Adapting to Online Learning and Off-Grid Living

This post was written by Cody Semmelrock ’20. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

These times are unprecedented for our generation — that goes without question. I knew this year was going to be about change, about growth, and about perspective, but what I, and so many others in the program, didn’t know was exactly how this change would manifest itself.

I wrote recently about the need for industries to adopt some of the lessons in adaptability that I had learned earlier in the program and I would like to build on that sentiment by offering up an example of my existence these past few months.

Disclaimer: this post is grounded in the gravity of this pandemic. It has exposed some of my own vulnerabilities, but I recognize that I am writing this from a place of privilege. I have the current luxury of financial security, higher education and a solid support network. I recognize that many do not have this same level of privilege, yet I think the sentiment remains for many.

In the beginning of March, rumblings of the COVID crisis were underway. I had been following the stories coming out of Wuhan, but they were distant, geographically and mentally. We were rounding out final module projects and preparing for spring break. I could feel anxiety mounting as I began worrying about friends and family traveling abroad. I grew hesitant of taking trips to the Harvest Cafe for lunch. This invisible enemy, if anywhere in Burlington, would be at the medical center. But it was not until I read an article that Harvard was closing their doors for the remainder of the spring semester that I recognized there would be a new normal for the foreseeable future.

From the outside, I seem like a healthy and fit 28 year-old man. Relatively low risk for complications due to this virus and subsequent disease. I am, however, an asthmatic. I take multiple medications a day to help maintain a healthy respiratory system and this is the first time in my life I have felt vulnerable. I racked my brain on what I should do once the program officially went remote.

My communal off-campus student housing apartment was feeling less safe every day. Especially given the lack of information regarding virus transmission. I felt like I should not go home to my parents in Connecticut, as they each are also in high risk categories with underlying asthma and other pre-existing conditions.  

So, I upgraded my Verizon hotspot plan, stocked up and headed to an off-grid family cabin far removed from powerlines and public spaces. I took with me my valuables, all the essential learning materials I would need and began thinking through how I could manage completing this accelerated MBA program, preparing for my remote capstone project this summer and contemplating a job search in what is going to probably be the worst job market since the Great Depression. Not exactly the most rejuvenating of spring breaks.

What resulted have been lessons I hope to carry with me through my life. Lessons around long-term sustainable and biodynamic living, around balancing what I want and what I need and keeping myself connected to a low-impact lifestyle. And again, lessons in the human capacity to adapt. All of which, I believe, lend insight for my personal and professional life.

Lessons in resiliency and sustainability learned through the first few months of the COVID crisis should begin with a walk through of a day in the life at the cabin:

Most mornings I wake up to the chill of the Vermont spring air and have to get the woodstove fired up. Not a particularly difficult task, and one that has created a familiar and comforting rhythm. Some mornings I am confronted with the decision of either brewing a much-needed hot cup of coffee, getting the fire started or doing some last-minute reading before online classes begin, all of which seem essential. I’ve spent plenty of time camping, and am familiar with spending time outdoors, but this experience has placed a new appreciation on accessibility to heat and insulated shelter as an important element of energy equity and justice. Sitting in on lectures discussing the energy accessibility inequities at the Base of the Pyramid in both our Driving Innovation and Energy Policy and Sustainable Technology courses would not have been nearly as visceral had it not been for those mornings spent breaking sticks and stoking the woodstove.

Fortunately, the cabin has an entirely self-sufficient energy system. The solar panels and partnered battery storage allow for a few lights, small refrigerator, running water and charges for my laptop and cell phone. With a live display of kw being generated at any given time, as well as feedback on current draw and remaining levels of the battery, fun games have emerged gambling with myself on whether or not it is worthwhile to run the electric tea-kettle when I know that my laptop will probably require a few more charges to survive all the Zoom lectures before the sun pokes through the rain clouds. Inevitably, I open the fridge less and do not run the water excessively while doing the dishes. Both are simple behavior changes which have not detracted from my quality of life. I am now simply remembering the contents of the fridge and realizing that this serves the same purpose that staring hopefully into the depths that my favorite snack will somehow emerge from thin air. Watching the battery levels drop and rise with each action or inaction has helped to ground my understanding of my impact in same way a Prius owner plays games with gas efficiency from the dashboard display. If only this impact of consumption could be better distilled, displayed and understood by the greater population of individuals and businesses – simplicity here is undoubtedly the key.

