Photographer: Cheryl Senter/Bloomberg

Sustainable-Finance MBAs Struggle to Find Jobs

That niche degree might be a bad idea

Sustainable-finance MBA graduates are finding a harsh reality when they enter the job market: Even a sustainable-investing firm might not want to hire someone with a sustainable MBA.

Although every MBA program in U.S. News & World Report’s top 10 offers its students a chance to learn sustainable business, social enterprise, or socially responsible investing practices, many candidates are finding that employers prefer a more generalized MBA graduate when it comes time to hire.

"Just studying sustainable investing or sustainable finance or sustainable business is missing the mark," says Erika Karp, who oversees $100 million as chief executive officer of Cornerstone CapitalGroup, a startup that aims to bring sustainable finance to the mainstream of the capital markets. "Studying finance, investing, and business is great. But the idea of having some type of false bifurcation—a segregated sustainable MBA—concerns me."

Karp says her 20-person firm has never hired someone with a sustainable MBA.

"I worry a lot about the current perception that sustainability is a niche, nice-to-have, or even a detractor from real business, real finance, and real economics," she says. "There are large institutions that still see sustainability as a box-ticking exercise. Some see it as exclusively risk-mitigation, some as just a branding, reputation, or marketing exercise. I am concerned that the idea of having a sustainable MBA would not dispel these views."

"I’m hoping and I’m aspiring that one day we won’t talk about sustainable finance; we’ll just talk about finance," Karp adds.

Andrew King, who teaches sustainable business at Dartmouth College, says the origins of sustainable business classes can be traced to the 1990s. Since then, student demand has driven the growth in sustainable MBA courses, he says.

"Students now going into business school have been educated all the way through the education system with greater awareness of these externalities that businesses create," King says.

He says students used to be on two extremes: They either believed climate change was an issue businesses should address or they didn’t. Students no longer question whether to address the environment and social impact of businesses, King says.

"They’re much more kind of, 'We get it, now tell us how to do it,'" he says.

Jamie Lippman, who focused on sustainability while attaining her MBA from Dartmouth College, said her niche focus meant she had to take a full-time internship after graduating, while most of her more generalist peers got immediate job offers and signing bonuses during the school year.

"When you get into your MBA program, if you go into a traditional route, you’re given a moving sidewalk for your career development," says Lippman, who now works at a large retail company as a social responsibility manager. With sustainable MBAs, "there’s no moving sidewalk. You don’t know what you’re doing. You have to forge your own path."

With most top-rated MBA programs now offering dual degrees in environmental studies, concentrations in sustainability, or a number of elective courses, more students than ever are graduating with sustainable specialties.

"The headcount that firms are looking to fill out is probably still lower than the number of students coming out and wanting to be dedicated to this," says Raul Pomares, founder of Sonen Capital in San Francisco. Over the longer-term, he expects greater demand for these kinds of graduates.

Matt Arnold, managing director and global head of social and sustainable finance at JPMorgan Chase, says the job market for MBAs interested in sustainable finance was a disaster when he graduated in 1988. There are more opportunities now, he says, but the field is dominated by mid-career professionals, making it difficult for new graduates to break in.

"Life’s tough for these kids," Arnold says. "There is no real career path."

This story first appeared in Bloomberg Brief's new Sustainable Finance brief.

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