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How Business Students Can Change Business for Good

Business school students want to change their curriculum and the broader world. Let’s talk about how they can do it.

Dr. Tima Bansal is Professor at the Ivey Business School and Founder of NBS.

When I first taught sustainability to business school students – almost 20 years ago – they pushed back hard. In their course evaluations, they criticized the content and questioned the relevance of sustainability in a business school.

A few students still question sustainability content, but there has been a clear shift in student sentiment in the last few years. Most business school students are not asking for less, but more sustainability content. The students who deny climate change and seek extreme wealth are no longer the loudest voices in the room.

Many of today’s business students question why the primary goal of business is profits. Arguably, many professors, managers and community members are asking the same question, yet it seems that both business school curriculum and businesses are slow to change.

I am writing this post, then, primarily to those business school students who question what they are being taught, and secondarily to the professors who teach in business schools and the managers who hire the students.

How Students See Capitalism and Business School Curriculum

In the last two days, I received five messages from current and former Ivey students. They likely reached out to me because of my long advocacy for sustainability in Ivey’s curriculum. Two email messages were from Ivey alumni who were disillusioned by their work in high status organizations (a major consulting company and a major bank) and wanted career advice. Another three messages came from current Ivey students, asking me how they can change the system for public good.

Here’s part of the note from Andrew Klein, one of the current Ivey students:

“I have so many questions that keep me up at night. What will motivate corporations to do the right thing when the right thing is often the harder thing to do? How can we incentivize people to care about the climate crisis when it isn’t an imminent threat (i.e. it’s not comparable to a meteor charging to earth but it’s equally devastating). How can we create a government that gives people basic freedoms while also acting as an influential regulating body? How can we overhaul a system of governance that isn’t working for so many people? How can we incentivize morality? What does a future look like where our attention is the product firms are selling?… to name a few. I don’t expect answers to these questions, but I value the opportunity to engage in discussion around them.”

Rather than respond to Andrew’s comments and those of the others privately, I have decided to respond publicly. Specifically, I will try to answer the questions students are raising about how to motivate companies to “do the right thing,” and even increase the sustainability content in their business school classes.

I also hope that this post will stimulate further discussion of these issues. Please comment directly on the article, below. This conversation can inform managers and business school professors about business school students’ views.

How Business School Students Can Change Companies and Curriculum

Here are three strategies I recommend, whether students seek to change their business schools or the broader world.

  1. Ask, don’t tell 

    In general, I love it when people ask me questions. I feel they care about what I think. If I know the answer, I feel good. If I don’t, I reflect. 

    Students can do the same: ask questions, but not just of people who believe in sustainability, but also of skeptics. Good questions lead people to articulate their hidden assumptions. There is considerable evidence that shows people change their minds not from being told what to think, but by being deeply engaged in a conversation.

    Katharine Hayhoe has some super advice, based on science and her own experiences, about changing views on climate change through this kind of personal engagement and questioning. Adam Grant similarly recognizes the power of good questions.

    So, students: please ask questions of classmates, who don’t necessarily share your point of view; of professors, who may not even see the ideological stand they have taken; and of prospective employers, who need to understand their own firm’s policies. Asking questions is a first, and possibly the most important, step in changing the system.

  2. Join networks of influence

    Business school administrators love to claim that they are producing the ‘leaders of tomorrow,’ encouraging students to model themselves on the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. The professors who teach leadership sometimes widen the aspirational lens by pointing to leaders of social change, such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and even Greta Thunberg.  

    But, these people are, by definition, rare. Most of us are not household names and will never be, but we can still play an important role in changing the system. We do this by collaborating with others, working shoulder-to shoulder with allies and through  networks of influence. 

    Through these networks, including NBS’s, we can amplify our collective voice. Different networks offer different points of view, which helps to create a powerful harmony. As well, networks offer companionship, community and purpose. By locking arms, we start to create the world that we want to see.  

  3. Engage in positive, action-oriented public conversation

    Opinions seem more polarized than ever. Conservatives on the right take down liberals on the left, and vice versa. Amidst this negativity that is driving people apart, there is huge opportunity for positive dialogue that brings people together. We need good stories and potential solutions.

    No single silver bullet will create resilient and flourishing societies. We need many solutions that nudge us towards a positive end. So, tell inspirational stories — maybe about a sustainability initiative by your student club, or a powerful insight from a class. How you and your networks contribute to a better world will inspire others to take action.

Students are Powerful – Share Your Reactions

I don’t have all the answers. I likely have even more questions than those raised by Andrew Klein and the other students who write to me.  