Having the space for an herb garden and my own compost pile has been another activity stemming from the cabin lifestyle. Granted, this would not have been possible had the curriculum been forced to go virtual. But this virtual world may be here to stay for many in the professional landscape. Some companies are realizing they can still accomplish just as much from home as they can from having and office and have been able to navigate this transition. In forcing many professionals to adopt this platform, I hope there will be greater flexibility for younger professionals to adopt lifestyles that are more in line with their personal values.

But it is not my hope that next year’s cohort will be forced to begin the year virtually, because so many unique elements of the program simply will not be the same. In recognizing this possibility, however, it is important for potential and committed SI-MBA students to embrace the unknown and remain open to the lessons that being a part of this program and the greater Vermont community helps to facilitate. SI-MBA has proven itself adaptable and resilient in the face of this uncertainty, embodying essential elements of sustainability. I had no idea I would be learning these lessons in sustainable living, but by remaining positive and adaptable I have been able to cope with the COVID crisis and find invaluable lessons for future personal and business leadership, all of which have been framed and encouraged by SI-MBA’s core values and curriculum. I am optimistic that future leaders will continue to emerge from our nimble and disruptive program.

Life as an MBA Student During COVID-19

This post was written by Prakriti Timsina ’20. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Each month we have had Sustainable Innovation MBA (SI-MBA) Meetups where we, the current cohort, get to network and catch up with the SI-MBA alumni and professors. It was during one of the events where we often got asked how our cohort was handling the current COVID-19 situation. That prompted me to write this blog to share my educational experience during this unprecedented time.

Before I start off, I want to say that I understand that for many people, this has been a tough few months and that people are going through a lot. Often, when I listen to the news, it is heartbreaking to see everything going on in the world. Despite that, I try to be appreciative of the positive things in my life that keep me going. I am grateful and fortunate that the problems I am about to describe are minuscule and I’m happy to be safe and healthy and able to continue my master’s program without any major obstacles.

When the stay at home order first started, I was amazed that the SI-MBA faculty and staff were able swiftly to transition to online classes in a short amount of time, all while updating our cohort on what’s going on. Initially, we were using multiple platforms for our meetings and calendars—Microsoft teams for some classes and Zoom for others. For our class calendar, we were using both the Outlook Calendar and Google Calendar, which were sometimes out of sync with each other. Although that caused some confusion in the beginning, our class leaders were able to talk to the SI-MBA program directors and decided to use Zoom and Google Calendar, given the ease of use, familiarity, and performance.

Two of the challenges were figuring out how to work together remotely and trying to figure out how to present as a group. We went from having one group in module one to having four different groups in module four, and coordinating various groups was a challenge on its own. Given the complexity and our busy schedules, most of the time we tried to plan our school schedule in advance. If there was a conflict of schedule, we tried to be accommodating and understanding of our classmate’s situation. To get ready for our presentations, we met a few times via Zoom to complete the presentation and practice. During the practice session, we decided on who would share their screen and when to switch slides.

It’s hard to be productive when you are stuck in your home. I found that having a set routine to follow was really helpful. I also created a task list of things I had to accomplish each day. This may not be the case for everyone, but personally, it helped to get dressed for the day as if I was heading into Kalkin Hall. I know it’s extremely tempting to do your work from the coziness of your warm bed; however, I noticed I wasn’t as productive as I could be from it. I set up multiple workstations in my place that I could use during school hours. During this time, it’s easy to have our days blur in one, but It helped to switch rooms every so often. When the weather was warm and sunny, I attended my class outside.

