Sustainable Success: Colors their Careers Green
By By Robert Preer
Published: Fall 2009
In her circle of friends, Jennifer Boulden was always the person you went to for environmental advice. She specialized in green business while studying for her MBA at The George Washington School of Business. After graduating in 2004, Boulden, a veteran of the 1990s dotcom boom and bust, started an environmental consulting business in New York City.
Among the questions she fielded: If you can’t afford a Prius, what could you do to get better gas mileage? Could you compost if you lived in an apartment building?
This suggested to Boulden that there was a thirst out there for information on how to live in synch with environmental ideals. So one summer evening in 2005, Boulden and a consultant she worked with closely, Heather Stephenson, hatched a plan for a business—an e-mail service with daily green-living tips.
“I remember sitting on the roof deck with Heather saying we’ve got a great idea,” recalled Boulden. “We have the skills to start a business from building Internet companies in the ’90s. We have the authenticity to generate the first 300 tips just from what we know already. We have everything we need to really hit a home run.”
Thus was born Ideal Bite, an adbased e-mail service and Web site that delivers practical, irreverent advice on all things environmental. (Its motto: A sassier shade of green.)
Boulden and Stephenson launched the business with personal savings—a little more than $20,000 each—and small investments from family and friends. They rapidly built a subscriber base through word of mouth and mentions in mainstream and new media. In 2006, the company got a major infusion of capital from prominent New York investor Robert Pittman, who acquired a majority stake. A year later, Walt Disney Co. bought Ideal Bite for a reported $15 million to $20 million.
“We have over half a million subscribers now, and that feels really good,” said Boulden, who still runs the business with Stephenson. “Of course, the big goal now is the march to a million.”
Opportunities for Women
Boulden, soon to be the first recipient of the GWSB Dean’s MBA Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award, is one of a growing number of successful business people to come out of the School’s sustainability program. While the School does not offer a formal MBA in environmental sustainability, students can take a half dozen specialized courses, and they can also intern with the D.C. area’s many environmental organizations. Students are gaining the skills and connections they need to launch careers in the fast-growing field of environmental sustainability.
“The School of Business has been a leader in environmental sustainability for a long time,” said Mark Starik, director of the School’s Institute for Corporate Responsibility and professor of strategic management and public policy. “It’s a great field. More recruiters are coming onto campus with environmentally oriented jobs.”
The School of Business has been in step with the University’s commitment to sustainability. In the mid-1990s, GW was one of the first universities to call itself green. It was also among the first to identify environmental sustainability as a key value, embedded in everything from curriculum and research to infrastructure and operations. Today that commitment has become a path to rewarding careers for many GWSB students.
What Nonprofits Can Learn From Business
Miranda A. A. Ballentine, MBA, ’04, already had strong credentials when she arrived on campus. In the early 1990s, she worked in what was an emerging cellular telephone field. Then she shifted to the nonprofit sector, becoming a top official in the District of Columbia-based Solar Electric Light Fund.>
Of her decision to attend GWSB, Ballentine said: “It’s a fairly common story. I found myself frustrated by the nonprofit world’s lack of management skills. Nonprofits had intentionally distanced themselves from business. One of the unintended consequences was that they could not benefit from the efficiencies businesses had developed.” She believed an MBA would help her unite the two worlds.
Ballentine wanted a school near Washington, D.C., with a sustainability emphasis. Her research found that the Aspen Institute’s biannual Beyond Grey Pinstripes report had ranked GWSB among the top five universities in the world in sustainability. She was familiar with the School from having spoken to one of Starik’s classes when she was with the Solar Electric Light Fund. The choice to go to GW was easy.
“It all came full circle. I started by being a guest speaker, then became a student myself and, to this day, drop in to do guest speaking,” she said.
At GWSB, Ballentine took courses that provided practical skills. She was in the accelerated degree program, working and going to school, both full time. She recalled the period as hectic and rewarding.
“You’re just doing everything you can to get by,” she recalled. “I’m actually very glad I did it that way. People in my cohort were also working professionals who brought real-world experience into the classroom.”
After graduation, Ballentine spent a year as chief operating officer for Environment 2004, a group that promoted pro-environment candidates that election year. Afterward, she joined the environmental consulting firm David Gardiner & Associates. There, she worked with leading environmental groups, including World Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council and The Nature Conservancy.
When Wal-Mart Goes Green
Ballentine enjoyed working with nonprofits, but she felt the pull of the business world.
“I had been thinking for some time that I wanted to make the shift into corporate America,” she said. “What I found from consulting was that what got me most excited was working with the corporate community. That was where I saw the most opportunity for change.”
In 2007, Wal-Mart Stores, the world’s biggest company, was looking for someone to join its sustainability program and lead the company’s partnerships with the environmental community. Several years earlier, Wal-Mart had announced a major new business approach, promising a strong focus on the environment. The retailer set three long-term goals: to be 100 percent supplied by renewable energy, to create zero waste and to sell products that sustain natural resources.
