The Importance of Partnerships for the SDGs – Experiences from INSEAD

Speaking in the SDG Tent alongside the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos Forum, Dean of INSEAD Ilian Mihovsaid,  “At INSEAD it is crucially important to engage future business leaders around the SDG agenda. If we at business schools don’t change the way people think about business and society, there is very little hope that the future will change.” 

Through the Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society, INSEAD fosters partnerships worldwide to ensure students and the wider INSEAD community are actively engaged in the SDGs. I sat down with Katell Le Goulven, Executive Director of the Institute, to discuss the importance of partnerships for the SDGs and what they are partnering on. 

What is INSEAD’s approach to the SDGs and what is the role that the Hoffmann Global Institute for Business Society plays in this?

Here at INSEAD, we recognise the impacts of global challenges on people and communities. We live at a time when new risks are emerging and the future is uncertain. The school therefore strives to empower future leaders to face an entirely different business landscape without compromising prosperity or positive social and environmental impact.  To do this successfully, it is important to align with the Sustainable Development Goals. That’s why the INSEAD Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society was created. The Institute aligns the school with the SDGs in its strategy, operations and business ventures.

What is your approach to partnerships when it comes to helping INSEAD increase its impact in relation to the SDGs, both internally with students and staff and externally? 

We have seen quite clearly that partnerships can amplify impact beyond what any one individual or organisation can accomplish on their own. This is why the Institute partnered with SDG Tent alongside World Economic Forum. For the past 2 years we have organized conversations with INSEAD faculty and invited speakers – top CEOs, heads of international organizations and NGOs, academics – to promote the role of business and business education in the SDGs, and try find the solutions to our common problems. This year the SDG Tent is moving online and with our partners, we are exploring and promoting solutions to accelerate progress towards the SDGs. 

We are also active members of coalitions bringing educational organisations together to share best practices and join forces. INSEAD has been a Signatory of UN PRME since 2008, and we have regularly reported our sustainability activities to the UN. In April 2020, INSEAD became a member institution of the United Nations Academic Impact, an initiative that aligns institutions of higher education with the UN in areas such as the promotion and protection of human rights, access to education, sustainability and conflict resolution. INSEAD is also a member of the Network for Business Sustainability, or NBS, which has more than 170 sustainability centres worldwide. 

How are you engaging students on campus in the SDGs?

The most high-profile engagement is our SDG Week, which in 2020 took place at the beginning of November. The pre-pandemic event featured SDG awareness exhibits, an action fair featuring student clubs and a series of lectures and workshops connecting the SDGs with business. The most recent SDG Week went virtual and focused on the recent Financial Times report that sustainable investments outperformed the wider global stock index, including during the market downturn. Our virtual SDG week discussed how to capture these opportunities that arise when you integrate the SDGs into investment decisions and business models. The week’s events were co-organised by the Hoffmann Institute with eight of our student clubs and saw 2,500 registrants from 70 countries. Our first Student Impact Investing Club INDEVOR was launched for students to work on real investment deals. Five teams will be working on deal sourcing, due diligence and impact assessment through to portfolio management and fundraising. 

Another example of student engagement is the SDG Bootcamp, a two-day, hands-on, immersive learning experience. The elective course, which have won the Page Prize for Excellence in Sustainable Business Education, arms future business leaders with tools to develop entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. Small teams undertake an intense effort to define realistic, workable actions that address the SDGs. The focus is on outlining a clear process and toolkit for scalable solutions that positively impact people, prosperity and the planet. 

What are some of the ways that creating social impact outside the classroom?

Promoting business as a force for good is in the syllabus, but we also make it relevant to the real world. One example is our Master Strategist Day, a one-day competition that is part of our core strategy course in the INSEAD MBA programme and proposing solutions to strategy challenges faced by real-life non for profit organizations. Recently, this competition has been looking at business strategies to create positive impact. In 2018, the Day focused on the Unjani Clinics social enterprise in South Africa providing access to primary healthcare to 15 million people.  The entire MBA class strategized how to scale-up the enterprise from the 50 current clinics to 1,000 clinics by 2030. It is a bold goal. Then, 20 students travelled to South Africa for a week to apply these strategies in a real-world setting and take a step towards that goal. The relationship with Unjani continued with a second practicum in 2020 when another group of students visited South Africa to continue this work. Recent funding will enable us to continue to connect our MBA students with social enterprises like Unjani for many years to come.  Closer to home, the 2020 online Master Strategist Day focused on helping Banlieues Santé — a non-profit linking low-income residents of the Paris suburbs to the French healthcare system by sharing information in different languages and providing basic necessities. 

