Opinion: Robinhood Isn’t the Hero We Need Right Now

Written By: 
Taylor R. Smith ‘22 
Editor, Finance 
Connect with Taylor on LinkedIn 

“It’s hard to find a job you can retire on.” The sentiment runs deep. As I sat with writer’s block in my cramped Burlington apartment, my roommates bustled in the kitchen making lunch and small talk. Katy, a soil scientist with the Franklin County Natural Resources Conservation District, had recently been on a field assignment to meet with a farmer in snowy northern Vermont. In the hours spent passing paperwork around a kitchen table, the conversation touched on retirement. The offhand comment, from a dairy farmer aged about 60, is reflective of the fact that retirement readiness is a serious challenge – a unifying anxiety across generations of American workers.

For many, the simplest way to start investing for the future is through an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Dairy farmers in rural Vermont don’t have that luxury. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports only 67% of workers in private industry had access to an employer retirement plan in 2020. The distribution of those retirement plans follows a predictable and troubling pattern, with high earners far more likely to have access; only 39% of part-time workers have an employer-sponsored plan.

A secure retirement can feel especially remote for people without access to a plan through their workplace. For starters, sparing a few dollars is no small feat. Between student loans, rising rents, and (not-so-transitory) inflation, times are feeling very tight indeed. If you can ration the funds, it may still be difficult to cross the starting line. In a pandemic that feels more and more like a never-ending airline delay, it’s tough to muster the mental energy to explore investment options and dive in.

For those ready to take the plunge, the investment marketplace can be scary. Many individuals aren’t inclined to trust the financial services industry, as Wall Street’s reputation continues to recover from the 2008 financial crisis. Faced with the multitude of investment options and complex-sounding terms, I’ve seen “analysis paralysis” stop potential investors in their tracks. What brokerage firm should I choose? Do I need an advisor? When it comes to fees, how high is too high? What the heck is an ETF?! As Ryan Gosling quips in The Big Short,

It’s pretty confusing right? Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid? Well, it is supposed to. Wall Street loves to use terms to make you think only they can do what they do.” 

Ryan Gosling, The Big Short
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Enter Robinhood. Established in 2013, the investing app has seen its popularity explode in the past few years, with huge user growth between 2020 and 2021. Granted, Robinhood doesn’t bill itself as a retirement service, but it may be the most accessible option for new investors – at least for now. Robinhood’s website proudly states: “We’re on a mission to democratize finance for all.” That’s a mission I can get behind, but critiques aren’t hard to find. Selections from Vice and NBC News touch on a few common criticisms, from Robinhood’s gamification of investing (complete with casino style graphics and confetti) to their sale of user order flow1. Robinhood also allows advanced investment techniques typically reserved for seasoned investors and professionals.

1A substantial portion of Robinhood’s revenue is derived from their sale of order flow. When you make a trade on Robinhood, the app sells your order to a larger investment firm for final execution. Your order is sold to the highest bidder, not to the firm that will complete the trade most quickly. Robinhood gets paid a fee, the outside firm gains a slight advantage on the open market, and the user pays a price.

A core tenet of finance is the relationship between risk and return. Riskier investments demand a higher expected return to justify their potential downside. It’s an open question whether apps like Robinhood shift this relationship out of balance for the at-home retail investor. The meteoric rise of Robinhood coincides with a period of strong economic growth following the Covid-crash of March 2020. Many retail investors cashed in, and new investors flocked into the market. A recent survey by Charles Schwab suggests 15% of stock market investors got their start in 2020. But what does the future hold during a downturn? Have inexperienced users been conditioned to take outsized risks, and if so, can these habits be reined in? 

Financial Technology (Fintech) companies are rising to meet the soaring demand for retail financial services. While it’s still early in the game, I’m interested to see which companies can profitably occupy a middle ground between the jargon-heavy multinational corporations of the past and the gamified trading apps led by Robinhood. We need a platform that is accessible to new investors but encourages stable portfolios geared for the long term.

Photo by Firmbee.com on Unsplash

The right platform could fill the needs of a large segment of American workers that have been historically passed over by the financial services industry. I’m advocating for a new service that forgoes the frequent dopamine hits of Robinhood and lacks the intimidating interface of a legacy firm. In other words, a platform that’s not too hot, and not too cold. Just right.

