Two features of the Bard MBA curriculum aimed at preparing students to excel at jobs in the sustainability sector are the NYCLab course and the Capstone Project. In the experiential NYCLab course, students in their first year embark on a year-long professional consultancy working in teams for a corporate, governmental, or non-profit client to solve issues related to sustainability. In their second year, the MBA students complete a Capstone Project, which, in the past, have taken the form of creating a business start-up, an intrapraneurial project at a specific business, a consultancy or internships, an in-depth research project, or a business plan.
In 2015-16, three MBA students, Mariana Souza, Simon Fischweicher, and Martin Lemos, joined forces for their Capstone to create their own consulting company called FWD Impact. The team aimed to further apply their NYCLab learning to a tangible consulting experience. “I was looking to build out my portfolio of engaging with businesses on sustainability. I had really enjoyed the more actionable elements of the Bard MBA coursework, and I wanted to use my Capstone to use those skills as much as possible,” explained Fischweicher.
In thinking about their Capstone, Souza, Fischweicher, and Lemos took a step back to consider what type of work they wanted to pursue after graduation and beyond. “The three of us spoke candidly about where we each saw ourselves in five years. We wanted to choose a Capstone project that would help us get us to the next step. In building the right project portfolios early on, we hoped to clearly articulate why we were qualified for our dream jobs by the time we graduated,” explained Souza.
FWD Impact worked with five diverse clients over the course of two semesters. “We had to figure out where the value was. We all decided to prioritize working with a great client with the potential for an interesting story to tell over making more money,” explained Souza. These clients included Children of Armenia Fund (COAF), Radicle Farm, ConEdison, SustainAbility, and Pharmavite. “All of our clients were secured through connections we had made through NYCLab and the Bard MBA community,” added Fischweicher.
Specifically, FWD Impact partnered with two consultants to conduct an organizational assessment for COAF, a non-profit organization that uses community-led approaches to reduce rural poverty. In working with Radicle Farm, a start-up aimed at disrupting the food system by selling “live” salad greens, the consultancy used the stakeholder engagement process that they had learned in their NYCLab coursework to provide marketing recommendations. “We dug into the best way to sell a new product by going out to farmer’s markets, talking with other vendors, getting to know the customers, and identifying their target audience,” said Lemos.
The team recognized that Radicle Farm’s marketing strategy could be enhanced if they approached it from a different angle: by creating a community around their concept.
FWD Impact helped Con Edison understand how peers in the utility sector were integrating sustainability. Among other findings, the team identified the importance of clarifying sustainability goals and identifying these goals as either voluntary or regulatory. The team spoke with VPs and direct managers, presenting themselves as experts in the sustainability field, specifically around what other energy companies are focusing on. “We created a database and research framework so that [ConEdison] could gain insight into what their peers are doing and how their efforts align with sustainability initiatives,” explained Lemos.
FWD Impact reached out to Bard MBA alumni Rochelle March, who is now an Analyst at SustainAbility, an independent think tank and strategy consultancy, with an interest in varying their docket of clients. Lemos shared, “We wanted to see if there was a way to turn corporate sustainability offerings, such as materiality processes and supply chain engagement, into services and deliverables that would be valuable for a small business.”
Pharmavite, a leading nutritional supplement company in the U.S., presented an interesting project for the consultancy. After speaking with Pharmavite’s sustainability manager, they were tasked to do a supply chain risk analysis. “This was the project that we wanted from the beginning; it was paid, addressed fundamental sustainability challenges, and focused on supply chain management,” Lemos acknowledged. Eventually, the project evolved into identifying strategies for procurement teams to track sustainability risks and alternative sources for key ingredients.
In defining their individual roles on the team, FWD Impact reflected on their coursework to consider their personal strengths, what they could bring to the project, and the type of work they were looking to do more of. They also used their syllabi to review tools for approaching the diverse range of clients under their belt. “For example, the Personal Leadership Development course helped shape how we managed our team internally as well as how we managed clients and business proposals. We really tried to get into the mindset of whoever we were pitching to,” explained Souza.
The FWD Impact team expressed that developing project management skills was a key takeaway from the experience. “I became a lot better at the soft skills—how to identify opportunities and risks, how to listen better to clients, how to pull out key moments and responses to help improve our approach the project,” explained Souza.
After graduating last May, FWD Impact decided to gift the consultancy to the Bard MBA program with the intention that other students could pursue a similar project for their Capstone. Souza sees the consultancy as an ideal venture for any student with a forward-thinking mindset. “This is really an opportunity to have honest conversations with your classmates about what you want to do. Even if you don’t have an exact job in mind, you can use FWD Impact to bridge the gap between your background and needed skills for your next step,” she said.
In getting to that next step—a job—Souza credits the Capstone Project as crucial. “It’s one thing to say you took a consulting class; it’s something else to be able to tell the story of doing business development, winning projects, and fully managing the process from pitch to delivery. FWD Impact was all about taking ownership over the Capstone opportunity and your career,” she said. Souza is currently a Senior Associate at KPMG working as a Power Utilities Management Consultant. Fischweicher is a Manager on the disclosure services team and the Energy and Financial Sector Lead at the CDP, the largest environmental reporting platform for companies and cities to disclose information on climate change and carbon emissions. Lemos works as an Associate at BSR, a global nonprofit business network and consultancy dedicated to sustainability.
In her day-to-day role, Souza continues to use her project management skills to bring value to her power and utility clients. “ It is becoming clear to me that the language and experience I have around sustainability for energy and the future of the industry is valuable to my team members,” she said.
So, this all begs the question: What exactly is a sustainability consultant? “Anyone who thinks of themselves as a sustainability consultant is searching for more robust, long-lasting value for companies, non-profits, or communities. They are trying to identify strategies that works for all of the stakeholders involved,” explained Souza. Fischweicher continued, “You can support and identify additional untapped value for any department if you have a sustainability lens.” Through their consultancy, they recognized the bottom line—that sustainability truly is good for business.