Apart from my classes, there were a few activities I did to stay sane during this time. Every day, I made an effort to be active in some way, whether it was working out or joining in on online dance classes. We have had a few game nights and movie nights to de-stress, catch up, and see each other outside of the online class setting. A few times a week, I would check in with my friends to see how they were holding up.

Throughout this whole process, I admire SI-MBA’s willingness to continually adapt based on our feedback. Every week, we have zoom SI-MBA check-ins where program directors can share any relevant information, get market, and medical updates. This is also the time where we get to share any concerns and provide feedback on how to make this program better in this uncertain time. I want to thank the professors for their understanding and adaptability. It feels amazing to be part of a community where we have so much say and have the opportunity to have our voices heard.

Geography and the Environment to the World of Business

This post was written by Dana Stewart ’20

Jaws dropped to the floor when I first told my friends and family that I was going to business school. Apart from my complete and utter lack of business attire, everyone was just really shocked and thought I was drastically pivoting. When I told them about the sustainability theme of the MBA their doubts softened, but still they were struggling to identify the connections between my undergraduate degree and the business degree I was about to pursue. I had no such struggles. 

Photo by USGS on Unsplash

I double majored in environmental studies and geography at Villanova University. The first two years of my education were heavily science based and focused on the challenges and opportunities we face as a result of world trends, environmental shifts and anthropogenic forces. I was taking classes like Environmental Chemistry, Global Changes in Local Places, Geo-techniques, Natural Resources, and Environmental Justice. I can pinpoint connections to the coursework of this MBA and those first two science-heavy years at Villanova even though, to the untrained eye, the two may be totally separate worlds. The environmental and business connections continued to grow through the second half of undergrad and are even clearer as I look back on the courses I took in my junior and senior years.

One of my favorite classes was Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS is all about capturing, analyzing, storing, managing, and presenting all kinds of data and layers on top of geographic locations. GIS actually has really strong ties to the world of business and economics. We did projects that examined elements that make certain areas more appealing for commerce. We would even calculate the actual amounts and fluctuation of attention a business could expect to attract depending on what direction it’s storefront faced and the foot-traffic and other characteristics associated with an area. We also looked at degrees of economic success against all kinds of variables in order to draw out possible conclusions or connections.

Although there are huge differences between my undergraduate degree and this MBA, I’m finding more and more ways to thread them together. I hope in years to come this kind of “pivot” will become less dramatic. It is my hope that it even becomes commonplace for people from my academic background or any background that seemingly contrasts to slide into the business realm and begin a paradigm shift. If you are passionate and  determined to cultivate a connection from where you are coming from to this program, you can make this MBA work for you.

We’ve Been Wrong About Millennial Entitlement… and 4 Other Hot Takes from Diane Abruzzini ’17

This post was written by Kate Barry ’20 and Taran Catania ‘20

In a recent interview with Kathleen Burns Kingsbury in the Breaking Money Silence® podcast, Diane Abruzzini ‘17 gave us a handful of fresh insights on impact investing, millennial entitlement, recession-driven entrepreneurship, and how women do money and business differently. We’ve collected five of our most favorite “hot takes” below:

1. We’ve Been Wrong About Millennial Entitlement

Diane is quick to point out that the concept of “millennial entitlement” on its own is a half-baked concept: “It’s a funny thing to call anyone entitled because there’s more to that sentence — you’re entitled to something.” The stereotype of millennial entitlement to money is not actually engaging with who millennials are. “What might be a truer statement is that millennials are entitled, but they’re entitled to different things. They’re entitled to [the] ethos that we were raised with… of transparency, of equity, of equal access to resources.”

And as Diane puts it — what if this entitlement is a good thing? And what if it’s something businesses can use to help reach and engage millennials, and not simply to dismiss them (as the world makes continuous jokes about the things millennials have “killed”)? The truth is, millennials’ preferences are making big changes in the business world. “And if you want to be able to connect with millennials,” Diane notes, “you’re going to have to be able to reach them in helping them create the world that they want to live in.”