Ballentine remembered being surprised when Wal-Mart declared this commitment in 2005. “My personal beliefs about big box retailers then were not very positive,” she said. “Over the course of 2005 and 2006, I was watching Wal-Mart fairly carefully. I was very impressed by the people they were hiring.”
In late 2007, Ballentine began talks with the company about the sustainability job, and in early 2008, she was hired. Today, as director of sustainability, she is Wal-Mart’s point person in relations with the environmental community. She also helps to coordinate the company’s climatechange initiatives and works with suppliers to foster green jobs and clean technology.
Wal-Mart is fully committed to sustainability, according to Ballentine. “Wal-Mart has discovered that environmental sustainability is very good for business,” she said. “It saves us money, which is in line with the company’s core philosophy, which is to save people money so they can live better.” Wal-Mart also recognizes that, as the world’s largest public company, it has a special duty, according to Ballentine. “As we have grown, we understand we have a responsibility to protect communities.”
A Journey Around the World Leads to GWSB
Like Ballentine and Boulden, Megan Havrda, MTA, ’02, now a senior vice president for Be Green Packaging, came to GW’s School of Business with a lengthy resume. She began her undergraduate studies at Syracuse University but dropped out after sophomore year and spent several years working, living and traveling in the United States and abroad.
Havrda ran an outdoor education center in Charleston, S.C. For a year in India, she helped to organize the expansion of a British-based solar energy company and taught school. She visited vanishing rainforests in Venezuela and expanding deserts in Africa. On her return to the United States, she earned two bachelor’s degrees, one in alternative medicine at the American Institute of Holistic Theology in Birmingham, Ala., and another in ethnobotany at Evergreen State College in Washington state.
She was running a health food store in Olympia, Wash., and working as head chef for an organic caterer when she decided to go to business school.
“I chose GW because they had the best ecotourism and independent-studies program for master’s students,” Havrda said. “With GW’s location and access to the international development community, I knew that I could access tremendous resources and people.”
Havrda earned her degree in one year. “I just took as many credits as I could and took night classes. I was supporting myself. I had to get in and get out.”
She recalls one incident that captures the essence of GWSB. “I was walking through the halls of the tourism department brownstone when I saw people in West African dress with some professors and my adviser. My adviser called me over and said, ‘You speak French don’t you?’ ”
Several government officials from Niger were on campus seeking help in promoting tourism. Havrda began talking with them. A short time later, she was hired by the U.S. State Department to advise Niger on restructuring its tourism industry. During her D.C. years, Havrda also worked for Conservation International, Friends of the Earth and Counterpart International.
Greener, Better Packaging
After graduation, Havrda worked as a sustainable business consultant in Santa Barbara, Calif. A little more than a year ago, she met the founders of a start-up company, Be Green Packaging, which makes tree-free compostable packaging products. The company hired her. Within months she became senior vice president and had built a strong team. The firm has seen sales triple in the past year.
“I have had the privilege of helping each step of the way with every aspect of the business,” Havrda said. Be Green makes packages out of cattails or bulrush harvested in the wild in China. The company manufactures food-to-go containers and retail food packages and is moving into industrial packaging. Havrda views Be Green as not only a manufacturer but as a company with an educational mission.
“Packaging is invasive, pervasive, prolific,” she said. “Look around and you see packaging everywhere. It drives you crazy. Why not make it green?”
Connecting to the GW Network
Boulden traces much of her business success to her time at GW. When she and Stephenson launched Ideal Bite, they did not buy an expensive advertising campaign. Instead, they used their connections. For Boulden, that meant people she had met at GW, in and out of the classroom. “I had a network of green-leaning people and it was largely through my MBA,” said Boulden. “When I wanted to get the word out about Ideal Bite, I called on this network.”z,/
While at GW, Boulden met green business expert Joel Makower at a conference, and they stayed in touch. He has a popular blog, and he did a lengthy posting on Ideal Bite. “Once Joel wrote about us, then three other bloggers did,” Boulden said. “Press begets more press.”
The GW degree also has been important, according to Boulden. “There’s a credibility factor. There are a lot of hacks out there, people who may have had a greenleaning job for six months but have never done a balance sheet with triple-bottom-line accounting.”
A Green Business Perspective
As a green businesswoman, Boulden has done well financially. People just entering the field will find pay for sustainability jobs varies widely, according to Starik. Working for nonprofits will probably mean smaller paychecks, he added.
“A lot of people get good training and organizational know-how in the nonprofit world, then move on to business or government,” Starik said.
Ballentine advises people entering the green job market to combine a solid base of business skills with environmental expertise.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of being a businessperson first, and an environmentalist as part of being a business person,” she said. “Many students approach it from the opposite direction.”
Havrda sees the distinction between green businesses and other businesses fading. “I would encourage business students to reframe how they consider environmental issues,” she said. “They are not a luxury. They are a necessity. They will make or break your business.” GW