Duke - The Fuqua School of Business

Feature Story

Turning a Commitment to the Environment into a Career

EDGE managing director Katie Kross gives advice on finding the right job in sustainability

July 18, 2014

Katie Kross very much believes in professions that have a purpose. As managing director of Fuqua's Center for Energy, Development and the Global Environment (EDGE), she works with students who have a passion for sustainability. Kross tries to help those students turn that dedication into a career. But, narrowing a job search to a specific focus, such as sustainability, can make finding the right fit a particular challenge. 

Kross shares advice on how MBAs can pursue careers with positive environmental impact in a Fuqua Q & A.

Q) What do you see as the future trend of jobs for MBAs in areas of environmental impact?
Environmental considerations are only going to grow as a concern for business as global growth puts increasing pressure on the supply and price of natural resources. Innovative companies understand that there are opportunities for competitive advantage in managing environmental impacts. Sustainability challenges are also becoming more complex as companies that have captured some of the "low-hanging fruit" move on to tougher challenges like trying to achieve zero waste. I think we will continue to see growth in corporate sustainability departments and in specialized sustainability consulting roles. 

We will also continue to see growth in career options at the intersection of energy, environment, and buildings. Some of the more exciting sustainability applications are in energy efficiency, energy storage, smart grid/smart buildings, 3D printing, agriculture and biotech - technologies with the promise of improving the efficiency of supply chains and cities. There are career options for MBAs in all of these realms.

Q) Do you advise MBAs to look for jobs in which their direct responsibility is driving positive environmental change or can leaders also make a contribution to sustainability in helping redefine business processes in a role that is not specifically defined as environmental? 
There are lots of ways for MBAs to drive environmental change. For some, having a role where they are working on environmental issues as part of their daily responsibilities is important.  They might want to go into the sustainability department at a large company. 

Others can make important changes by working in a "traditional" MBA role (such as supply chain management, finance, or brand management) and incorporating environmental sensibilities into the decisions they make. Sometimes the most effective way to lead change in a large company is in this kind of front-line role.

A third path is to work in a "traditional" MBA role for an environmentally-conscious company like a Burt's Bees or Seventh Generation. I ask students to consider as a starting point: do you want to use your skills to make a big company greener or to make a green company bigger? There are rewarding career options along all three of these paths.

Q) What unique challenges must students consider when searching for jobs in these fields?
The biggest challenge is that sustainability employers rarely recruit on campus in the way that management consulting firms and investment banks do. Sustainability openings come later in the academic year and can be harder for students to identify. The search requires more initiative and more resourcefulness.

The other challenge is that the field is evolving so quickly. Many of the sustainability jobs that will exist two years from now do not exist today. In fact, some students find themselves writing their own job descriptions for these kinds of roles. Because of this, networking - which is important in any job search - is absolutely critical for the sustainability job search.

Q What should MBAs consider before embarking on a job search in sustainability? 
First, what kind of functional role do you want to have? And then, what kind of employer do you want to work for? Are you aiming to work in a marketing role for a green consumer products company, for instance, or a sustainability role at a global bank? The sustainability career landscape is so diverse that it's important to narrow down your focus, which sometimes seems counter-intuitive to job seekers.

When it comes to interviews, be prepared to make the "business case" for sustainability. Many job seekers are passionate about environmental issues, but when it comes to leading change, you need to be able to clearly articulate a compelling case for why and how sustainability will bring bottom-line benefits to a company. The MBAs who are able to do this are the ones who will not only be more successful at landing the job but also be more effective change agents within the companies who hire them.

Katie Kross recently released the second edition of "Profession and Purpose: A Resource Guide for MBA Careers in Sustainability."