2. Recessions Produce Entrepreneurs

In light of recent events, we have our eyes on the job market and the economy at large as we prepare for our graduation in August. Diane graduated from college during the 2008 recession, which made landing a conventional post-graduation job for her and her peers more difficult than usual. Because of this, many, including herself, turned towards non-traditional and entrepreneurial ventures.

Because of this, Diane is not surprised that millennials are more entrepreneurial than past generations—we live in economically volatile times where flexibility and creativity are key for a savvy millennial. Diane claims, looking at the history books, those who often become entrepreneurs are “people who are usually boxed out of traditional well-paying sustaining jobs.” This list includes immigrants, women, and people who aren’t able to find what they are looking for because they don’t fit mainstream demographics. Millennials, women in particular, are simply doing what they have to out of necessity, to shape a world that works for them moving forward.

3. Female Entrepreneurs are Having a Moment

Historically, women-owned businesses have not been able to pull in venture capital funds at the same rates as their male-owned counterparts. However, as Diane notes, “anytime there’s a group of individuals that have been overlooked, there is untapped potential.”

Luckily, certain firms are catching on that women-owned businesses are offering products that the male-dominated financial world has missed. Diane gives the great example of Burlington-based Mamava – a women-led business that designs lactation suites for breastfeeding moms on the go. While this might sound like a simple idea, as Diane says, “it’s never been done before because no one has taken that design perspective for the young mother consumer.”

Simply put, because women are half the population, products made with them in mind resonate with a significant customer base (duh). So it’s long overdue (in our humble opinion) for Diane’s declaration: “female entrepreneurs are having a moment.”

4. Women Invest Differently

We’re glad Diane doesn’t shy away from this one: “The language in traditional financial services is super male.” Even the way investing is framed semantically is competitive (“outperform”) and individualistic (“winner-takes-all”). But generally speaking, women and millennials alike tend to look towards our own goals: we may not have a goal of a 9% return in the stock market, but we have a goal of paying off our student loans or saving up for a home. So as Diane explains, if millennials and women “can’t connect to the [financial] advice that’s been given to us, …then they’re not going to seek that out.”

Diane wants to change how people view the connection between their personal goals and their finances. “Being able to use your money and your power to fund what’s important to you… [is] really powerful. If more women, [regardless of generation], understood that you can invest according to your goals, there might be a little bit more excitement around investing and using financial power.”

5. Money is Power

Diane cites a shift in finance towards impact investment as her reason for pivoting her career. She, along with many others, see the power of the capital market to instill lasting, sustainable change, and the financial world is starting to shift accordingly. Diane says “The more we can divert capital and money into the future that we want to believe in, then the more emphasis and the more strength is going to be behind that movement.”

And we couldn’t agree more. This is what makes us so excited to take part in the shift to impact investing for VENTURE.co with our practicum project this summer. The private equity market is uniquely positioned to allow investors to make direct impact by supporting growth-stage businesses with social and environmental missions. And the research from our practicum project will do just that for VENTURE.co and its clients.

And one final thought…

If you like the sound of our VENTURE.co practicum project, you can read more about it (and check out all this year’s Sustainable Innovation MBA practicum projects) here.

Trane Technologies: Building Resilience and Adaptability

This post was written by Jay Kulkarni ’20. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

It is said that businesses don’t compete, supply chains do. Trane Technologies, a climate-innovation company with such heavyweight brands as Trane® and Thermo King® in its portfolio, has a multi-tiered global supply chain that will be put under enormous strain by ‘black swan’ events like the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 presents an unprecedented challenge precisely because it affects suppliers across multiple tiers, with no regard for revenue, size, or location. How can large corporations like Trane Technologies make their supply chains more resilient to disruptions and accomplish their long-term goals of creating a circular closed-loop economy?

Photo by Štěpán Vraný on Unsplash

A global footprint necessitates that Trane Technologies use a digital supply chain management (SCM) tool to map its suppliers, reduce logistics costs, create long-term forecasts, communicate with suppliers, and maintain visibility over inventory and turnover. The company’s Oracle SCM portal allows their factories to put in requests for materials, and shows suppliers what materials are in transit, inventory already at the manufacturing plant, consumption patterns, and overall performance (such as shipping delays).

