicate myself to earning my MBA?  It’s about Balance. 

Sara Farnsworth ’20 (Photo by John Turner)

The program has taught me that balance is about setting healthy boundaries and managing time effectively. A challenge that arose for me was making choices between desiring to be out socializing and networking with classmates vs. spending time with my two boys. While, instinctively, the choice is easy for me — Mom duties always come first — I have come to learn that it is also important to build rapport and develop relationships with teammates as a way to cultivate team cohesion. 

One of the important skills I’ve practiced in the program is simply being present. When I am at school, I am in MBA work mode; when I am home, I am in Mama mode — and, so forth. After riding the bus into town with my kids and dropping them off at their campus, I make my way to Kalkin Hall.  These moments of walking up College Street are full of reflection, peace and planning. These “quiet” moments are scarce so I really cherish the morning light and walking to the Grossman School at UVM. I arrive to school a few hours before class to work while my mind is fresh.  I find my time in the morning prior to the start of classes, getting assignments completed and focusing on readings, has been incredibly helpful in achieving balance.  

Furthermore, I generally work through the 90-minute lunch break we are allotted each day, and sometimes stay until 5:30 or 6pm, to ensure I am getting my schoolwork done.  My goal has been to ensure that when I leave the building for the day and scoop my children from their afterschool activities, I’m ready to be Mom –- fully. I find that through my life experiences, I can contribute meaningfully to others’ learning, while I also am learning from others. Through all of this, I find time to be at home to make dinner with my kids each day, to help them with their homework and reflect on their day. When I am at home, my job is Mom. 

When it comes to social activities among the cohort, I pick and choose wisely, generally participating in group potlucks that enable me to bring my kids.  My kids have also been learning through this program and have watched me to ensure I am maintaining our life and home, while pursuing my dream of achieving an MBA. My children have met my fellow classmates and have learned and grown through their interactions. This program is positively affecting our lives. 

I won’t say that it’s easy to create balance, but it is so important to my mental health and well-being to recognize when things are not in balance and making changes so that I am able to feel at ease with the pace.  This program has been wonderful for my two sons and I, and I have the utmost confidence that I have made the right decision in joining this program, and it will positively affect their lives in addition to my own.  They see me working hard and dedicating myself to my studies, while enjoying the benefits of the Mom they have always counted on.  The balance is what will get me to the day of graduation and will propel me toward all the goals and dreams I have following the completion of this program. I hope that my sharing of my experience of being a part of The Sustainable Innovation MBA program may influence people of all walks of life, from all circumstances, to consider the program, as with diligent balance and a positive “can-do” attitude, one can be successful in the SI-MBA program. 

I’m so happy to be a part of the SI-MBA class of 2020, and I look forward to what is to come, with a full heart and hands ready to change the world. 

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 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.

Julie Keck, Class of 2019 Class Speaker

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Sustainable Innovation MBA Class of 2019 was celebrated at their program-end Inauguration ceremony on August 17, 2019 at the Royall Tyler Theater on the campus of the University of Vermont. Julie Keck ’19 was chosen by her cohort to deliver the Class Speaker address. The text of her remarks is below.

Before I get started, it’s important to point out that this event is taking place on traditional Abenaki and Wabanaki land, and it is a privilege to have been educated on – and to now graduate within – the land that they have stewarded.

Julie Keck

I have the honor of speaking to you today because my peers voted for me. I suspect those who clicked on my name either thought I would say something funny, say something touching, or politely ‘stick it to the man.’ Those hoping for any of these three things will be satisfied. 

If you have gone through this Sustainable Innovation MBA program at the University of Vermont – or if you love us, teach us, or support us in any way – you’ll know that we completed many, many, many presentations in this program. While public speaking can be stressful for some, it was no secret in our classroom that I love a good microphone. For me, the only problem was that I had to share my presentation time with my lovely classmates.

But now – finally – the microphone’s all mine. And I Have Some Things to Say.

But first more about me: when I was little, and I was super cute when I was little, my dad would sometimes ask me a question, and I’d respond with: “Let me sing you about it.” Those who’ve come to live-band karaoke with me at Sweet Melissa’s over the past year will be relieved to know I’m not actually going to do that.

Another response I sometimes had to questions was: “I can’t know that yet.” 

I like that better than “I don’t know,” don’t you? It conveys that one might not *currently* have the knowledge to answer a question, but that the knowledge is surely on the horizon. Four-year-old ME had some insights that adult ME had lost in the ensuing years. I like to think I regained some of that intellectual optimism this past year. 