Some days I am less optimistic than others. The last year has been hard, as society is victimized by COVID-19 and escalating climate disasters. Yet at no point in my career have I been more optimistic about students mobilizing for a better future. In my 20 years of teaching in business schools, students have come a long way. It’s just as well, as these issues are more urgent than ever.  

I hope that this editorial will spark reactions from business students, who will share with the managers and business school professors who read this piece what you think we can do collectively for a better future.

More From Tima’s Desk

Dr. Tima Bansal, NBS’s Founder, regularly shares her observations about business sustainability. Click the button below to see the full series.

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  • Tima Bansal
    Professor of Sustainability and Strategy
    Ivey Business School
    DPhil in Management Studies, University of Oxford

    Tima leads Innovation North, which is reimagining business innovation to create better businesses and a more resilient, prosperous and sustainable society. Tima also founded the Network for Business Sustainability and Ivey’s Centre for Building Sustainable Value. Tima is currently the Chair of the Board of the United Nation’s Principles for Responsible Education and is the Chair of the Impact Committee for venture capitalist, Shift4Good. Tima holds a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Business Sustainability and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a Fellow of the Academy of Management.

    View all posts
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  1. I really appreciate the concept of “Ask, don’t tell.” It can be stressful to challenge people’s opinions on the role of business. This is especially true as a student when the individual is a seasoned professional and you don’t have all the answers.
    Everyday I’m learning of more students who are leaning into this space with enthusiasm and resilience. I find that even more inspiring than the Greta Thunberg’s of the world, as for every one you are just meeting for the first time, there are likely ten more out there who are working just as hard.

    Jared BellIvey MSc 2022

  2. This is a really interesting and exciting piece Tima! I loved the sense of optimism and hearing everyones perspectives when we got together to discuss some of the biggest problems facing society today.
    I really like the point about asking questions in this article, our Systems Thinking course has taught me that while there are no bad questions, there ARE really really good ones. I hope to be able to ask some of those good questions as we enter the workforce and each influence our own pieces of society. This is also a timely reminder that as many of us graduate, to stay connected to those with similar values.
    Thanks for spending your time with us this semester!

  3. This is great advice. As a student today, I also feel the shift, and it is powerful. But there is nothing more encouraging and validating for a student in search of systems change than the sense that there are others around me with the same goals. This feeling speaks to Tima’s points about building networks and sparking conversations: I never would have felt the support of my peers and the community around me if I hadn’t spoken up for the issues I’m passionate about. It’s exciting to know that as long as I keep doing that (or rather, asking about them) this community momentum will keep building. I can’t wait to see what we do with it!

  4. Environmental changes are considered to be one of the biggest tidal force in the future. Countries like Canada and the United States are aiming to reach net-zero emission by 2050. Sustainability is at the core of this initiative and is often undervalued by business schools. If you look at the curriculum that business school offers, sustainability is only a very small portion of it. Instead of just having one or two sustainability-focused courses, I believe that it could be beneficial to spread it laterally to all other courses. Whether it’s Strategy, Finance, or Marketing, these topics can all relate back to sustainability in some shape or form. This can really broaden the view on this topic and generate the awareness that we need.

  5. Such a fantastic read, Tima. As a high-school student who was interesting in social and environmental issues and questioning the workings of society, I was hesitant to attend a business school. I felt my views would be overpowered both by fellow students and professors. Though I opted for a BA program, it has been fantastic throughout my three years of undergrad to see business schools diversifying. I hope information like this continues to inspire others to pursue any degree and recognize their ability to bring sustainability into it. As Justin mentioned, sustainability really must be spread laterally through all fields of study.

  6. What great insight into the thoughts and concerns of today’s business students!

    I love the advice about asking good questions and engaging in conversation. As a TA, it is really neat to witness what happens when students ask each other good questions in the classroom. Asking questions isn’t always easy- especially asking good questions that invite reflection- but it is a skill that can be learned and what better place to start practicing it than the classroom.

  7. I’m joining the conversation late but so happy to see this topic discussed. I run a green team course (an elective in a hospitality program but also as a course I run for young industry professionals) and the students are online and about 90% of them work at least part-time so their class assignment is to start a real green team! There is nothing as powerful as doing. I remind them a team can be as few as two people and I never cease to be amazed at what they can accomplish. Students, often with little power in their positions, have had toilets switched out, changed landscaping practices, implemented recycling programs, engaged guests in food waste initiaitves, had EV stations installed… and the list goes on. NONE of these are explicitly taught in the course. What is taught is how to learn what matters most in an organization, how to sell stakeholders on your ideas, how to do good research and set up solid plans.

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