However, though Trane Technologies may have oversight over its suppliers, it’s likely that COVID-19 will create supply chain issues with their suppliers’ suppliers. Their subcontractors are smaller and typically wouldn’t have the resources to weather long disruptions, and their failure will negatively impact the company’s manufacturing operations and its push towards a circular economy.

So, what is to be done?

In the near-term, the company should analyse all tiers of their supply chain and communicate with key suppliers to ensure that supply continues without disruption. If needed, supply chain executives should attempt to secure alternate sources of supply, logistics, or manufacturing capacity in case vulnerable supply chain partners fail, even though Trane Technologies will have to pay a premium for these resources. To prepare its supply chain and stakeholders for future disruptions, the company should look to forecasting technology to model for and mitigate supply chain risk.

The first step in modelling is to map your supply chain digitally, including all tiers of supply chain partners. Once the nodes are mapped out, the supply chain risk management team can carry out discrete-event simulations to understand how the supply chain reacts to stimuli such as risk events or business initiatives[1]. Another long-term strategy is to shorten or regionalize supply chains; although it smacks of protectionism and anti-globalism, co-located suppliers can act as a supply chain safety mechanism in case international trade is restricted or impossible. Toyota has successfully implemented just such a strategy with its Kentucky operations, which rely on 350 suppliers all based in the US.

Trane Technologies’ ambitious 2030 Commitments include the Gigaton Challenge (reducing not only its own, but also its customers’ carbon emissions by one billion tons); carbon-neutral and zero-landfill operations; and the Opportunity for All initiative that focuses on diversity in leadership positions. Supply chain risk-mitigating strategies make Trane Technologies more resilient to disruptions and better positioned to achieve its strategic and environmental goals.


[1] Supply chain modelling software is a close cousin to the parametric design software used in architecture and aerospace. Both allow designers to see the link between design intention and design response.

Embedding: Co-Creating the Future

This post was written by Jay Kulkarni ’20. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

I am interested in the ethical issues around climate change mitigation strategies. I found similar themes in our class examples of base-of-pyramid (BoP) settings – underserved communities around the globe have disproportionately greater vulnerability to a changing environment. This was memorably illustrated by the Tamil fisher Ezhil, who lamented that local fishing knowledge passed down from his antecedents didn’t seem to be much use anymore; shifting migration patterns and ranges of fish species, as well as the vagaries of a changing climate, threatened poor fishing communities that didn’t have the economic resilience to bear the shock. Ezhil’s story also highlighted the intersection of many sources of disadvantage found in BoP communities. In his case, Ezhil’s low level of education, coupled with his geographically-marginalised position as a coastal dweller, surely contributed to the hopelessness and pathos in his words. It’s also hard to imagine that caste did not play a role in his marginalization and the limited roles easily available to him and his descendants.

Photo by Rajesh Ram on Unsplash

A frequent theme across the readings was the necessity of ecosystem thinking; communities lower on the socioeconomic ladder each have a unique context that present considerable challenges to business creation. I think Simanis’ discussion of market creation was the first time I really considered that the free market’s failure to provide opportunities at the BoP was damning, because, if the market didn’t make it happen, no-one else would do it. I was less enthused with his three-step prescription to follow to develop new BoP markets. If such market creation is as complex as Simanis, Vishwanathan and others say, any sweeping solution is unlikely to be successful in every BoP context. For example, Simanis recommends growing a BoP business by expanding upon a base of personally-vested customers. Would this step happen in exactly this way in a more individualistic society, or one with different geographic challenges, or a different economic context?            

Rather than only consider successful ventures such as Essilor’s low-cost glasses or Padman’s sanitary pads, I think it would be useful to consider promising BoP ventures that failed. The obvious failures that couldn’t bring all stakeholders in to the creative process or fully consider the local context are less interesting than those where all the stars seemed to align but tangible results failed to materialize.

