Preparing MBAs for Climate Risks and Opportunities

September 12, 2022
Climate Speakers

Fuqua’s ClimateCAP initiative leads the charge among business schools to meet a growing demand

Several years ago, Fuqua School of Business’s Dan Vermeer and Katie Kross returned from separate sustainable business conferences and compared notes.

One theme stood out -- business leaders were talking strategically about the risks that climate change presented their firms and corporate climate strategies they were developing in response.

"We noticed that this was a conversation that industry was having, but this wasn’t a topic in business school classrooms," said Kross, managing director of Fuqua’s Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE). "MBA students – at Fuqua and at other business schools – were not necessarily making the connection between climate change and potential business implications, like operational impacts, real estate investment decisions, or supply chain resiliency."

Kross and Vermeer, associate professor of the practice and EDGE executive director, concluded that Fuqua in particular, and business schools in general, needed to do much more to prepare their students to understand the relevance of climate change for businesses and its implications for their careers.

"When companies hire MBA graduates, they expect them to bring in the very latest thinking and methodologies," Vermeer noted. "We saw, in 2016, that this was an area in which companies were further ahead in their thinking than students. In the area of climate, we needed to do a better job preparing those students to bring new insights and skills into the job market."

From this idea was born the first ClimateCAP Summit, a conference held exclusively for MBA students to discuss the business implications of climate change. Hosted in 2018 at Fuqua, the first summit attracted 150 MBA students from 16 business schools. Speakers, coming from such companies as JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Nike and KPMG, discussed how climate change was already affecting supply chain decisions, infrastructure and real estate investments, and risk management strategies.

"The students raved about how much they enjoyed the event," Vermeer said. "We knew we were on to something."

The ClimateCAP initiative was designed from the outset as a partnership effort, with Fuqua serving as the anchor. From 16 business schools in 2016, the initiative has grown to include 30 programs, including Harvard Business School, Yale School of Management, Michigan Ross, and UCLA Haas, to name a few.

The ClimateCAP Summit — held in 2020 at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and in 2022 at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management — continues to be the initiative’s flagship event, and continues to grow. The 2022 summit at Kellogg sold out to 250 MBAs more than a month in advance.

"It’s clear that this is a topic MBA students are eager to engage on," Kross said. "Today’s students realize that addressing climate change is increasingly urgent — and increasingly good business. In 2021, venture capitalists invested more than $40 billion in climate-tech. This is not just an environmental issue; it’s a business opportunity."

One of the attendees at the 2022 summit was Kevin Biehl, who is pursuing both an MBA from Fuqua and a Master’s in Environmental Management (MEM) from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

"ClimateCAP curated a candid, yet optimistic message of the economic transition required of a society that combats climate change," Biehl wrote in an email. "Investors and startups presented the immense opportunity to build a more sustainable, just economy, while forward-thinking politicians and corporate executives spoke of the forces inhibiting change.

"ClimateCAP inspired confidence that the most rewarding career I can pursue is one spent alongside the generation of entrepreneurs and executives that I met at the event."

Vermeer and Kross are looking for more ways to bring climate-related content to more MBAs.

"One of the most valuable outcomes of this partnership has been the ability to share teaching resources, cases, and best practices with our partner schools," Kross said. "I think it is fair to say that ClimateCAP has sparked new conversations and events at many of our peer schools. Our intention has always been to accelerate the conversation among more business school students and faculty."

Kross and Vermeer hope to bring in schools from Asia and Europe into the partnership and are looking at the possibility of hosting future summits in those regions.

The initiative has also spurred them to create new publications, such as "Climate Change & Business: What Every MBA Needs to Know" and other primers on climate and sustainability topics, published on a new platform called MBA EDGE.

EDGE received a $300,000 grant from the Hearst Foundations to expand the initiative, including starting a new fellowship for 12 business students to be chosen each year in a competitive application process. When the new program is launched, ClimateCAP Fellows will receive extracurricular and experiential learning opportunities that enable them to expand their climate and business expertise.

"Climate is clearly front and center in the conversation about business and investment these days," Kross noted. "It’s important for MBA students to be conversant about the implications of climate change."

Vermeer has been involved in these types of issues for two decades, dating back to when he led a Global Water Initiative for the Coca-Cola Company. He said he is excited by recent progress, such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) proposed rules to standardize climate-related disclosures for investors.

"I’m bullish on all that is happening, especially The Inflation Reduction Act, which provides $370 billion for clean-energy initiatives,” Vermeer said. “There’s already demand for talent and it is just going to grow. The big question is whether there will be enough talent to deliver. Business schools today need to move quickly to prepare MBAs to make a positive impact and rise to the climate challenge."