Acorns and Greenlight offer two intriguing models. Both startups seem to put a larger emphasis on education and financial literacy (based on my informal review of their online platforms and messaging). Acorns facilitates micro-investing into diversified portfolios by rounding up daily purchases and investing the so-called “spare change.” Acorns does not currently allow trading of individual stocks, though according to Bloomberg this feature could be added in a limited capacity down the line. Greenlight focuses on a young audience (with parental controls in place), allowing money earned from chores and allowances to be invested into stocks and ETFs. In their words, they hope to “…empower parents to raise financially-smart kids.” 

These offerings from Acorns and Greenlight are promising, and more options will surely rise in the coming years. There’s little time to waste. The mathematics of compounding interest are compelling – an early start can make all the difference for an investor. I hope these services, and others, can bring more inclusion to a retirement industry that has typically catered to an affluent customer base. Our country will be more prosperous and secure if its workers are better positioned for a stable future. It’s also the right thing to do.

In the folktales, Robin Hood is the hero, stealing from the rich for the benefit of the poor. But the winners and losers aren’t so clear in the rapidly changing world of Fintech. Buyer beware, Robin Hood was also a master of disguise.

The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and do not represent the views of UVM or the Sustainable Innovation Review editorial team. This is not an endorsement of any investment product or service.

SI-MBA Workshops: Changing Careers with Nizar Hasan

Written By:
Vanessa Chumbley ’22
Managing Editor
Connect with Vanessa on LinkedIn

Throughout our year in SI-MBA, we get the opportunity to take part in a myriad of workshops. The content ranges from writing and presentation techniques, to exploring identities and vulnerabilities in the workplace, to gender and leadership. One of our workshop leaders during the fall semester was Nizar Hasan, Senior Director of Operations at Rheaply. Our three sessions with Nizar focused on making career changes as well as habits, mindset, and motivation.

Nizar is no stranger to career changes, having made the leap from engineering to business development, client management, sales, and most recently people and operations management. In order to make this leap, he decided to go back to school and pursue an MBA, a familiar story to our cohort. He also works as a self-employed career coach, using what he has learned from his many successful pivots to help others succeed. These pivots were the basis for his sessions with us, which were insightful and inspiring for a group of MBA students interested in making career changes.

Nizar Hasan

We come to business school to learn the “hard skills” of business – the terminology, finance, strategy, marketing, and so on. However, an essential aspect of the career path that has historically been omitted from business education is how to navigate and align our humanity with our work. Fortunately, I believe things are changing in this regard. Business is beginning to understand that human beings ultimately bring their whole selves to work – and that can be a good thing.

Much of what Nizar spoke with us about was this: in order to build the life we want, we have to start with who we are as human beings, recognize our strengths and values, and understand and reframe our assumptions when needed. Unfortunately, no one else can do this foundational work for us. It is difficult work and would be easier if someone could tell us what is best or what would bring the most fulfillment. However, this inner work needs to be done to find our paths and forge the careers we want.

As Nizar put it, “I think why I offered and came forward with the idea of doing these sessions is because these are things that no one ever talked to me about when I was studying and learning… I think we don’t focus enough on the individual and our emotions and how we process and how we deal with life. I think taking time to understand yourself and build a life that works well for you and who you are is foundational to you bringing your best self to work… These foundational things are important in order for us to do well what is taught to us in the MBA.”

Here are some key takeaways from our sessions with Nizar on how to go about making a successful career change:

Know Your Values and Strengths

“Our values determine the nature of our problems, and the nature of our problems determine the quality of our lives.” – Mark Manson

When embarking on any job search, it is important to understand your core values. Not only will knowing your values differentiate you as a candidate, but it will also help you and potential employers identify if you are a good fit for a role. If you’ve ever been in a job or worked for a company that was misaligned with your values, you know how draining and demoralizing it can be. Having that alignment is necessary for a fulfilling, successful career.

But how to go about finding your core values? There are many resources to choose from. In her book Dare To Lead, Brené Brown provides a long list of values and tasks readers with choosing just two core values. I can tell you from personal experience this is difficult, but possible! If you can’t quite get to two, Nizar recommends keeping it to five or fewer. Here is a shorter list from James Clear, which may help you narrow it down. As they both point out – if everything is a core value, then nothing is.

Similarly, knowing your strengths is vital to successful job search. There are many resources to help with this as well. Nizar recommends the VIA Character Strengths Survey. In our Module 1 Teamwork class, the cohort took the CliftonStrengths Assessment, which is another great resource.

As Nizar shared with us, it’s important to understand how your skills and strengths can be transferrable to find the path of least resistance to your next career. Finding the lowest barrier to entry has to do with having a solid understanding of your values, skills, and strengths and how they can be applied to your next career path. Doing the work to understand these things will allow you to articulate how you can add value to potential employers.