My Goals, and Life, After The Sustainable Innovation MBA

This post was written by Ruchi Nadkarni ’20. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

I remember I was 10, when I watched the cartoon network show ‘Captain Planet’ for the first time. It was a show about teenagers who would team up with Captain Planet to keep the spirit of the earth (‘Gaia’) safe. Eerily, little did I imagine that I would live to see the destruction that was only imagined in a cartoon show, come to life. I started my journey at 21, with a nonprofit for animals. It was the most pristine love I could have ever imagined. As life went on, I pondered being another version of ‘Captain Planet’ and 10 years, and millions of happy animals later I hope to expand the course of this odyssey.

The influential driving forces of everything I do in my life stem from uplifting the distanced and forgotten in our world. To me, at this juncture, the environment including waterbodies, land and air combined with the quickly disappearing animals of today are of immediate concern. I am especially passionate about aiding frontier markets with sustainable business solutions addressing their immediate environmental problems using environmental business and sciences. I am passionate about effective solutions that are about more than band-aid remedies, a panacea for most difficulties if you will. This includes creating business solutions for developing countries that especially address their environmental strains.

This is especially important as developing countries struggle as their environmental degradation is a result of the last priority given to it. Countries like India place such a high importance on the development of their economies, that this often comes at the cost of environmental disregard. The lack of facilities for waste processing, soil health, water health and air quality are quandaries we are all too familiar with. The existing large corporations do very well on empathetic marketing to get their products in these markets – however rarely ponder the consequences of their products. The lack of knowledge, education and concern for the immediate environment and the widespread effects of an impaired ecosystem cause relentless practices, that destroy the planet far more rapidly in these places.

Since economy and survival is at the center of these communities, I plan to permeate through these issues, in ways that are coveted. To introduce a way that is sustainable and utilizes environmental gains as well is a triumph in my eyes. From environmental impact measurement, strategy, finance and restoration; I hope to beget measures that will gradually change the way business is done. More specifically I intend to do this by working within consulting companies before venturing out with my own consultancy, as well as business incubator a few years down the line. In this way I plan to start working with corporations, businesses and entrepreneurs to introduce business in these markets. The intentions of these businesses while economy driven of course, will not be to create new markets, but instead disrupt current markets and gain existing market share. Additionally, authentic intentions and shared value creation will be at the core of these solutions.

Whether with renewable energy, soil sequestration or pollution control practices – the businesses I will work with will combine environmental engineering, science and business. The merit of being able to affect all three facets of environmental well being in this way not only widens the scope of my practice but also satisfies my altruistic tendencies. I was often told growing up, that I need to hone my focus on one thing, and that I cannot fix everything in the world. While adult life has made me utterly aware of the fallacies of my childish fantasies, I think I have found a way to address this dilemma.

At the core of it all, I believe that we are transient beings in a home that we stay in for a little while. Our gracious host is currently sick and needs more from us. I am hoping I can influence enough businesses and people across the world to join this movement and that one day my aspiration to be ‘Captain Planet’ will be redundant.

Regenerative Agriculture: A Case for Glocalization Agriculture Practices

This post was written by Bavin Balakrishnan ’20. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

It is common knowledge that carbon emissions is a major contributor to the climate impact crisis. It is even more common to hear about the reduction of carbon emissions to mitigate the impact.

Photo by Roman Synkevych on Unsplash

What about the carbon already in the atmosphere? A common solution to develop carbon sinks is to plant trees, which is a great start to replace the deforested area. However, as the population grows and more land is converted into cities, we need to re-assess the previously suggested solution.

During our first semester in the SI-MBA program we were introduced to the following equation regarding human impact to frame what factors affect this developed by Commoner, Ehrlich, Holdren[1]:

As established earlier, the population is expected to continue rising with estimates of world population reaching 8.5 billion by 2030.[2] Similarly, affluence (or consumption) of people will continue to increase as developing countries are increasing their GDPs, which is commonly used as a proxy to judge consumption. Finally, technology represents the resources required to produce the units of consumption, thus increases with affluence.