You are also engaging with alumni in partnerships around the SDGs. How are you doing this?

With more than 60,000 alumni based in more than 170 countries, the INSEAD community holds immense potential to create positive impact. Just one example is that we recently partnered with some ambitious INSEAD alumni who wanted to see just what the community could accomplish when pointed at specific SDGs. So in late 2019, we worked with them to launch The Community Impact Challenge. The initiative is led by volunteers from the INSEAD community and supported by the Hoffmann Institute for Business and Society, the INSEAD Alumni Association and INSEAD’s Social Impact club. To raise awareness and trigger long-term habit changes towards more sustainable and healthy living. The first challenge focused on removing single-use plastics from our life at home and in the office. 2,300 members of the INSEAD from 90 countries participated and influenced 180,000 others. The most recent challenge encouraged sustainable food habits and called on participants to make more informed food choices, reduce waste and eat more healthy food while making the planet better. It was open to the public and engaged over 5000 active participants from over 100 countries. 

What about on campus? What changes have you been driving?

We have the ambition to minimise the environmental impact of our campuses and operations across our locations in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. Our three campuses are in different stages of evolution and operate in various legal contexts. Currently, each campus has an approach to managing sustainability initiatives and carbon footprint measurements. For example, the carbon footprint assessment is a regulatory requirement in France and conforms to the Grenelle II law. You can read about our carbon footprint assessment in the Sustainability Report. We have a new Procurement Policy to use the purchasing power of the organisation to be a force for good. 

Another example comes from France, where our Europe Campus food provider Sodexo is already serving 10% organic food. As campus activity ramps back up, they are looking to steadily increase this each year. It’s not just healthy, it also stays ahead of a new French law requiring all collective catering organisations to use at least 20% organic food by January 2022. Singapore campus services colleagues developed an entirely plant-based menu by working with their international chef talent to curate 250 creative and tasty vegetarian and vegan plant-based dishes. They have also partnered with the Humane Society for the ‘Better Tomorrow Plan,’ to promote plant-based choices, and reduce the presence of red meat, poultry and eggs on our menus. 

Our Middle East Campus was recently recognised with a LEED-certification for their facilities and our Asia Campus is renovating with energy efficiency in mind. It is an ongoing process, but we are moving in the right direction. 

Any advice for other schools exploring partnerships around the SDGs?

One thing we have learned both from experience and from listening to our partners is that tracking progress is important. Change doesn’t come easy and small steps matter. Setting goals, tracking and reporting create engagement across the organisation and spark more action over time. This in turn opens the opportunity for partnerships because you have demonstrated ambition, a list of actions for potential collaboration and the network of contacts all in one place. 

Our latest Sustainability Report shows how different groups around the school align with the GRI Standards and contribute directly and indirectly to the SDGs. We use each successive Report to assess where we are and where we want to be. And then we often build partnerships to achieve our aims. This progress doesn’t come easy and requires a lot of work, and we could not do it without our students, faculty and staff, alumni, suppliers, supporters, stakeholders and everybody on board.

The transformation of business education and leadership happens when we grow the community of like-minded people. So we want leaders, entrepreneurs and the Deans of more business schools to join global events like ChangeNOW Summit for Change. For the past three years, INSEAD has been the Academic Partner of the Summit, which brought together 26,000 of changemakers to the Grand Palais in Paris last year. This year, the event will be both online and in-person if possible and we encourage more participation by other schools and their professors. 

What’s next?

Big plans! We have a series of online events lined up and a podcast series baking. We are developing our learning offering to address a growing number of business and society issues. We are tagging our research and teaching against the SDGs.  We are strengthening our academic partnerships with the ChangeNow Summit, the Cartier Women’s Initiative and the Tommy Hilfiger Fashion Frontier Challenge. And we are exploring how to always reduce our carbon footprint. 


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