DIY Sustainability Consulting Tips for MBA Students

This article is part of a series by students at Bard College’s MBA in Sustainability. Principles of Sustainable Management is a foundational class for all Bard MBA students. It delivers ecological and social literacy, the frameworks and tools used by sustainability professionals, the business case for more responsible treatment of people and planet, systems thinking and integrated bottom line accounting.

From right to left: Martin Lemos, Mariana Souza and Simon Fischweicher. The three young professionals created their own sustainability consulting firm as a project in Bard College's MBA in Sustainability program. And they're keeping it up after graduation.
From right to left: Martin Lemos, Mariana Souza and Simon Fischweicher. These three young professionals created their own sustainability consulting firm as part of a project for Bard College’s MBA in Sustainability. And the consultancy will live on through the program after they graduate.

By Mariana Souza, Martin Lemos and Simon Fischweicher

How can you get the experience you need for your dream job? How do you get sustainability consulting experience without working for a sustainability consulting firm? Our team asked these questions as we finished our first year of the Bard MBA in Sustainability program.

Our answer: If you can’t join a firm, become one! We took a do-it-yourself approach and launched our own independent consulting group, FWD Impact. Based on our experience, here are a few recommendations for building a sustainability consulting portfolio before graduation.

Get on the phone

Once you have a team, you need to learn as much as you can about other sustainability consultants and the businesses that hire them. The best way to do this is picking up the phone. Have conversations with businesses, consultants and experts early and often.

Who wants to spend an hour talking to a few graduate students? Most sustainability professionals. People working in the field have been where you are and are excited to share. These early calls probably won’t lead to a client project. But they help you learn about what is out there and where your skills, knowledge and experience can add value. Use your professors and classmates to find connections.

Tip: Ask for 30 minutes. Lackluster calls won’t drag on forever, and interesting ones will stretch to an hour or lead to a follow-up conversation.

“Well, what do you do?”

This is a question we fumbled through over and over again early in our process: “Uh, sustainability consulting … materiality … stakeholders …” We learned that sustainability consulting is not an acceptable answer, and that a laundry list of every possible service offering wasn’t much better.

After bumbling through a few conversations, we took some time to think about what the market needs and what we had to offer.

  • Do you have technical expertise? Conducting energy audits and improving operational efficiency are important for businesses and nonprofits with high facility costs. Companies want to be seen to be responsibly managing their carbon footprint in a post-COP21 world.
  • Do you have communications experience? Mission-driven businesses need help with messaging and storytelling.
  • Are you a system-thinker? Understanding the complexities of sustainability opportunities and threats requires time and expertise. Corporations benefit from building competitive benchmarks and conducting supply chain risk assessments.

Be sure to align what the market needs with the skills you want to build for your post-MBA career. What tools are you missing for that dream job? What kinds of experiences do you want to add to your professional story?

Once you think you have a pithy core service offering, try it out. Yes, that means get back on the phone. Activate your entire network from school, work, family and friends to get large corporations, small businesses, non-profits, sports team, museums and everybody in between on to the phone. Ask about their challenges, and let them know what you do. Test different angles and entry points to the conversation. We used faculty and colleagues in our program to get initial leads.

Tip: Develop your web presence when you have a workable pitch or service offering. We started by building a website on Squarespace. We set up a LinkedIn page with our logo, allowing us to include FWD Impact project work in our LinkedIn experience. We also maintain a Twitter account for thought leadership and reactions to significant events like the #ParisAgreement.

Turning conversations into proposals

As you refine your sustainability consulting service offering, shift your focus from scheduling informational interviews to planning thoughtful business development conversations.

A successful business development call requires research, a hypothesis and the ability to think on your feet. Prepare for each call by gathering background on the company and framing an idea of different projects that might interest them. Have these project ideas written down so that you are ready to pitch if the conversation is going well.