However, to be totally honest, and I consider you all my best friends, so I will always be honest with you, my pessimistic side almost kept me from applying to business school at all…

Because I’m not supposed to be here. For a few reasons.

Julie Keck, right, and partner Jess King

First, I am a woman. 

This year, there were more women on the Fortune 500 list of CEOs than ever before. Sounds like progress, right? Wanna know what the number was? 33. 33 out of 500. Let me make that clearer. Out of 500 CEOs on that list, 467 were men, and 33 were women. That’s 6.6%. That’s appalling.

Getting to Know the Class of 2019: Jeffrey Lue

Hailing from the Washington D.C. area, Jeff graduated from the University of Maryland in 2011 with BS degrees in Operations Management and Finance. Jeff joined Accenture in 2012 as a management consultant. During his six-year tenure with the company, he worked with several clients on a variety of projects ranging from enhancement valuations to change management. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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

I’ve been searching for an MBA program for quite some time, but was having difficulty finding one I was excited about until I cam across The Sustainable Innovation MBA program. I knew that I wanted to incorporate sustainability components into my career, so this program felt like the perfect fit for me.

What has been your favorite part of the program thus far?

I think the access to amazing people doing inspiring things in their career. It’s been great learning about all the potential routes my career can take.

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

1. Be prepared to work. This program is no joke. 2. Be prepared to have your mind opened to new possibilities of how the world can work. 3. Be comfortable with seeing the same people. In the same building. In the same room. Every day. Hopefully they’re great like ours are.

How has The Sustainable Innovation MBA program benefitted you so far?

It’s opened my eyes to the way business can and should be done. I see even more opportunities to utilize business as a means to change the world, more so than I did when I started the program just a few short months ago.

Anything else?

Vermont is also awesome, so if you’re not familiar, you should make a visit.

Getting to Know the Class of 2019: Keil Corey

Originally from Bristol, Vermont, Keil studied Government and  Environmental Studies at Skidmore College. He comes to us from work at the Vermont Natural Resources Council and, most recently, Smith & McClain as their Solar Sales and Marketing Consultant. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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

I wanted to continue working in a field that made a positive impact in our communities and on the world in general and felt the the private sector was the right place to move into, but I wanted — and needed — to expand my professional toolkit first.

What has been your favorite part of the program thus far?

Exposure to and interaction with some of the leading thinkers and doers in the business world who are solving some of our major societal challenges. Also, developing competencies in business management and applying these foundations to developing the new sustainable business paradigm has provided me with a newfound sense of agency and purpose. It’s been an incredibly inspiring learning environment so far.

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

Squeezing two years into one is no joke. Be prepared for a full-time commitment to this program. Also, if you’re looking to better know yourself, face hard truths, and grow personally and professionally, this program may be for you. Lastly, be prepared to question your thinking and live in ambiguity a lot — essential skills for business leaders in my opinion.

How has The Sustainable Innovation MBA program benefitted you so far?

I feel I have already developed a solid foundation on the fundamentals I wanted to learn: finance, microeconomics, and business strategy, among others. I’ve also benefitted from professors and the student cohort that are especially gifted at taking big picture challenges and bringing them into a context that can be manageable and inspirational.

Anything else?

The future is here, it’s good, and it’s The Sustainable Innovation MBA.

Getting to Know the Class of 2019: Elissa Eggers

Elissa is a Connecticut native who received her undergraduate degree in Art History and Dance from Washington University in St. Louis. After graduating, Elissa attended the Ailey School in NYC before embarking on her professional dance career. Elissa comes to The Sustainable Innovation MBA from Lululemon where she channeled her natural curiosity and knack for visual storytelling into management and visual merchandising roles. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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

I chose this program for its welcoming, collaborative environment and because I wanted learn the questions to ask and tools to use to make business better. I also love knowing that I will be back out in the world in less than a year, better equipped to make a difference!

What has been your favorite part of the program thus far?

So far my favorite element of the program has been the quality and array of guest speakers. There is an incredible network of sustainability and business professionals around this program, and being able to connect with them has been extremely valuable to all of us.

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

1) This program fosters an intimate and collaborative environment to learn and work in

2) Days fill up quickly and there are numerous opportunities to take advantage of outside of the classroom so you need to prioritize what you are most interested in and curious about

3) This program is situated in an amazing city so no matter how much work you have, make sure to make time to get out of the classroom and explore!

How has The Sustainable Innovation MBA program benefitted you so far?

I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by my amazing cohort everyday. I know the relationships I am building will be lasting and I cannot wait to see what we all get up to after the program.