Embrace Networking

It’s almost cliché at this point, but it is so very true – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. However, networking can be uncomfortable for some. Many people feel like they’re “bothering” people or “asking for something” when they engage in networking, or that they’re just not good at it. This is where re-framing our assumptions comes in.

Thinking about networking in terms of “getting something from someone” is anxiety-inducing and inauthentic. Instead, what if our only goal was to listen and learn? If that’s the case, Nizar shared with us, “there is nothing to be good at” and nothing to ask of people.

Most people love to talk about themselves and are usually more than happy to share what they do and how they got there. Reaching out to someone in a role you find interesting and asking for an informational interview is a great way to network, even if it means sending what Nizar called a “cold message”. He shared with us screenshots of cold messages he has sent and the recipients’ responses. They were all happy to share their experiences and provide insight into their career and current role. Approaching networking from a place of humble inquiry – seeking to understand before being understood – ensures authenticity and will leave a positive impression.

In the session on networking, Nizar left us with these helpful reminders:

  • People are kind, and they want to help. Sometimes they’re just busy.
  • No one got to where they are without some help.
  • Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness.
  • Everyone likes to talk about themselves.
Image source: https://comphealth.com/resources/formal-mentoring-program/

“From a health coaching perspective, you might have a trainer, or a gym coach, or somebody to help you stay fit. And I think sometimes you need the same for your brain.” This was Nizar’s inspiration for seeking a career coach, and ultimately led to his own work as a career coach. “We all go through the same challenges, they just might be presented in different ways. But at the end we’re all connected by these challenges.”

Making a career change is a long and difficult process, and while much of the work must be done individually, so much of our success in navigating a career transition has to do with our connections with others. It’s important to remember we’re not alone in struggling with career changes, and the more we can speak openly with our friends and colleagues and share our learnings and experiences, the more connected we will be.  

The Forgotten Power Source

Written By:
Josh Kriesberg ’22
Editor, Clean Energy & Technology
Connect with Josh on LinkedIn

As countries, companies, and households across the globe transition towards clean energy, decision makers take every opportunity to tout flashy numbers and projects. Installing solar panels and batteries, erecting wind turbines, and building microgrids have profound impact and the clean electricity they generate is essential to reaching our climate goals. However, meeting our climate goals requires more than clean energy generation. All too often, cost effective and locally supplied solutions go overlooked and underutilized. To increase our impact, we must become more efficient at using the energy we produce, in other words, more energy efficient.

Photo by Federico Beccari on Unsplash

In almost every situation the cheapest energy is the energy we never use. Retrofitting buildings with new, more efficient technology can reduce energy usage across all sectors of the economy while contributing to substantial cost savings. For example, in 2015, 51% of all energy used in American homes was consumed by two sources: heating and air conditioning[1]. Reducing our heating and AC consumption through strategies like insulation, window and door sealing, and equipment upgrades will have a profound impact on the environment and our wallets. E4TheFuture, a non-profit advocacy group, calculates over $66 Billion, that’s right, Billions with a B, in savings PER YEAR if the US could retrofit all homes built before 2000[2]. Furthermore, the International Energy Agency goes as far as to say “energy efficiency measures deliver the largest overall reductions in emissions”[3], highlighting the potential for both people and the planet to share the profits from energy efficiency measures.

“Energy efficiency measures deliver the largest overall reductions in emissions” – International Energy Agency

Given the opportunity for shared value, why is energy efficiency so overlooked? For starters, energy efficiency is invisible. Most people don’t have a sense of how efficient their home is and how much energy buildings consume. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all how difficult fighting an invisible enemy can be. Furthermore, low income households are disproportionately impacted by energy costs (a term known as energy burden) and, traditionally, the for-profit sector has ignored opportunities in less wealthy communities.

Beyond systemic issues, the energy efficiency industry is suffering through a major workforce shortage. In many geographies, even those who want to retrofit their home could wait 6 or more months for a technician. The 2020 US Energy and Employment Jobs Report (USEER) found that nearly 83% of energy efficiency companies across all sectors said hiring was “somewhat difficult” or “very difficult” in Q4 2020[4]. This is where I see tremendous opportunity. Companies across the country are seeking talented and motivated individuals who can make a difference. This industry needs a talent infusion if we are to meet our climate goals – this means you can make an impact whether you can help on the technical issues, research & development, business operations, and/or marketing.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

The last piece of the puzzle is more government support for energy efficiency. The beauty of energy efficiency jobs is that they are long lasting and provide significant economic returns to local communities. Unlike other industries, energy efficiency cannot be outsourced. We cannot ship a house or building to China, have it retrofitted, and sent back. These jobs must be done by local contractors whose wages will further stimulate local economies. Job creation, economic development, and environmental progress can make energy efficiency a unifying issue at the local, state, and federal level.