So, what’s the solution? Simple algebra can reframe this equation to our benefit and reduce the human impact:

This equation represents that using our resources efficiently can significantly deter our impact. A resource that we are currently failing to make more efficient is the soil. Carbon naturally belongs in the ground and is the prime factor that creates an efficient ecosystem within the soil.

https://www.thegreendirectory.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/RegenerativeAgrictulture-1024x818.jpg
Source: Graphic produced by General Mills, 2018

The image identifies fundamental concepts behind regenerative agriculture, however, these holistic practices are not currently applied by majority of farmers as they believe it is not financially feasible. A common misconception in the farming community, especially within developing countries, is that monoculture farming will generating the highest revenues. Though this may have been true in the early days, with strong soil health and support from large enterprises such as Monsanto, those practices have depleted the soil of its natural benefits.[3]

Contrary to the misconception, those farmers who implemented regenerative agriculture practices have rejuvenated their land, which paid dividends through higher crop yields and greater soil health for future generations.

A caveat in this solution, it needs to be applied at a local level. On the other hand, the food industry is a globalized market with customer demands for exotic foods continuously increasing.[4] In order to deal with this supply short, the solution is glocalize the food supply chain, which refers to the production of native crops at a local level to meet the demands of global scale. This requires co-ordination between farmers so that an individual doesn’t face the burden / risks associated with monoculture production.

This is my case to create a platform for farmers in their respective countries to the power of agriculture back in their hands and regenerate their land, reduce the human impact, and provide hope for future generations.


How I Learned to Love Business

This post was written by Ally Polla ’20. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Halfway through my junior year in college, the reality of graduating with a business degree planted a pit in my stomach that manifested until I found The Sustainable Innovation MBA. Looking at what others did with a business degree, I could not see myself having any of their career trajectories or lifestyles. At that time, I truly believed that all businesses operated at the bottom line and I dreaded becoming part of that system. Hearing about the vast success of major corporations, I had little interest in their monetary successes, but thought about their carbon footprint, their employees, and how resource intensive they were. I wondered if anyone else in the business world felt the same way and why no one was doing anything more. 

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

 I was aware of fair trade and individual sustainability practices at the time but still was unaware of the positive impact businesses can  have. A few months before graduation, I desperately began to research fair trade and B corporations to find a career path that I could hopefully see myself in. This research ultimately led me to the University of Vermont and The Sustainable Innovation MBA. It felt like all the tension between what my life was and what I wanted it to be had fallen away and everything finally connected. I started my application, scheduled my GRE, and couldn’t see my future looking any other way. 

I  wanted to attend the University of Vermont for my undergraduate degree for civil engineering but upon getting accepted, I realized I wanted to stay closer to my family and home. This led to me attending Manhattan College, enrolling in civil engineering, switching to the school of business freshman year, transferring to Marist to study human resource management for 1 semester, transferring back to Manhattan College, graduating from Manhattan College with a business degree, only to lead me back to the University of Vermont for my MBA.  I never planned on getting a business degree, let alone an MBA. Being in this program has solidified my business knowledge from my undergraduate studies as well as changing my perspective about the problems in the world and ways to solve them through business. The pit in my stomach about business that I once had, has been shaped into motivation that pushes me to be a positive force in the world through business everyday.

Family Business, Entrepreneurship and the Base of the Pyramid

This post was written by Ruchi Nadkarni ’20. Connect with Ruchi on LinkedIn.

“Family Business,” I thought – sounded like just another core course in the laundry list of core courses that we needed to know about. I wasn’t inspired or even intrigued at the notion of it. I had committed the very first faux pas that the class instructor warned all of us about – our A’s – our assumptions. However, my postulations were quickly checked when a poised woman, world renown Family Business scholar Pramodita Sharma entered the class and shook me to my very core, with the inspiration that followed the notion of Family Business.

