Doing Well, By Doing Good: Sustainability Advisory & Education, An Interview with Gerry Susman 2/3
From dean to donor, an interview with Gerry Susman, foundational leader of sustainability at the Smeal College of Business
Smeal Sustainability Advisory Board
In celebration o Earth Day, on April 21st, 2021, our leading research intern Faith Gongaware recently had the opportunity to interview Gerry Susman, a founding member of the Sustainability Advisory Board and Council at the Smeal College of Business. In our three-piece interview, we hope our stakeholders discover the paramount origin of sustainability in research, business development, and critical integration into business education.
We see a lot of corporations starting to take action on sustainability but as we can see from the amount of research being done in the field, there is still a lot to be learned. What role do you feel research in particular plays in developing sustainable business beyond having purely academic implications?
Well, research can have a very broad perspective and there are multiple ways of thinking about it. There's what you call pure academic research and we do a lot of that throughout the university. There was a $400,000 grant program funded by the Institutes for Energy and the Environment and I saw all kinds of projects applying for those grants, some of them, you would consider theoretical and somewhat esoteric. But others were what are called action research projects which are community-based; they are actionable field experiments. In some cases, the research questions are co-developed with people in the field, who are going to be affected by the problem and/or the solution. That's my view of research, it should be very broad and include action. And then also recruiting students to work in those projects so you learn by doing, and posing a question, and then trying to solve it.
As you were the main proponent behind creating a sustainability advisory board at Smeal, how do you envision engagement between academics and business leaders functioning so as to maximize potential impact?
Shortly after our lunches in 2008 I got a number of faculty together to see what we could do about developing something more formal. I thought our initiative needed the legitimacy and depth of experience that would come from a sustainability advisory board of companies that were leaders in their field and in sustainability. We needed not only the credibility of a board, but we also had a lot to learn from these people. So I went to the Dow Jones sustainability index and I found companies, the original list included PepsiCo, Alcoa, Eastman Kodak, and Dupont, and I made cold calls. I had read every one of their annual sustainability reports before I called because I wanted to be knowledgeable about what they were doing so that they knew we were serious. I got pretty close to about 90% of the companies saying yes. I got 12 companies and we held our first meeting in November of 2009. And I remember asking them, “What have you been reading, what has influenced you the most in this area?” I actually have a lot of these books right here: The Triple Bottom Line by Andrew Savitz; Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman, Walking the Talk by Carolyn Taylor, and the Necessary Revolution by Peter Senge. I read everything I could get my hands on because I had a steep learning curve, particularly among people that've been devoting their lives to the area. That board exists to this day, the composition has changed, but that's how it began.
To learn about the current advisory board, visit the Center for the Business of Sustainability's Website.
You were also a key part of initiatives to increase hands-on sustainability learning in the curriculum, including creating the sustainability case competition. Why do you feel that it is important for students to be engaged with sustainability and that this kind of active learning is so important for that engagement?
It’s one thing to passively take in information, but by posing a research question, you get the active participation of a student proposing solutions or what data to collect; you start to focus on what's relevant and what to bring in. I think that form of learning is much better than trying to memorize because you're formulating hypotheses, you're trying to figure out what to do next. That kind of active engagement sticks with you. I started the MBA case competition in 2012 because the MBA Net Impact chapter came to me and said they wanted to go to sustainability-focused case competitions. They knew about other business schools in part because of their case competitions. I thought, “We really just started and nobody knows too much about us yet, I can't think of a faster way to get greater recognition among MBA students around the country than to have an annual case competition on sustainability.” Which we did. We featured original cases written by our faculty. We did one on Verizon, another one on SKF, on IBM, on Pepsi. So it was the fastest way to get us on the map in sustainability and secondly, it was another way to engage our board.
More recently, you have added to your sustainability legacy at Smeal by funding the Susman Sustainability Leadership Award and endowing the Susman Professorship in Sustainability. Why was it important for you to take these actions beyond all of the work you had already done?
I will be 80 years old this spring and I began to think about legacies. And while my wife and I had planned for funding professorships in our estate planning, I had joked saying I don't want to be thanked during a séance. It’s much nicer to appreciate it and see the fruits of your efforts while you're here to enjoy it. We worked out a way to get those funded and I can't think of anything more gratifying than to see Karen Winterich in the professorship and another generation working to support this work. I was deeply touched by the Dean creating the Susman Leadership Award but I wanted to see it funded. I thought about groups that weren't being recognized so we made a leadership award for alumni. Now, I have a wonderful successor in Erik Foley who makes me feel very good about the future of this. I still attend every advisory board meeting and try to stay as engaged as I can, staying perpetually curious is one of the best ways to stay healthy and young.