This year, the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business (“Center”) celebrates its fifth anniversary. It launched in 2013 as the Center for Business Strategies for Sustainability. In January 2015, after receiving a $5 million commitment from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, the Center was renamed for Anderson, a sustainable business visionary and Georgia Tech alumnus (IE 1956, Honorary PhD 2011).
Ray C. Anderson founded and served as chairman of Interface, which has grown to become the world’s largest commercial carpet tile manufacturing company. At age 60, Anderson read a book that would alter the course of his life. Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce caused him to reflect deeply on the hard truths of his company’s environmental impact. He underwent a transformation, becoming devoted to the idea that business can be a force for good in the world. Hawken’s book was the “spear in his chest” that made Anderson feel he needed to right wrongs by making Interface the example of an authentically sustainable business that does no harm to the environment.
Dr. Beril Toktay, Center Faculty Director, says, “We started with the vision of educating the ‘Ray Andersons of tomorrow.’ We also recognized the need to support faculty in their research and curriculum development since they are at the front line of making an impact on our students.” She conceived of the Center as a meaningful way to honor Anderson—by carrying on his legacy at his beloved alma mater.
Dr. Maryam Alavi, Dean of the Scheller College of Business, remarks, “In a mere five years, the Center has grown into a major force for positive impact by engaging students, faculty, and industry partners in sustainable business. Our students are eager to find ways to make positive change in the world through their careers. The Center creates opportunities that prepare them to become the responsible leaders of tomorrow.”
Without a doubt, real change is required to advance sustainability on a global scale, and that is going to require action on the part of industry and business. John Lanier, Executive Director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, notes that while this sector may have caused the environmental problems in the first place, it is the only sector with the size, organization, and capital to solve them. Business and industry, however, will not change on their own. Lanier says, “We need to connect sustainability thought leaders with practitioners to turn ideas into action. We also need to inspire the next generation of business leaders to greatness.”
To train future change agents, the Center focused from the start on developing a breadth and depth of sustainable business course offerings. In the Center’s first year, it received the 2013 Page Prize for Environmental Sustainability Curriculum. For students who wish to take a series of classes in order to deepen their specialization in sustainable business, the Center created a Strategic Sustainability Concentration, as well as an Innovating for Sustainability Immersive Track. One of the classes highlighted by MBA students as being “one of a kind” is the Sustainable Business Consulting Practicum, led by Center Managing Director, Professor Michael Oxman. In this class, student teams consult on sustainability projects with companies such as Autodesk, Delta Air Lines, Kimberly-Clark, Rubicon Global, and The Coca-Cola Company.
There are other opportunities for MBA students, too, such as the Scheller College MBA Sustainability Fellows Program, which has grown exponentially this year to accept ten Fellows instead of three or four as in years past. Why the sudden change? The applicants were just that good. Scheller College’s “sustainability edge” has in fact become a valuable recruiting tool. The Scheller College MBA Chapter of Net Impact (an organization for those who want to use their careers to make a positive impact on the world) currently has 45 members, making it one of the largest student groups in the College. Elizabeth Schultz (MBA 2017), who served as Net Impact president in addition to taking a variety of the immersive track courses and being in the first class of Sustainability Fellows, says, “Those experiences have enabled me to go into my career equipped with the knowledge, insights, and drive to become a sustainability leader within my organization.”
Undergraduate students also have access to a wealth of opportunities. The Center has established a spin-off of the successful MBA Fellowship: the Undergraduate Sustainability Ambassadors Program, which gives students a chance to deepen engagement with sustainability through Center-sponsored events and by assisting graduate students on Fellowship projects. Another highlight is the Co-op and Internship Carbon Reduction Challenge, now in its second year, which is open to students from all majors. Participants volunteer to take on special sustainability projects in addition to their regular internship or co-op duties. They pitch (and sometimes implement) well-researched plans to create carbon reduction—and cost savings—at their companies or organizations. Collectively, the Challenge has saved $800K and 12 million pounds of CO2 from implemented projects.
Support for affiliated faculty continues to grow. Faculty can receive funding for research and support to develop new courses and units that integrate sustainability into the Scheller College curriculum. This year, the Center launched Sustainable Business Insights: Research Briefs for Practitioners, a monthly publication series that helps academics influence the way that business is conducted today. The briefs distill high-level research into an “easy-to-read” format for busy practitioners. Support for faculty has contributed to two recent Harvard Business Review articles, “Competing on Social Purpose” and “Rethinking Sustainability in Light of the EU’s New Circular Economy Policy.”
Programmatic opportunities for practitioner engagement and impact abound, as well, in order to accelerate the development and adoption of sustainable business practices. Earlier this year, the Center launched the Corporate Sustainability Program Executive Council with Delta Air Lines as the inaugural participant. Additionally, in a cross-campus collaboration between Scheller College and the School of Public Policy, the Center has worked on a project titled “The Energy Burden in the Southeast: Solutions Through Community and Business Engagement,” which was the subject of a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
One of the greatest successes of the past five years is the creation of the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain, which provides curricular and co-curricular opportunities for undergraduates in all majors to engage in building sustainable communities, and the subsequent collective formation (with several other universities) of the Greater Atlanta Regional Centre of Expertise on Sustainable Development Education, which aims to create local solutions to global sustainability challenges.
Lanier says, “We at the Ray C. Anderson Foundation are so grateful for our outstanding five-year partnership with the Center, which continues to find innovative ways to improve how business can become a force for good.” Toktay reflects on the motto of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation—“Brighten your corner of the world”: “That’s very much what we are doing at the Center. We start with our little corner here in Scheller College. We then broaden that circle to Georgia Tech, the community, and industry. Finally, through thought leadership of our affiliated faculty, we reach audiences both nationally and internationally.”
The Center grows its footprint, year after year, towards the ultimate goal of creating sustainable businesses and communities. Toktay takes personal pride in the fact that the Center is named after a Georgian. She says, “We want to raise that flag as high as possible and make our state an epicenter for sustainable thinking and practice.”