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7 Reasons to Consider a Sustainability Management Degree

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Current Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MSSM) student Divya Bendre had just completed postgraduate work in Policy Studies and was working in management consulting in Singapore when she stumbled upon an article by Steve Cohen, executive director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, entitled “Educating Sustainability Professionals" that changed the trajectory of her career path. Divya joined the program because she felt the flexible curriculum would help her to combine her interest in sustainability with her academic and professional experiences. After the program, Divya hopes to continue her work in ESG measurement, disclosure and investment space.


M.S. in Sustainability Management Student Divya Bendre.

1. What drew you to the Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MSSM)?

Volunteer research-work for a local environmental non-profit brought me to Prof. Cohen's article entitled “Educating Sustainability Professionals" and something just clicked for me—the MSSM program was exactly what I needed to bring together my academic background in engineering and policy, professional experience in the corporate world, and my interests in sustainability. The funny thing is that I was not actually looking for a master's program when I first learned about the MSSM program. At the time, I had just completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Policy Studies and was working full-time in management consulting in Singapore.

2. What do you think is the most important sustainability challenge?

I think the biggest challenge is that sustainability risks and opportunities play out over generations, while planning and accountability processes at governments and corporations usually have short-term horizons—often less than 5 years. It is really important for sustainability professionals to acknowledge this mismatch and paint a realistic picture of the short-, medium- and long-term implications when they are building a case for change. Obviously, this is easier said than done because sustainability issues are so complex and inter-connected.

3. What do you intend to do professionally once you achieve your degree?

I'd like to continue working in the ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) measurement, disclosure, and investment space. I see this career path as a natural progression of my past work experience. Before coming to Columbia University, I helped companies quantify and strategize about critical-yet-hard-to-measure issues such as compliance culture, talent retention, and manager quality. It might be a cliché to say 'what gets measured, gets managed,' but I really believe that better measurement and disclosure is necessary for unlocking sustainability innovation in the corporate and public sector.

4. What is your favorite class in the MSSM program so far and why?

My favorite course was Sustainable Finance with Professor Bruce Kahn. Much of the coursework is about framing and quantifying ESG issues in terms of financial risk and returns. Most students in the class had no background in finance, but by the end of the semester we could all build valuation models that integrated companies' sustainability performance alongside traditional financial metrics.

Most of my friends (and my husband and mother) work in the financial services industry, but I'd never felt drawn to it until I took this course. The course showed me how critical the capital markets are for a transition to a sustainable economy and introduced me to some of the sustainability-focused innovation in this space. Ultimately, the course helped me connect the dots between the five curriculum areas in the MSSM program and understand where I my skills and interest fit in the sustainability arena.

5. What skills and tools have you acquired through the program so far?

MSSM professional development seminars on Microsoft Excel and Bloomberg ESG have helped me deepen by analytical toolkit. MSSM workshops have also helped me gain certifications in LEED and GRI Reporting. In my final semester, I am looking forward to adding on environmental data analysis skills in R programming and ArcGIS.

One of the best things about the MSSM program is that it gives students the flexibility to design a multi-disciplinary learning experience that draws on courses, seminars, and student groups across Columbia University. Taking courses in different schools has helped me see sustainability from the lens of different actors. For example, taking Environmental Issues in Business Transactions at Columbia Law School made me aware of the legal risks and liabilities posed by certain types of environmental disclosures in contracts and financial reports.

6. How have you applied what you've learned in the program so far?

I apply what I've learned everyday; the program has made me a more responsible consumer, investor, and citizen. I have also had two internships where I have directly applied my new sustainability analysis skills. Over the summer, I interned at Ceres—a leading sustainability non-profit organization. At Ceres, I applied and expanded my skills in corporate sustainability, stakeholder engagement, and ESG disclosure.

Since October 2014, I have been an intern at the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment Initiative (PRI). At PRI, I support the Sustainable Stock Exchanges Initiative and UN Global Compact teams on ESG disclosure projects. Our projects cover sustainability reporting as well as ESG communication through financial reports and investor calls. Everything that I have learned from MSSM's Sustainability Management, Sustainable Finance and Sustainability Communications Strategy and Reporting courses are directly relevant for my work at PRI.

7. Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular sustainability related activities have you engaged in with your fellow Sustainability Management students?

Going to conferences and meetings with my classmates has broadened my view of the professional opportunities in the sustainability space. MSSM alumni and the SUMASA (Sustainability Management Student Association) board do a great job of sharing relevant professional networking opportunities throughout the year.

In addition to external events around New York, I participate in workshops and networking events organized by student groups such as the SIPA Energy Association and Columbia Impact Investing Initiative (CI3). Through CI3, I have worked with students from MSSM and SIPA on pro bono consulting projects for social enterprises. My CI3 team designed metrics to help a Mexican rural solar energy company assess the impact of their financial education and community development programs. I also consulted for a wine start-up that helps small family-owned wineries in developing countries get access to American markets.

Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Earth Institute.

Since it began in 2002, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program has given students the hands-on experience, and the analytical and decision-making tools to implement effective environmental and sustainable management policies. The program's 682 graduates have advanced to jobs in domestic and international environmental policy, working in government, private and non-profit sectors. Their work involves issues of sustainability, resource use and global change, in fields focused on air, water, climate, energy efficiency, food, agriculture, transportation and waste management. They work as consultants, advisers, project managers, program directors, policy analysts, teachers, researchers and environmental scientists and engineers.

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"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

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In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

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