Sustainable Business Strategy in an Experientially Diverse Classroom

green pencils - groupBy Dr. Deborah Rigling Gallagher, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University

Teaching sustainable business strategy in a multidisciplinary school of the environment is filled with challenges. A large portion of students are young, committed environmentalists who come straight from their undergraduate studies. These master of environmental management (MEM) students are mission-oriented; they seek to create change from within business. They know about fisheries collapsing, the water cycle, how greenhouse gases are created and the importance of protecting biodiversity hotspots. Some are skeptical of the triple bottom line perspective’s focus on financial metrics. I love that they dress for class as if they might be invited to go backpacking on a moment’s notice. Another group of students travel across campus from the business school to take environment-focused elective courses, like urban ecology, air pollution policy and my course in sustainable business strategy. These MBA students know what it is like to work within business organizations, to meet strict deadlines and to be part of a project group. They work hard and play hard and are proficient multi-taskers. I am so jealous of their ability to make amazing PowerPoint presentations.

Two groups together

One challenge in teaching these groups together is to protect MEM students’ environmental ideals while honoring MBA students’ inclinations to steer outcomes focused squarely on economic efficiency. Another challenge is to understand the gaps in knowledge on each side of the classroom. MEMs need to learn about SWOT analysis and the importance of supply chains. MBAs must consider that regulators and community members are stakeholders to be respected, as is the earth itself. Both groups benefit from a focus on systems thinking and understanding environmental impacts over the lifecycle of products and services.

Adding a third

To stir the pot even more, we’ve added a third group to the mix through the Duke Environmental Leadership program — experienced environmental professionals pursuing a master of environmental management degree focused on leadership (DEL-MEM). These students work full time and many have families. Some travel extensively for work. They are the managers that the MBA students aspire to be and the MEMs aspire to work for. Because they are returning to the classroom after many years away, these students are hungry to learn and confront new challenges with energy and grace. I love their wisdom, kindness and enthusiasm.

Leveraging technology

These three student groups and I meet each other in a virtual classroom, as that is the platform we use to reach the DEL-MEM students, who are spread across the globe. But this is not a MOOC filled with anonymous voyeurs. It is a small and select, tight-knit community of synchronous learners. We meet weekly together for two hours, in the evening after working hours are over. We use web conferencing for our classroom platform, which enables us to engage in discussions, collaborate, and for me to provide an occasional lecture. We also break into real-time virtual groups to discuss case studies. Outside of the “classroom,” students work on projects together – I try to make sure that each group has at least one representative of each student cohort. The experienced managers provide a real-world context to each business case we analyze from a sustainability perspective. Some of the DEL-MEM students are working as corporate sustainability officers and each semester we learn much from them. The MBAs help us navigate a balance sheet; they keep us on our toes.  The MEMs ask lots of questions, raise prickly new issues and challenge the status quo.

It is a lively community. It is our future.


Dr. Deborah Rigling Gallagher is the Associate Professor of the Practice of Resource and Environmental Policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and the Executive Director of the Duke Environmental Leadership Program. The Duke Environmental Leadership Program offers an online Master of Environmental Management degree specifically designed for mid-career environmental professionals. For more information, visit our website, or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Contact Us:, 919.613.8082. 

[image credit: Franklin Heijnen: Flickr cc]

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