As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must prioritize efficiency at every level. Corporate and political decision makers must embrace the data and look beyond the “sexy” options when considering which options are truly cost effective and impactful. We must develop programs that support companies, households, and individuals who want to make an impact in the field. Businesses, governments, and households can do more to support this critical industry and empower us to meet our climate, economic, and societal goals.

[1] US, E. I. A. (2021, June 23). U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – independent statistics and analysis. Use of energy in homes – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved December 21, 2021, from https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/use-of-energy/homes.php

[2] E4TheFuture (2021, October). Energy Efficiency Jobs in America – e4thefuture.org. Energy Efficiency Jobs in America. Retrieved December 21, 2021, from https://e4thefuture.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Energy-Efficiency-Jobs_2021_All-States.pdf

[3] IEA (2021). A sustainable recovery plan for the Energy Sector – Sustainable Recovery – analysis. IEA. Retrieved December 21, 2021, from https://www.iea.org/reports/sustainable-recovery/a-sustainable-recovery-plan-for-the-energy-sector

[4] US DOE (2021). Department of Energy. Department of Energy, USEER. Retrieved December 21, 2021, from https://www.energy.gov/

Innovators in Residence: Duane Peterson Co-Founder of SunCommon

Written By:

Patrick Donohue ‘22
Contributing Writer
Connect with Patrick on LinkedIn

Dan Lazarus ‘22
Community Catalyst
Connect with Dan on LinkedIn

Recently, the SI-MBA ‘22 cohort had the pleasure to spend an afternoon with Duane Peterson, Co-Founder of SunCommon, a  Vermont-based installer of residential solar power systems.

Duane led us through a lively discussion about passion, community, the solar industry, and more.

“Those with the biggest buildings have the power,” said Duane at the beginning of the conversation. Throughout human history, control of the largest structures systematically and often subconsciously expresses power over others. The pyramids, then the cathedrals and now energy, industry, finance, and more. Duane opened his talk with a thought-provoking idea and a lens to analyze power. The fight for a more just world (healthier, more sustainable, more equitable) is inextricably linked to power. While low-income communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, they are continuously overlooked during the decision making process. In the context of SunCommon, Duane built a low-cost solution for residential solar energy production, and simultaneously removed barriers for people historically locked out of the solar revolution.

Duane spoke to us with a heavy dose of honesty. Adorned in a patterned button-down and his quintessential purple framed spectacles, he spoke with eloquence and full transparency. Throughout the three-hour discussion, the audience leaned forward with eagerness, firing questions at Duane. There was an air of excitement in the room, verging on intensity.

Duane is laser focused on people and believes wholeheartedly that, “how we treat each other matters a lot.” His candid responses to our cohort’s questions, “off-the-cuff” style of presentation, and acknowledgment of his own privileges speak to the people-centric values that underpin everything he does at SunCommon. 

“How we treat each other matters a lot.”

Wrapping up his speech came a question from the back of the room. “What advice do you have for us as business students?”

“What a fitting finale,” Duane quipped. “Find the people you want to do business with, identify what matters, and hold out for that.”

In the leadup to his in-person speaker series with SI-MBA, we were fortunate to have the chance to speak with Duane one-on-one and learn more about his personal journey. 

Duane has enjoyed an exploratative career, including years spent as a police officer, ambulance medic, political campaigner, environmental advocate, and “Chief of Stuff” at Ben & Jerry’s. Speaking with Duane, it was evident that his passions lie in organizing towards justice and developing clear, common-sense initiatives to tackle the systemic problems he sees in his community.    

Below is a synthesized snapshot of the provocative interview: 

Tell us a little about yourself and your involvement in sustainability?

I think of myself as a millennial. As millennials, we’re open to adventure, we’re seeking knowledge, we want to explore new things, we’re not going to do the same jobs for 40 years at a corporation. The people I hire, I know they aren’t going to work here forever. I hope they’ll find fulfillment with their jobs and pour themselves into it, but then I hope they go on and see what’s next for them. I think that’s beautiful.

To me, sustainability is an objectionable word. I think of it like I think of the word tolerance. It comes across like it’s the bare minimum. Well, how about a positive impact? It’s still not perfect, but rather than sustainability, I like to think of values-led business, that is, imbuing business with good and providing a beneficial outcome.    

