Gifford Pinchot, President of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, sat down with me to talk about academics, BGI, and the dilemma that sustainability faces in the world today. We sat in BGI’s Seattle office on a rainy Thursday afternoon and I set about asking him about their MBA in Sustainable Business and the future of the movement in academia. Our conversation started out by delving into BGI’s roots, the humble beginnings before accreditation, and what it is that makes this institution what it is today: the number one graduate school in socially responsible business.
Just five minutes into our talk, Gifford made a statement that that struck a chord about the split state of the sustainability movement today.
He said, “What existing traditional schools can’t do is integrate sustainability into the curriculum.”
In researching BGI, I encountered a number of other schools jumping on the so-called “green MBA” bandwagon, both Ivy League and otherwise. It seems as though our academic institutions would be the best tool for indoctrinating the youth with a new way of life, and if we lacked participation in that crucial realm, how would the movement progress? I pressed on, and he responded with this anecdote, a little story about an investment banker who doubled as a yoga master.
“Back in my consulting days I wanted to move my consulting practice a little bit in the direction of spiritual evolution and the like. I had a friend who was an investment banker and a very advanced yoga teacher and a spiritual type guy. So I hired him, and what I discovered is that I had hired two guys. He could be an investment banker, ruthless, heartless, ripping the heart out of the competition kind of guy, or he could be a yoga master and sweetness and light with no connection to finance or market share or any of those sorts of things. But he had no way to bring those two parts of his personality together because they had been educated separately and so they existed as separate domains of thought and probably in separate parts of his brain.”
And so, the plight of the movement today.
Society, it seems, may be experiencing the same kind of split-personality disorder. Our industrial and socio-environmental minds have evolved separately, and have existed in separate realms so that we sit today in a dilemma: We cannot continue operating as one mind who neglects to acknowledge that the other exists. Further, we cannot simply integrate elements of one mind into tenets of the other. Instead, we must embark on a complete restructuring of the way we think, the way we live in conjunction with our environment, and the way we do business. And that is exactly what BGI endeavors to do, “To change business by changing business education” by essentially wiping the slate clean, and educating with the triple bottom line in mind.
In many ways, BGI is a far cry from your typical academic institution; a place “where the assumption that the faculty know more than the students is neither made nor true,” and Pinchot comments on how the culture they have created lends to the success of the institution. As it turns out, culture and community play the lead role, a neat little theme we’re continuing to see throughout our journey into the movement.
Gifford delves into his story.
“What happens is when [faculty] come to BGI, they are allowed to teach with their full values and expression and obviously we’ve selected them because they have values that fit the movement. And once the genie is out of the bottle, they can’t get it back in. We also give them the opportunity to teach a different kind of student. So, in their home universities, there’s a pretty wide variation as to whether people believe in climate change and whatever. Here you’ve got an entire group of people who have been dealing with at least one of the two issues- sustainability or social justice- rather environmental responsibility and social responsibility- for a very long time with very few exceptions. Occasionally, we get the corporate executive who reads some book on sustainability and has that sort of road to Damascus experience where a lightning bolt comes down and the arrow in their heart, they can’t go on doing what they are doing and they come to our school. But they are rare compared to the folks who have been involved in the movement and the discovery they make when they come to BGI is “Wait a second, you can do this through business? You don’t just have to do it through government or non-profits?” or whatever, when, in fact, business is an essential part of putting sustainability into practice.
“In a traditional school, a student falls behind in accounting and everyone else cheers because after all, that’s going to change the grading curve. In our school, completely a different situation takes place, they invite the student over to their home for the weekend to tutor them because they don’t want someone graduating from our school who doesn’t know this material because it would damage the brand- and this is their brand. And more important, they don’t want someone who is their friend to fail, and that taking care of each other, “leave no one behind, hold no one back” is a motto that exists in this school. In addition, we have gone out of our way to teach community building, the way in which we conduct the school, we begin every day with a circle, if you take a look on that wall you can see what that circle looks like. And that if someone announces in morning circle that, “My parents were just abducted in Lebanon and I don’t know where they are,” it changes the whole nature of the educational experience that day.
