UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Shareholders, customers and employees increasingly demand that businesses show not just profits, but positive environmental and social impact as well, and a new graduate certificate at Penn State aims to prepare students for this new world.
Offered online by Penn State World Campus and led by Penn State's internationally ranked Smeal College of Business, the graduate certificate in business sustainability strategy is for anyone who wants to attain a leadership position, according to Erik Foley, director of sustainability at Smeal.
“Issues that surround the environmental impact of business are affecting every industry, every country, and are a source of risk but also opportunity,” said Foley. “Sustainability is a game changer in business, and we want to make sure that students are not left behind, but are leaders. You cannot call yourself a leader, now — or increasingly, in the future — unless you understand sustainability.”
Foley described the nine-credit program as highly experiential. Students will take courses in sustainability strategy development, strategy implementation and organizational change, and sustainable supply chain management. They will develop a strategic sustainability plan for a company, which could be a current or former employer, or a company that the student would like to start.
The certificate is valuable both for students who work for or want to work for large established companies and for those who want to start their own businesses, Foley said.
Those who work for large companies “see the writing on the wall,” he said. “They’ve got to have sustainability skill sets and mindsets in order to progress in a corporate environment.”
For those students who want to be entrepreneurs or social entrepreneurs, the program is easily applicable to a startup environment, Foley said.
The biggest challenge to making sustainable change in existing businesses is helping companies realize that sustainability drives business value, Foley said, and that environmental and social impact are a source of innovation and opportunity, not a cost. In light of that, one of the courses in the certificate program focuses on organizational change.
“At the end of the day, you’re changing culture and changing behavior,” he said. “That’s a heavy lift.”
For entrepreneurs, the challenge is how to measure true environmental and social impact while also managing a profitable company, Foley said.
“You can no longer just talk about these things or have a nice website or report,” Foley said. “Investors and customers have become very skeptical about these claims. You have to develop organizational processes that result in real social impact and business value.”
The credits from the certificate may be applied toward one of several master’s degrees offered online through World Campus and Smeal if students apply and are accepted into one of those programs, including the online master of business administration, the master’s in corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, and the master’s in strategic management and executive leadership.