Teaching to the triple bottom line

BGI president Sherman Severin teaches MBA students the basics of B2B: translating belief in sustainability into business behaviors.  - KATHRYN HAINES/Staff Photo
BGI president Sherman Severin teaches MBA students the basics of B2B: translating belief in sustainability into business behaviors.
— image credit: KATHRYN HAINES/Staff Photo

As Sherman Severin often says, if you want to be a futurist, look at the present.

Judging by who’s present, the future of the Bainbridge Island Graduate Institute’s “ethical MBA” looks promising indeed.

In the nine months since formally launching the program, Severin and BGI co-founders Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot have attracted a host of top talent to the institute’s five research centers and its flagship degree program, which was accredited by the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board last month.

While teaching the fundamentals of business administration, the BGI curriculum stresses the principals of environmental and social sustainablility – a shift in corporate thinking that, Severin believes, must be engineered from inside the boardroom.

“When you join an MBA class, you lose the luxury of thinking small,” BGI’s president reminds the students during one of the class’s numerous “action-oriented” exercises, a “360-degree” critique of one student’s real-life business plan.

“Sometimes you have to wear the suit.”

Severin points to Timbergrass, the Bainbridge-based manufacturer and distributor of bamboo building materials, as evidence that sustainability is both possible and profitable – when presented in terms investors and consumers can appreciate.

“We’re not selling this as a bleeding-heart project, we’re selling this as a business,” he reminds them. “You have to start speaking the language of the MBA.”

Innovative history

It’s a vocabulary that Severin and other advocates of sustainability actively appropriate and expand – in which “B2B” becomes “beliefs to behaviors,” and the fiscal focus is not on the single but the “triple bottom line” – a concept pioneered by green business guru John Elkington that measures the economic, environmental and social performance of an organization.

Innovation within existing frameworks, linguistic and otherwise, is a central tenet of BGI’s progenitor, the Bainbridge-based consulting firm of Pinchot and Company.

The firm’s business connections – a client list that embraces over half the Fortune 100 companies – and environmental credentials – Gifford Pinchot, grandson of U.S. Forest Service founder, Gifford Pinchot, devotes a third of his time to environmental causes – have helped attract luminaries like Elizabet Sahtouris, John D. Adams and Amory Lovins to the school’s list of faculty.

It has also drawn a core of 20 students to the institute’s “cohort” program – a two-year version of the MBA that combines quarterly eight-day residential sessions with eight-week distance learning programs – in the school’s first year, before BGI had won state certification.

Enrollment for the first quarter of the institute’s weekend MBA program, which meets for three days each month at BGI’s Madrona Way offices, was a more modest four – a student/teacher ratio that delights the students.

Bainbridge resident and BGI student Kelly ScottHanson, who with her husband Chris runs the Cohousing Resources LLC, a firm that helps start up community housing projects around the country, says the weekend program had both philosophical and practical appeal.

“I don’t have a business background and I run a business,” she said. “I was looking to get more training, and I couldn’t commute.”

“I’m also looking to reduce impact on the environment. I wanted my degree to allign with my values.”

Marketing director Suzanne White expects enrollment in winter quarter courses – open to MBA and non-MBA students alike – to jump as word about the program begins to get out.

“This is the first round out, and the fact that we have 24 full-time students is a real accomplishment,” said White.

“There is such a hunger for what’s going on in sustainability and ethics-based education.”

* * * * *

BGI presents Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Amory Lovins at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. To RSVP for the lecture, or for information about the MBA program, call BGI at 855-9559.

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