Why Sustainable MBAs Should Work for ExxonMobil and JP Morgan

2013 Net Impact ConferenceMBA students want to work for responsible companies. According to Net Impact’s 2013 Business as UNusual  report, 67 percent of the 3,300 MBA students surveyed said they would take a 15 percent pay-cut to have a job in a company committed to corporate and environmental responsibility.

An even higher percentage of the students (88 percent) said they would take a 15 percent pay-cut in order to work for an organization whose values are like their own.

Some may question the validity of such results, but let’s assume for the sake of the argument that these results actually reflect reality, especially when it comes to students in sustainable MBA programs (I wouldn’t make the same argument though for the general population).

So these sustainable MBAs want to work in the Unilevers, Nikes, SAPs and M&Ss of the world. But what about the ‘bad’ guys? Wouldn’t it make more sense for these MBAs to take a job at the ExxonMobil, JP Morgan, BP, Monsanto, or Lockheed Martin?

This question usually generates a heated debate among sustainable MBAs and there are good arguments for both sides. The most common arguments against working in ‘bad’ companies are that such an action represents a moral sell-out and that one voice cannot make a meaningful difference in these companies.

This debate is reminiscent of one that was common in the early years of corporate social responsibility  – should activists and treehuggers go to work for corporations?  Yet, with the growing acknowledgment of the limited power held by governments and NGOs it became very clear that “there’s a growing need for people to work for social and environmental justice from inside companies,” as Tim Mohin writes in his book ‘Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations.’

Eventually this idea of trying to change companies from within gained a wide acceptance, especially when it became evident that ‘corporate treehuggers’ like Hannah Jones (Nike) and Tim Mohin (Apple, Intel, AMD) actually made big differences in their companies.

So today we have a new generation of (wishful) corporate treehuggers. Since they’re coming out of business schools, the notion of making a difference by working inside the corporate world makes much more sense for them. Yet, they want to apply their skills and knowledge to companies that have already made significant progress and hence are committed to sustainability and corporate responsibility.

While it makes a lot of sense that sustainable MBAs want to work for the leaders in the sustainable business world, it also doesn’t really serve these students’ overall purpose.

Let me explain – it’s clear that sustainable MBAs believe that corporate sustainability is essential for securing a more sustainable future. The problem is that if sustainable MBAs limit themselves to companies that already understand that and act accordingly we’ll never have the sustainable future these students wish for.

To have a sustainable future we need not only the Unilevers and Nikes of the world to be on board but also the Exxonmobils and JP Morgans, and let’s not forget the Walmarts and McDonald’s. These companies shape our energy, financial, retail and food systems. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring them or hoping that somehow they’ll miraculously have their Ah-ha moment and become more sustainable without some help.

Of course there’s the argument that even if sustainable MBAs join the ranks of these companies they’ll have very little impact and therefore it doesn’t worth the effort. It might be true – in many cases the CEO or influential shareholders are the only ones that can really make a difference.

Yet, I don’t think this is the case with every company and there’s definitely a room for passionate and skilled sustainable MBAs to help making changes within these organizations. These can be small changes at first, but they can lead eventually to systemic changes that will make a difference. Besides, just sitting passively and waiting for the likes of Paul Polman to take over ExxonMobil or JP Morgan doesn’t seem like a very effective strategy.

It’s true that working for bad or controversial companies can be a very frustrating experience for people who are sustainably minded. It’s difficult to have a substantive impact when speaking from the minority voice.

Yet, I believe that reforming those companies that still have work to do is the real challenge now, one that should be reframed as a real opportunity rather than a moral sell-out.

Taking a job in a bad company might not be easy and may leave few chances to succeed, but if you’ve gone to a sustainable MBA program you probably already know that when it comes to sustainability, nothing is easy and the chances to succeed are never great.

So sustainable MBAs, if you really want to change the world, go and find a company that doesn’t align with your values and make it one that does.

[Image credit: Net Impact]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

10 responses

  1. Hi Raz, I appreciate your perspective. I think you’re right to suggest that we work from the inside out in most situations. Perhaps, though, our job should come with a weekly (no, daily) massage. Out of curiosity, have you worked for an organization whose values were significantly disparate from your own? It causes real pain and probably a shorter life. Maybe it’s the right thing to do, but it comes with terrible, irreversible side effects.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate it! I actually had this experience, working for an organization whose values were quite significantly different than mine. It wasn’t easy and I asked myself more than once what I was doing there. However, when I did manage to help lead some changes that were based on values I believed in it was incredibly satisfactory. So while it’s important to be aware of the downsides, it’s also important to acknowledge the upside of such a challenge!

      1. @razgo Thank you for this article as this is an issue with which I have struggled. As a pilot – who burns 1000 lbs of fuel on every flight – I wish to change course, and I hope my MBA will allow me to have a positive impact on the environment in my next job.

        Do you think sustainable MBAs should reveal their true intentions during the interview process? I wonder how a firm without similar values would react?

  2. Great article. As an aside, I think it’s time to stop asking the question about “15 percent paycuts” to do something you agree with. Why is it always assumed that ethical companies pay less or that it’s necessarily a sacrifice to do the right thing?

  3. This is a really good article. It’s so important to engage with the wider world not just preach to the converted. I think the real challenge is still with the schools though. More than 500 business schools are signed to the UN Principles for Responsible Management Education, PRME, which is a great initiative, but there are 1000 major accredited b-schools worldwide and 4000+ schools of a significant size. And not all the PRME signatories are fully ‘on board’

    Pretty well every prof or dean I meet is mostly aligned with sustainability and responsibility but the barriers to change in academia can be as intractable as in large corporations. Since academics are mostly intellectual people who value discourse and debate, I believe that’s where more change is needed, and achievable. If most or all our MBA grads came out with a full grasp of history and sociology of business and the nuances of responsible business because the schools where they studied had that deep-embedded into the curriculum, then they would – by definition – bring those values, in a pragmatic way, to the firms which hired them.

    Tim Mohin’s book is excellent, by the way; I concur with the recommendation!

  4. Great article and I totally agree. I’ve been criticized over the years for working with ‘unlikely’ sustainable clients, but personally I feel we need to go where the work is needed. Thanks for putting this out there.

  5. I also appreciated reading this article, and while I do not hold an MBA, sustainable or otherwise, I do hold a masters degree in a progressive area of study called ‘food systems.’ As someone with a progressive body of knowledge and skill set I found that the less sustainable food companies are slow to get on board with hiring progressive minds. In fact, many of the traditional food companies like General Mills, Kraft, etc, were not interested in recruiting from our program because it was “too progressive” and would have caused too much disruption in their current missions and status quos. I do think that is changing but it’s slow to get a good ‘ole boys company to notice candidates that are “edgier.”

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