Tima Bansal was not always interested in sustainability. Her early academic training was as an economist. But, when she returned to do her PhD work at the University of Oxford, everything turned.
Her advisor was interested in environmental management. “I’m not sure I really like or get that stuff,” she thought. But then: “I did it, and it was kind of interesting. I did more, and realized it’s not being talked about. And now, I’m headfirst: sustainability is all I do.”
Tima founded NBS. She is also Canada Research Chair in Business Sustainability at Ivey Business School.
Her focus on sustainability sets her apart from mainstream business philosophy. “Being a business school professor — it feels like you’re drunk with growth and profits,” she explained. “But these aren’t sustainable. Now, I’m like a reformed alcoholic — I will not go back.”
Tima started NBS in 2005, seeking to coordinate sustainability efforts by bringing researchers and managers together. “I felt academics were doing really good work, but they were not having impact,” she recalled. Academics spend years working on each research project and wait even longer to see the work in print. They have important insights that are invisible to business. Tima felt that connecting academics and managers would make sustainability more achievable.
NBS brings researchers and managers together in many ways. One way is by hosting events where both researchers and managers speak. “Academics are really interested in what corporations are doing because they are pushing thinking,” Tima explained. “Corporations are interested because [researchers] get them to see things in different ways. We are each able to work in our own world but have points of connection — we can bring magic to each other.”
NBS’s workshop on civic dialogue was one such event. Managers, researchers, and NGO staff came together to discuss how to advance public dialogue on issues of concern to society. Everyone listened respectfully, Tima recalled. “We didn’t know who each other were — we didn’t pigeonhole or stereotype each other. We were in the moment, aiming to build something bigger than any one of us could do alone.”
The latest step in NBS’ evolution is a focus on frontier thinking and systems change. As part of a multi-year grant from the Government of Canada, Tima and colleagues will be working with companies to develop innovation for shared value. As NBS evolves, it will continue to connect managers and researchers committed to sustainability.
Tending a Garden
Outside NBS, Tima road bikes and gardens. She loves every season in the garden. “In the spring, everything comes alive — budding, renewal. In the heat of summer, I have my battle with the bugs. I’ve got slugs that eat everything — it’s a challenge of who can use the lettuce first. In the fall, everything is shutting down. There is growth, death, rebirth. It connects me to something more important and bigger than I am; it gets me in my zone.”
NBS interviews ask: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? Tima offered two recommendations:
Don’t do a PhD in economics — do it in business. “This was good advice — without it, I wouldn’t have gotten into sustainability.”
Do the simple things first — they are easy to tackle. “Every day I start with simple things, things that excite me.”
We asked Tima for a bit of fortune-telling as well. Where does she see sustainability going? Tima replied:
“There are days in which I’m not sure if we are moving fast enough, but increasingly, I am hopeful and optimistic. I think there’s a new awareness or collective consciousness around the magnitude of the issues we face and the need for action. Second, there are so many potential disruptions on the horizon, and this increasing collective consciousness can help harness these them to create a more sustainable environment.”