How did your work at Ben & Jerry’s and their B-Corp certification inform your work in developing SunCommon?

The simplest way to think about it is this: at Ben & Jerry’s, we sought to have every business decision reflect our values. What are you actually doing every day? How are you treating your people, communities, and environment? Who do we hire? Where do we set up our factories? That’s the power of the business. That sort of thinking gave us an appreciation for and ownership of impact. Let’s use the power of business to do good things at every level. When we started SunCommon, that was the vibe from the very beginning. 

“Let’s use the power of business to do good things at every level.”

How important is the B-Corp certification to your company, and how much bearing does it have on your day-to-day operational decision-making?

We were very surprised at how rigorous the assessment was. There were a bunch of issues that we hadn’t considered. The coolest thing about it was the app. When you entered a finding, there would be a pop-up that would ask, ‘Would you like to improve your impact?’ Well sure! And the feed would put you into contact with another B-Corp that had already tackled that issue. This certification helps us get away from winging it and drives us into the rigor. And we’re really excited about that.

I was also a little surprised that the certification had meaning to others. Through the certification, we attract a lot of brilliant young people that care and are looking for fulfillment. 

How does community involvement, as well as your involvement with VBSR (Vermont Business for Social Responsibility) and VPIRG (Vermont Public Interest Research Group), fit into your mission/ passion as a leader?

I think a lot of older white guys in this movement appreciate the attention. That can be an insular, looking for aggrandizement thing, like ‘this is about me,’ or it can be about establishing standing to include other people. I think I probably have a bit of both. I operate in these networks; I learn a lot from these people and am inspired by their ideas. I hope that I can also support them, what they’re doing, and provide credibility, resources, and advancement with my presence. It’s an interesting transaction and positivity that I pull from this involvement, and I’m grateful for it.

Given your rapid growth and recent merger with iSun, what measures has your management team put forward to maintain company culture and vision?

The issue is that iSun wants us to share what we know and our values-led approach to business, and as we bolt more into the platform, the question is: how do we export what’s good about SunCommon? Right now, that’s a bit unknown. We’re not a consulting firm [designed] to share things we’ve already figured out. And yet, in some ways, that’s what iSun paid for. So, how do we keep our day jobs and keep growing the business of SunCommon, while also spreading our joy and wonder? We haven’t figured that out yet, but we’re gonna need to! 

How has your relationship with James (co-founder and co-president at SunCommon) evolved over the years, and how does your partnership foster long-term development of SunCommon and other community initiatives?

We met in 2008 when I was the board president at VPIRG, and he was the whip-smart director of the clean energy program. We designed the campaign to retire Vermont Yankee, the nuclear power station. So we ran this campaign and pulled it off! We’re extraordinarily different people, but we discovered that our strengths and weaknesses really line up well. So James and I cooked up a project at VPIRG to prove that the adoption of clean energy was feasible, and when that worked, we decided to start a business. 

What advice can you provide for young professionals seeking to find a foothold in the field of renewables, climate change, or values-led enterprise? 

My advice to young people is to just go do things! There’s so much to do in this world. Gain experience by just diving in and doing interesting things. And if this is the field that you want to get into, define what these terms mean, what are the jobs in it, what are the descriptions and qualifications that employers are looking for. Then go crush it.  

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

If you are interested in the work Duane has been a part of, the change he advocates for, or the people that inspire him, check out the book Double Dip by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield or the paper entitled Repowering Vermont by James Moore. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Introducing the Graduate Family Business Interest Group at the Grossman School of Business: Spotlight on Professor Dita Sharma, Ph.d

Written By:

Zoe Kurtz ‘22
Contributing Writer
Connect with Zoe on LinkedIn

Riley Nelson ‘22
Contributing Writer
Connect with Riley on LinkedIn

It is our pleasure to introduce the Graduate Family Business Interest Group at the Grossman School of Business (GSB). We are a group of Master of Accounting and Sustainable Innovation MBA students interested in learning and sharing how family businesses are leading innovative changes to embed sustainable development goals into their core operations.

Throughout the year, we will spotlight innovative families and incorporate student perspectives to explore and illustrate the impact of family businesses in society and the economy. To kick things off, we interviewed Professor Dita Sharma, the Schlesinger-Grossman Chair of Family Business at GSB to paint a picture of the importance of family business. Dr. Sharma has spent her whole life around family businesses, from her own family’s as a child to countless others as an advisor. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary, and her research heavily focuses on succession, governance, and innovation. Her skills and expertise add value to family businesses all over the world, and she is now focused on family enterprise run by UVMs alumni in Vermont and beyond. Founder of GSB’s Family Business Awards and the Schlesinger Global Family Enterprise Case Competition, she maintains focus on integrating classroom learning with the lived experiences of business families.