“And people in the school say that they’ve never seen anything like it. I can remember one prospective student who walked out of a classroom that she had been in for an hour and she said to me,” I have never been in a room with forty people, all of whom loved each other.” And if we’re going to do sustainability, we need to teach people how to build that community, because that’s what it’s going to take. To build that community inside a big oil company, of people who care about sustainability and so they support each other and if the system goes after one of them, that they offer protection, and if they can’t offer that person protection in that company then that they are part of a larger network and they find them a job.
“My old mentor, Bob Schwartz from the Tarrytown School for Entrepreneurs, said ‘Entrepreneurs appear at their appointed hour like swallows at Capistrano,’ about a third of the way through a period of major social change, when it’s time to stop talking about it and start doing something about it.”
That time, according to Pinchot, is now. He speaks from the heart about what he sees as landmark events in the movement for sustainability to this point in time; included in his perspective are Hurricane Katrina, the work of Al Gore, and reading the Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock.
“That’s the first time I really realized that we’re talking about the possibility of the end of civilization in my grandchildren’s lifetime. And to me, it’s hard to say that you do not have a significant responsibility once you’ve spotted this fact, right? And so I’ve begun to think, now what am I doing? I’ve chosen a place to stand, which is that business has to do something about this, and started the preeminent green business school with others and continue to play a role in it. And is that enough? I’m a little scared. And i don’t know what more I could do anyway. You know, I don’t think that dousing myself with gasoline and burning myself on the White House lawn is exactly the right approach, not only to say that it’s unattractive from a personal point of view. So, I think that what’s happening, is that an increasing percentage of intelligent people are in the period of transition that I’m in myself, that are realizing that this is not just a problem, this is a civilization ending problem.”
This very personal insight leaves us some of us at an impasse. We cannot continue down the same path, living an unsustainable lifestyle- yet government, academia and much of the business world has not yet come to terms with this critical issue. What is the average global citizen to do?
I dare say that Gifford would offer a solution. He posed a few ideas that would encourage us to act, despite our leaders who have not, and to coordinate and co-create the world that we aspire to live in.
When BGI was a burgeoning institution, before accreditation or an established curriculum, they relied on co-creation to build the school and make it what it is today. Their approach was both unique and inspiring; first, they admitted to their students that, “We don’t really know how to create a business school.” Then, they made a proposal, “So, what we’re going to do, is we’re going to build this together, and you’re going to learn as much from participating in the process of building this school as you are learning from the subject matter you’re studying.” Et voila. The Bainbrige Graduate Institute was born.
From it’s inception, BGI has been built upon the sum of its masses, its collective wisdom and this spirit of collaboration. And, perhaps, this is why it is the preeminent green business school today. But this concept of co-creation is not just about building a successful school, or a business or a movement- it’s also about learning what Pinchot deems one of the most important lessons there are in life. That lesson is of the internal locus of control, in his words,”that you are in fact in control of your own destiny and the thing to do if something is not working is to do something about it, not sit there and complain about it.”
Let’s not wait for change to come from the top. Let’s capitalize on what Gifford says, “a natural aspect of human behavior to care about making a contribution to your community.” Why? Because, “it’s deeper embedded than the desire to make money. Corporations beat that and schools beat that out of people, but you’re not going to be able to get the level of innovation necessary to achieve this next step in the movement except by helping people actually express their values at work. It’s the key to retention, it’s the key to motivation, it’s the key to recruitment. It’s the key to having people not come into work in the morning and take off their brain and hang it on the hook and say, “What would you like me to do today, Sir?”
So, who are you today? Are you suffering from investment banker/yoga master disorder? Or have you begun to merge your values with your lifestyle? Next up on the blog, we’re going to talk with Rebecca Luke of the Sustainable Style Foundation to discuss just that. Stay tuned.