As if I wasn’t already excited to be learning about concepts that spoke to my very essence, I became deeply fascinated with the promise of family business in the first thirty minutes of the class. I was captivated. As someone that grew up in India, I had a picture of what family business in my mind. It was a common occurrence growing up for me to have come across several family members and friends who were in variously sized family businesses around me. Family business was close knit, small and seemingly inconsequential to me from what I had observed. It seemed to be just another way of making a living, and I concurred with the popular opinion of it as being rather minor-league. Interestingly, I was very aware of the top 1% of my country’s wealth as being in the hands of some of the wealthiest in the world from the Tatas, Ambanis and Birlas! I again erroneously assumed that they were a small minority to the rule.

The various advantages and disadvantages peculiar of family businesses started to familiarize me with the telenovela that is family business! From high passion to high drama, it seemed to have it all. I wasn’t surprised to read the first reason why I was always averse to the idea of family business – its Achille’s heel mixing family and business together. My aspirations to work with the base of the pyramid were augmented further when I read about household enterprises in developing countries. As a more privileged member of society, privy to the lives of the base of the pyramid, I have intimately seen the struggles, lives and phenomenal resourcefulness that resides within it. My nonprofit work took me deep into the slums of Mumbai, and I was honored to have made it into their circles, as these communities are usually very wary of outsiders.

In my working with the community, I happened to also have a chance to observe the enterprises run by them, leaving me fascinated and inspired to bring more to them. It was heartening to read about the resilience of these populations and how their close knit, family-oriented values created informal micro-enterprises that helped void marginalization for them. These societies internalized institutional theory without even realizing it with each member of the family contributing to the household in these enterprises to combat poverty. Their norms, solidarity, values and beliefs in forming these institutions despite being marginalized from resource rich networks was always something of a feat to me as I have admired them all my life. In the US, I recently learned of at-risk neighborhoods and how, the law enforcement and broken system keep them in an inescapable cycle of abjection. Despite the challenges the socio-emotional wealth as an economic consideration was comforting to read about. They subsist where opportunities do not exist.

All our simultaneous classes and lectures pointed out to the most opportunity for business and sustainability for all stakeholders was in the bottom of the pyramid. When we shifted gears to alter that notion and understand that opportunity also resided in the top of the pyramid which consisted of family businesses in a big part because of their legacy oriented outlooks, it was almost like a eureka moment for me. The idea of sustainable innovation can sound insipid to a lot of businesses primarily concerned with the bottom line, but when the bottom line can be tied into this idea, a golden bridge is created where it suddenly all makes sense. This bridge I thought, was that of family business.

Growing up as I went through the various stages of academia, and many of my decisions were usually influenced by my parents or by society and I always had an entrepreneurial streak. I was a natural risk-taker and even have a black book full of business ideas that can change the world. As my non-profit venture progressed, as I became familiar with the pains of entrepreneurship my rose-tinted glasses slowly came off. That combined with the severe strain that my nonprofit put on my work-life balance and my family relationships made me more averse to entrepreneurship than ever before.

Outside of these challenges, being in the non-profit industry for ten years and pure science academic background before that, through my academia and career I was always convinced that ‘entrepreneurship’ is a bad word. Even still, as I ponder about being an entrepreneur I am absolutely terrified of the notion. The lack of resources, loneliness and stress are concepts that I am all too familiar with, being a nonprofit owner. As we spoke of various family businesses that our professor studied over the years, and how passionately she felt about them being contributors to the sustainability and business future of the planet, my fears were slowly dissipating. Every day in this program as we are convinced of becoming entrepreneurs, I can see the silver lining and feel like I am gaining my starry-eyed wonder that I harbored before life’s many challenges bogged me down. I was all at once reminded of the dividends of entrepreneurship, as well as family business as a route to solve the world’s sustainability challenges. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and reminded to be completely in that moment even as I was churning several ideas for the future.

Because the truth is, that we only have the present moment, and to be completely immersed in it is the true joy of life. So even as I drew grandiose plans with my learnings from this class and this program, I truly enjoyed being right there, just in that moment.