Professor Dita Sharma, Ph.D

What defines a family business? How do they differ from normal businesses?

Family business (FB) is an enterprise whose vision and strategic direction is controlled by members of a family through ownership, management and/or governance. The controlling family often aspires for transgenerational continuity and a positive legacy in the community. 

In non-family businesses no single family has enough ownership to control the company’s vision or direction. While a large majority of the world’s businesses are family controlled, enterprises in which the operational roles are held by non-family members are sometimes perceived as non-family businesses.

Tell us about your personal experience in family business.

I grew up in a business family in an industrial town in India. Everyone I knew – my classmates, friends, relatives, neighbors – were entrepreneurs running small and medium enterprises in different industries. My family was highly regarded in our community for its integrity as we worked hard to provide for our family and those of our employees. New ventures were launched regularly to meet the product and service needs of the community; and existing ventures were transformed into new directions. So, for me, entrepreneurship and family business are a good way to make a living, support a community, and leave a legacy. As an educator, I enjoy developing innovative programs to support the learning of students and bring them closer to business families.

So, for me, entrepreneurship and family business are a good way to make a living, support a community, and leave a legacy.

What are challenges that family businesses face today and how are they better able to adapt to those challenges than other types of businesses?

Family business leaders must learn to run two separate and overlapping human systems of family and business successfully. Troubles in one can easily seep to the other and managing this challenging polarity day after day, year after year, decade after decade, takes significant effort and patience. The porous boundaries also turn into strengths during tough times as the family pulls its resources to support the business, or vice versa. 

In your experience, have family businesses embraced sustainability faster than other companies? If yes, what about family businesses make this possible?

Long-lived family firms have operated on the basis of stakeholder capitalism for centuries, so the concept of sustainability is not new to them, though the terminology as used today might be. However, multi-pronged efforts are underway by family business associations like the Family Business Network and Family Firm Institute, consulting companies like KPMG and PwC, and university programs like Grossman School’s Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Family Enterprise to help expedite the comfort level with related terminology and insights. As each nation sets its ambitious sustainability targets, there is increased interest in engaging family business leaders help to accomplish them. And, business leaders are responding with interest.

How has COVID affected family businesses in the past year?

An external crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic exposes the underlying strengths and weaknesses of an organization. Family businesses like State Garden, Rhino Foods, and our other UVM FB Award winners, that continue to reinvest and reinvent themselves, remain frugal in their expenditures and earnest in supporting their employees and communities, and take time to build strong family relationships and networks, have found many opportunities to transform themselves and accelerate their sustainable development journey amidst this pandemic. Others, marred by fundamental family or business issues have faced swift bankruptcies and closures, or are slowly limping towards that end.

How does UVM support family businesses, and what are specific goals for the university within the family business arena going forward?

With its focus on sustainability, entrepreneurship, and family business, University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business is already positioned strategically in global conversations related to sustainability. Several faculty members focus their research on family business interface. Generated knowledge is shared not only in our undergraduate and graduate classrooms but also through experiential programs like the Family Enterprise Case Competition, FB-Sustainability Forums, and FB Awards. We believe in providing students opportunities to build their own professional networks and find ways to bring students in close interaction with business leaders working to embed sustainable development principles into their core operations. We aspire to continue on this pathway. 

Do you have advice for students looking to work with/for family businesses?

Four possibilities: launch a family business – buy an existing family business – join a family business – build a consulting practice. In all cases, start small dream big. 

First pathway to career launch could be to start a new venture by pooling talent and resources with family members. Over time, such ventures grow and provide opportunities to contribute to the community while building a positive legacy.

Second possibility is to join an existing business with an aim to buy into it over time. This could be a business within your networks or in an industry or location of interest. As the boomer generation retires over the next twenty years, several enterprises will change hands and those with experience will find an opportunity to become owner-entrepreneurs.

Third, students eager to join large family businesses will benefit from studying the shareholder reports and company history to understand the values and aspirations of the controlling family. Where possible, conducting informational interviews with family members and/or long-term employees will shed light on their views on sustainability. Working in a company with values aligned to your own helps to accelerate careers. 

