Capitalism Colored Green at Small Business School

The Bainbridge Graduate Institute, an MBA school on Washington state's Bainbridge Island, started in 2002 as an experiment to infuse sound environmental and social practices into the standard business curriculum. Its enrollment has nearly doubled every year, with 40 students enrolled now and 50 new ones expected this fall.

Students gather in a circle inside a beautiful modern lodge surrounded by 255 acres of forest.

"Close your eyes," Karri Winn directs the group. "Sense your physical body, and allow any muscle tension to relax. Expand your attention to include your emotional body and let it rest."

Sound like the start of a yoga retreat? It's actually a business class.

Winn and her classmates, or cohorts as they are called, study at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI), an MBA school on the island that's designed to teach environmentally friendly, socially responsible capitalism.

The program just wrapped up its second year, producing 14 graduates with an MBA in sustainable business.

The school started in 2002 as an experiment to infuse sound environmental and social practices into the standard business curriculum. Its enrollment has nearly doubled every year, with 40 students enrolled now and 50 new ones expected this fall.

The institute is the brainchild of the wealthy grandson of a famous conservationist following a midlife crisis. No question, the place is on the crunchy side, from its forest setting and group-sharing circles to organic meals and discussion of "human flourishing indicators."

But with enrollment in business schools declining, making business about something more than money taps into an unmet need, says Gifford Pinchot, BGI's chairman and founder.

Pinchot's grandfather, the first U.S. Forest Service chief, helped President Theodore Roosevelt build the conservation movement.

The younger Pinchot, who has an economics degree from Harvard, spent years as a consultant advising companies on sustainability and innovation. He said he hit a midlife crisis after seeing much of his work undone by shortsighted CEOs.

With money he earned from the sale of an Internet security company, he and his wife decided to build a new business school -- against their friends' advice.

"They said that's too idealistic, too fluffy, too granola," Pinchot says. "I thought, wait, if there are people not being served, that's an opportunity."

Their goal is to give students skills to change the way business is done and prepare them to lead companies pursuing sustainable development.

"We have an opportunity to solve the world's major problems," Pinchot says. "Business is the dominant institution of our time. It's the biggest leverage point."

The thinking that BGI's mission represents received a boost recently when corporate giant General Electric said it would voluntarily cut its greenhouse-gas emissions and double its research investment in clean energy to $1.5 billion during the next five years.

BGI has recruited professors from top universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Virginia, to teach classes. The school invites leading executives, such as Paul Dolan, former CEO of California winemaker Fetzer Vineyards, to lecture or become "entrepreneurs in residence."

Its funding comes from tuition, grants from a number of family foundations and from Pinchot's own pocket. Pinchot says he hopes to break even with a boost from increased enrollments and donations this year.

A few companies, such as Hewlett-Packard, support the program indirectly by paying tuition for their employees to attend.

Mark Proia, 36, a design engineer in Portland, is among six HP employees to study at BGI; two have already graduated.

"I have a passion for environmentalism and I work in the business world," he says. "I wanted to merge the two."

Traditional MBA programs might include an elective in sustainable business. At BGI, those issues are built into every course.

In finance and accounting classes, for example, a budgeting problem analyzes the return on investment of a pollution-prevention project.

Recently, on the last day of the semester, Winn and other students shared plans for new businesses in a class called "Radical Sustainability."

Besides Winn's concept for a yoga-products company, other students unveiled projects to convert farm manure into electricity, turn a roadside inn in remote Utah into an eco-lodge or retreat center, and promote the culture created by the annual Burning Man arts festival.

Few of the students at BGI have undergraduate business degrees. Their average age is 35, and more than half are women.

Three times each term, they meet at the IslandWood campus and stay for three days of workshops. The rest of the time, they study online.

IslandWood, an outdoor education center created by Aldus software founder Paul Brainerd and his wife, is a model of green architecture, with recycled materials and solar-heated water. It includes 255 acres of forest with trails, streams and abundant wildlife.

The day starts with exercise at 7 a.m., followed by breakfast. Then, students and staff gather in the Great Hall, a kind of high-tech lodge with rustic décor and wireless Internet. They sit in a circle and share personal news or praise cohorts in a ritual designed to promote communication and bonding.

BGI is authorized by Washington state to grant degrees, but the school is applying for national accreditation, a process that can take up to two years. Because it does not have accreditation yet, students can't qualify for federally guaranteed loans or use the MBA credits toward some Ph.D. programs.

To help students pay for tuition, which costs $30,000 for two years, the school arranges 5 percent interest loans through private parties.

BGI is forming ties with other universities to promote its brand of sustainable business education.

"My sense is this could be a big thing in the future, but it's still at least five years away before it catches on," says Dan Poston, assistant dean for master's programs at the University of Washington's business school.

He doesn't see much demand in the industry yet. Still, the UW is working with the Bainbridge school to develop ideas for its own curriculum, Poston says.

Rick Bunch, a UW business-school alumnus who is BGI's executive director, says students who become good entrepreneurs and managers can create change within companies and industries.

"What we're asking graduates to do is go out there and get organizations to do what they're not doing," he says.

Right now, says student Mark Proia, "there still aren't a lot of jobs in the corporate world that have sustainability as a focus." But, he adds, "I see the wave coming."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News