Embedding the SDGs into Business Education – focus on the Business for a Better World Center of George Mason University’s School of Business

George Mason Statue, Fairfax Campus. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University

While business has a critical role to play in addressing the world’s complex challenges, the sector relies on universities to produce knowledge, engage partners, and prepare students for tomorrow’s challenges. George Mason University School of Business’ Business for a Better World Center (B4BW) believes that the purpose of the corporation extends beyond creating value for shareholders and includes all its stakeholders.  Over the next five years, they have an ambitious plan to educate future leaders, bring together current leaders, generate and exchange knowledge, effect change, and lead a movement to reshape business education that inspires students to see business as a force for good in the world. I spoke with Lisa Gring-Pemble and Anne Magro, Co-Executive Directors of the Center, about the Center.

What is the Business for a Better World Center and how did it come about?

George Mason University School of Business is uniquely positioned to launch a Center in the business for good space. In many ways, the Center is a natural outgrowth of our University’s mission – to produce graduates, scholarship, and service-oriented action that benefits society. With three campuses just outside of Washington D.C. and one in Korea, Mason is the largest public research university in Virginia. Mason’s 38,000 students hail from 130 countries and 50 states; 40% are the first in their families to attend college. Recognized for innovation, entrepreneurship, diversity, and accessibility, Mason is one of a few U.S. universities with no disparity in graduation outcomes regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

The Center formed when we realized that as educators, we needed to prepare the next generation to help reorient the business environment. We believe that business should be a force for good in the world, leading the charge to address the world’s wicked problems. B4BW seeks to address these complex global challenges in areas such as education, health, security, equality, technology, and the environment. In recognition of our efforts, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), selected the Business for a Better World Initiative as one of its prestigious 2019 Innovations that Inspire award winners.

How are these complex global challenges addressed in the curriculum? 

We address complex challenges in a number of our courses.  For example, our unique liberal-arts-based undergraduate “Foundations” curriculum offers integrative, hands-on, problem-solving experiences to students from across the University. We introduce students to the social, global, historical, and legal contexts of business with an emphasis on business as a force for good. Courses cover topics that cut across disciplinary boundaries including: leadership and collaboration, responsible business, global political economy, ethics, diversity, conflict management, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, and communication and persuasion. The SDGs complement the content of this course and are implicitly and explicitly discussed in the context of contemporary case studies.  “Foundations” attracts students of all majors, creating diversity in demographics, thought, and experience in the classroom. This interdisciplinary approach has proven quite popular – we offered 43 sections in the first semester of the program (2015) and are now offering more than 140 sections. In our lower-level courses, 15 to 45 percent of students in the classes are non-business students. We then offer a number of courses that build on Foundations which fall squarely in the business for public good space.

After completing an ongoing audit of all of our courses, focused on what and how students are taught about the global goals, we will begin to develop a concentration and minor to support studies in responsible business. The UN Global Goals and PRME principles are guiding our curriculum audit, and we are actively engaged as PRME Champion members with Anne serving for two years on the PRME Advisory Council.

What has the Center been focused on in terms of partnerships?

We are involved in a number of global partnerships including the Academy for Business in Society, Ashoka U, Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative, Principles for Responsible Management Education, and UN Global Compact. As part of this network, our Center is on the forefront of engaging with other thought leaders to develop curriculum, programs, and experiences that are uniquely designed to reshape business education for a changing business world. We plan to host both the Ashoka U 2021 Exchange and the 2021 PRME North American Conference.

Currently, we are in a time of information gathering and partnership development. We are establishing an Advisory Board consisting of leaders from the business, non-profit, and government communities to provide guidance on our strategy, tactics, initiatives, and programs and act as ambassadors to make business a positive force in the world.

What has the Center been focused on in terms of operations/campus?

Our student sustainability competition, originally planned for Spring 2020, but delayed until the fall due to the current health crisis, asks students to pitch ideas for how the school could reduce its ecological footprint. We are looking for solutions that are cost-effective, modest in scope, and applicable in the near term because the Dean plans to implement both the winning team’s proposal and other implementable student ideas.

We also launched our Business for a Better speaker series in November of last year, kicking it off with Jeff Foote, former Director of Sustainability for Coca-Cola.  The Spring speaker series had to be put on hold like so many events, but we have some exciting speakers lined up for Fall 2020 and Spring 2021.

What has the Center been focused on in terms of research?

Affiliate faculty member Dr. Ioannis (Yannis) Bellos’s research focuses on service-based business models shaping what is known as the sharing and access economy. Similarly, Dr. Derek Horstmeyer’s research focuses on boards/directors, ETF & mutual fund performance, and hedge fund activism. He also developed and currently leads the first student-managed investment fund at GMU. Further, Jenelle Conaway’s work considers whether corporate boardroom gender diversity is associated with an increase in ESG activities by exploiting a quasi-natural experiment in board structure created by a minimum threshold requirement for female representation on corporate boards across several countries in Europe.

We also benefit from an active relationship with George Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth . This group seeks to link members of the Mason community together, and with key stakeholder, so that we can all work together to address global sustainability challenges. The Institute offers a powerful way for our Center faculty to amplify the reach of their research and connect with other scholars both inside and outside Mason who would like to collaborate on addressing global goals.

Any advice for other Signatories interested in doing something similar?

It helps to begin with a compelling vision. The notion of Business for a Better World was highly motivating for many, and we took advantage of that by actively encouraging faculty involvement from within our school and across the university to build a supportive coalition. We also sought advice from a “kitchen cabinet” of thought leaders who acted as a start-up advisory board.  One of the best pieces of advice we got from this group was to set a date and launch. We were encouraged to go with what we had and plant our flag in this space and continue to build and grow as we matured. Finally, we’ve encouraged our colleagues to take the lead on projects and ideas. Our Center will be strong because of the champions who want to help us achieve our goals, and we can accomplish much more with all hands on deck.

What’s next?

We have a number of projects on the horizon including: recruiting and launching External and Internal Advisory Boards, launching programs such as our Impact Fellows and Internship programs that will serve first generation and lower socio-economic status students, completing our curriculum map of the SDGs in current courses, creating a newsletter, convening industry board roundtables, and more.

One area of research we are actively working towards is this notion of a ‘stakeholder value index’ that will allow us to measure the positive impacts businesses has in the world. Such an index can be used to measure, incentivize, and eventually normalize doing business to create positive impacts for people, planet, and prosperity. To move this initiative forward, we will involve faculty from across the university, as well as student interns and externs from partner organizations.

We also have a new project to add a course on stakeholder value creation. This would take advantage of research outcomes from our evolving curriculum, while also engaging tri-sector leaders in the classroom to rethink the role of businesses as it pertains to the wellbeing of all stakeholders.

The pandemic has made implementing some of these ideas challenging but at the same time created a sense urgency and a renewed focus to bring businesses, public sector and non-profits together to create new societal/business norms and an even stronger future.

One thought on “Embedding the SDGs into Business Education – focus on the Business for a Better World Center of George Mason University’s School of Business

  1. Good to see this sort of progress. I think we need to go one step further and instead of having ‘several courses’ that introduce students to responsible business practices, this stakeholder approach needs to be embedded in all courses. Also, big thanks to you Giselle for bringing us great content and keeping us informed.

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