A fourth possibility is to join a consulting company focused on functional areas in which you have an expertise – accounting, finance, business analytics, marketing etc., and focus on family (or private) businesses and serving their sustainable development needs.

Alignment of values and interests is key in any career success. Taking time to clarify your own values and how you are projecting them – your brand can be useful. In three words or less, what does your name stand for today?

Alignment of values and interests is key in any career success. Taking time to clarify your own values and how you are projecting them – your brand can be useful

Lastly, what is your favorite place in Burlington?

I enjoy walking and hiking typically at Shelburne Farms or Mount Philo. Sunrise over Camel’s Hump and sunsets across the lake often serve as great reminders of the blessing of living in Vermont. 

Professor Dita Sharma was kind enough to provide a highlight of family businesses and their unique intricacies in this interview, but there is a lot more to learn. Family businesses are all around us. They comprise 90% of firms in North America and, according to The Economist, comprise over 90% of firms world-wide. GSB is working towards becoming a focal point of knowledge and connection for family business, and there are lots of ways for interested students to become involved. Professor Sharma’s research and her courses dive into the specifics of creating and governing innovative family businesses. Additionally, the undergraduate and graduate family business clubs provide deeper peer-to-peer conversation and learning/networking opportunities for students interested in family business. If you are interested in joining either of these clubs, please reach out to Riley Nelson (riley.nelson@uvm.edu) if you are a graduate student and Dani Schmidt (Daniele.Schmidt@uvm.edu) if you’re an undergraduate.

Innovators in Residence: King Arthur Baking Company

Written By:

Billy Corbett ’22
Contributing Writer
Connect with Billy on LinkedIn

Lindsay Jarrett ’22
Contributing Writer
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As we start our third month of SI-MBA, it is clear that what distinguishes the program is the community it brings together – from current students and alumni to innovators, entrepreneurs and business leaders around the world. In order to learn from those who use business to positively impact our world, SI-MBA’s Innovators in Residence series brings in leaders to discuss key business challenges for a changing world. In these talks, students hear first hand what sustainable business looks like outside the classroom. Last week, the Class of 2022 was fortunate to hear from a variety of leaders at King Arthur Baking Company for our first session.

King Arthur is based just down I-89 in Norwich, VT, only an hour and a half from the UVM campus. Started in 1790, King Arthur became a 100% employee-owned business in 2004. Steeped in a rich 230-year history, its true strength is its forward looking posture and inclusive vision for the future. We were joined by Suzanne McDowell (VP of CSR and Sustainability), John Henry Siedlecki (VP of Innovation), Katie Jones (Associate Brand Manager of Innovation), and Molly Lawrence (Corporate Social Responsibility Manager). For the entire afternoon, SI-MBA students learned from and asked questions of these leaders.

The cohort asked a range of questions about their employee benefits, their recent rebrand, their supply chain relationships, and more. At the end of the session, the King Arthur team posed a question back to us: “What should we be doing to enhance our sustainability efforts?” Some of the ideas that the class floated included a study on compensation equity, encouraging consumers to bake more sustainably, and more.

We were lucky enough to ask our four guests a few questions before their presentation. Below are a few of the highlights (Note: questions and answers from our conversation are paraphrased):

Lindsay & Billy (L&B): King Arthur has a complex set of stakeholders. How do you balance stakeholder needs?

King Arthur Baking Company (KABC): We see working with our stakeholders as a privilege. Our consumers, bakers and employees are at the center of what we do. We strive to leave a seat at the table for our consumers. The environment is also key; without a seed and fertile soil, we don’t have a business. “We don’t want to just sustain, we also want to regenerate.” Ultimately, we are committed to our values of quality, community, passion and stewardship, and strive to demonstrate this through our relationships with stakeholders. We are committed to the education of our stakeholders, whether that be customers, employees or the community at large.

We don’t want to just sustain, we also want to regenerate.”

L&B: What does governance look like for King Arthur under an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) structure?

KABC: King Arthur holds regular “town meetings” where employees are informed about the company’s strategy and finances. During these meetings, employees are encouraged to engage with leadership. This encourages transparency and employee buy-in. Our posture toward our employees makes King Arthur a place where people are proud of where they work.

L&B: Recently, King Arthur changed its name. Why? How did that process unfold?

KABC: The re-brand had been in the works for a while. We wanted a name and imagery that reflected where the company is today. We changed “King Arthur Flour” to “King Arthur Baking Company” and changed the image of the knight to an image of a wheat crown. Our product line goes beyond wheat products now, and one of our most popular products is the Gluten-Free Flour. King Arthur Baking Company gives us the freedom to continue to innovate and explore. The rollout was as good as could be expected. With flour flying off the shelves during Covid, the product with the old brand was replaced quickly. Stakeholders were generally very supportive.