Armed with context and ideas, get on the call and listen. The key to these conversations is asking the right questions. What are the looming priorities and opportunities that need support? Where can you help?

Get as much information as you can on their primary business and sustainability challenges and aspirations in the first 30 minutes of the conversation. Then use that information to explore project ideas together as a close. Ideally, the conversation ends with a solid project idea you can turn into a proposal to be sent shortly after. Be explicit and make sure they are prepared to receive a proposal from you.

Turning proposals into projects

Our map for launching a new client project is simple: initial business development conversation, sending and presenting a proposal, agreement on project scope, signing the charter and kickoff.

Getting from conversation to proposal is the most challenging, but never skip establishing your scope and aligning expectations. A project charter and kickoff meeting will ensure that you and your client are on the same page from the beginning. Formalizing expectations and setting deadlines is crucial to ensuring a good working relationship with your clients and your team.

Project charters and kick-off meetings are fairly standard. But proposals are an opportunity to highlight your creativity and your expertise. It’s important to balance, however, your enthusiasm with the client’s stated needs. Here are a few key points to remember when drafting and pitching a project proposal in PowerPoint:

  • No surprises: Listen closely in the business development conversation and address the topics discussed in the proposal. You may have an inspired, late-night idea about a project, but your client needs to feel ownership of the problem and any potential solution. Obtaining the client’s buy-in is the most important aspect in this phase.
  • Present different ideas separately: If you do decide to present a new idea in the proposal: make sure to pitch the original project, and then separately pitch the new idea.
  • Keep it short: Concise proposals are more likely to be read in a timely manner. Don’t build out every element of the project. Save details for the pitch conversation.
  • Provide timelines and deliverables: Give the client the high level of what you will deliver – documents, presentations, interview notes – and how long it will take.
  • Know your client: Make sure the way you pitch, your language, location and design reflect the client, not just yourself.
  • Know your budget: Know what you need coming in. Have clear options and prices in mind. Don’t be afraid to ask the client’s budget. We had a mix of paid and pro-bono projects.

Getting your first project

Before jumping into your first project, decide what your priorities are. Do you want big name clients, the ideal project or a lot of money? Be honest with your team about your individual priorities.

Our team decided that ideal projects and big names would be our priority early on, and that money would come later. Our first unpaid projects helped us build a client list, iron out internal practices and, ultimately, land a paid project with a great client for our spring semester.

The future

Our team is finishing up our remaining projects as we near graduation. With targeted experience and market intelligence, we are working at BSR, CDP and consulting independently.

Our team may be breaking up, but FWD Impact will live on through the Bard MBA in Sustainability. Starting next academic year, students will be able to select FWD Impact as a Master’s capstone option. Our team will serve as advisors, but will keep guidance limited because failing and recovering are just as important for learning as succeeding.

The most exciting lesson our team learned in this process was how many professionals are interested in implementing sustainability in their organizations. The world needs all hands on deck to create a more sustainable and resilient global economy and we are excited to see what the next FWD Impact team will do.

Image courtesy of the authors 

Mariana Souza, Martin Lemos and Simon Fischweicher are co-founders of FWD Impact, a sustainability consulting firm launched as a Capstone project for Bard College’s MBA in SustainabilityClick here to learn more about the FWD Impact team, or contact them at info@fwdimpact.com.

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The Bard MBA in Sustainability focuses on the business case for sustainability. We train students to see how firms can integrate economic, environmental, and social objectives, the triple Bottom Line, to create successful businesses that build a more sustainable world. Graduates of the Bard MBA Program will transform existing companies, start their own businesses, and pioneer new ways of operating that meet human needs, while protecting and restoring the earth’s natural systems. The Bard MBA is a low-residency program structured around “weekend intensives” with regular online instruction between these residencies. Five of these intensives are held each term: four in the heart of New York City and one in the Hudson Valley. Residencies take place over four days, beginning Friday morning, and ending Monday afternoon. Learn more today.

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