While we only had a short time with our new friends from King Arthur, we learned so much from them about using business to reflect our values. We are grateful to have these four innovators as a part of the SI-MBA community.

P.S.: Check out this King Arthur Baking Company Recipe for your Thanksgiving Holiday!

Pumpkin Cake Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting
Photo Credit: King Arthur Baking Company

No Better Time to Study Sustainable Business

This post was written by:

Josh Kriesberg ’22
Contributing Writer
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The planet is burning, but make no mistake, this is not another sob story about mother nature. This is a story of opportunity.

As world leaders meet at COP26, they’re discussing what it will take to address the climate crisis. But what exactly is needed? Paradoxically, the same human activity that got us into this mess has the best chance of helping us dig ourselves out. The same way Thomas Newcomen changed the world with the steam engine, entrepreneurs today have the chance to reinvent our way of life, our economic system, and, yes, our relationship with mother nature. 

While that challenge may seem daunting, the world has never been more prepared for this moment. Brands like Kind, Patagonia and many more are showing that customers, job seekers, and, yes, even investors, react positively to genuine efforts by business to make the world a better place. This is not your parents’ world. In 2011, JPMorgan, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), published a report claiming impact investment would reach between $400 billion and $1 trillion in assets under management by 2020. Mercifully, 2020 has come to pass and in fact, GIIN estimates impact investing reached $715 billion in assets under management. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) put the estimate even higher: $2.1 trillion[1]. What will this figure look like by 2030? 

Furthermore, governments across the world are turning their attention to this opportunity. Beginning with the Paris Agreement in 2015, nations have been devoting resources to spur innovation, recognizing that the nation who produces the next great innovator has more to gain than simply financial returns.

Morocco recently invested over $600 million in the worlds largest concentrated solar farm. Situated on the edge of the Sahara Desert, it stretches more than 3,000 hectares in area – the size of 3,500 football fields[2]. Many European nations have made strong commitments to reduce their impacts on the climate and have created funding opportunities for entrepreneurs to research, develop, and commercialize new products.

Here in the US, the Biden Administration includes funding for innovation as a key component of the domestic agenda and a new infrastructure bill earmarked $47 billion for combating climate change. The reality is that national political desires can change on a whim, as administrations change, and new issues become priorities. Locally, however, clean energy initiatives have tremendous opportunity to save people money, increase quality of life, and create opportunities for breakthroughs across all income levels and ways of life. Between the growth in impact investing and the proliferation of government funding programs, entrepreneurs looking for their big breakthrough or their next financing opportunity would be foolish to ignore these bountiful sources of capital.

The SI-MBA program is lucky to have Stuart Hart as a founding member and professor of Business Strategy. Professor Hart is the author of Capitalism at the Crossroads and a leading voice on reinventing capitalism with an eye towards creating sustainable value. In a recent conversation, he remarked:

Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash

“The stars may finally be aligning when it comes to clean tech entrepreneurship: exponential clean tech evolution combines with the emergence of patient capital, supportive Next Gen, corporate purpose, and a shift from neoliberalism to an activist government focused on creating a sustainable future.” – Stuart Hart

Professor Hart’s class and the entire curriculum at SI-MBA prioritize sustainable innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. There’s never been a better time to join this movement and simultaneously become a leader in business and an advocate for sustainability.

It’s clear we’ve reached a unique inflection point in our shared history. For generations we’ve chased GDP growth as the holy grail of societal welfare. However, as David Attenborough succinctly said during COP26, “No nation is yet ‘developed’ because no nation is yet sustainable.” Wrapping our minds around such a large challenge is daunting, but great moments are born from great opportunities. Entrepreneurs seeking ‘the next big thing’ need not look any further. The breakthrough is upon us, for those bold enough to reach out and take it.

[1]Lamy, Y. S., Leijonhufvud, C., O’Donohoe, N., & Lamy, Y. S. (2021, March 16). The next 10 years of impact investment (SSIR). Stanford Social Innovation Review: Informing and Inspiring Leaders of Social Change. Retrieved November 5, 2021, from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_next_10_years_of_impact_investment.

[2] Shields, N., & Masters, J. (2019, July 16). Morocco in the Fast Lane with world’s largest … – CNN. cnn.com. Retrieved November 5, 2021, from https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/06/motorsport/morocco-solar-farm-formula-e-spt-intl/index.html.