Building a business case for sustainability in Panama 

Through the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan, Drew Morales finds the answer to his big question: If I want to make a career out of sustainability, how do I do it?

MIT is an extremely entrepreneurial place and it encourages students to bring that mindset to everything they do.

Andrew “Drew” Morales arrived at MIT Sloan with one big question: If I want to make a career out of sustainability, how do I do it?

“Job number one was connecting with people at the Sustainability Initiative who helped point me to opportunities outside the classroom,” he says. “It’s the kind of place where if you put your hand up and say that you’re willing to try things, they absolutely help find avenues for you to do so.”

Soon, Drew—a former consultant—found himself in San Juan, Bolivia working with Matt Amengual, Assistant Professor in Work and Organization Studies at Sloan, on a research project in the mineral extraction industry. “I saw firsthand the social and environmental costs of extraction—the dust, the prodigious amounts of water used, the [poor] working conditions—and it became very real,” he says. “It was a micro-look at a macro problem.”

Soon after, Drew Morales started his internship at Conservatorio, the Panama City-based real estate development company. It was then that he began to fully grasp the scope of the challenges that lay before him.

His mandate was straightforward: develop an environmentally conscious distribution plan for local hospitality businesses in the historic district of Casco Viejo. “The neighborhood streets were narrow and unable to handle modern traffic flow that a supply chain needs to keep a network of bars, restaurants, and hotels running,” says Drew, a former consultant with work experience in Latin America. “Local residents were concerned about congestion and pollution.”

But Drew’s bigger test involved building a business case for sustainability in a country where the concept was not well understood. “I had to really think about how to propose and promote sustainability in a place where it’s still largely a foreign idea,” he says. “My challenge was to demonstrate the practicality of sustainability and make it part of the everyday operation.”

Over the course of eight weeks, Drew and his team gathered data, conducted qualitative analysis, and interviewed stakeholders to create a robust financial model for the future. “Even though I was working for an existing business, I was asked to build something new,” he says. “MIT is an extremely entrepreneurial place and it encourages students to bring that mindset to everything they do.”

The internship was part of the Sustainability Internship Program, supported by the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan. Conservatorio paid for half his salary and MIT provided supplementary funding, via a generous gift from Anna Gabriella C. Antici Carroll  ’92 and Joseph D. Carroll ’91. “The benefit of the Sustainability Internship is that you get to do something incredibly different and exciting,” which Drew points out is a real value-add for MBA students.

The Fellowship subsidy also gave Conservatorio an opportunity to invest in sustainability in a way it otherwise would not have been able, according to KC Hardin, the co-founder of the company. “Convincing a group of neighborhood businesses to spend money on expensive consultants to tell us whether an idea was even viable would have never happened,” he says.

“The cost of Drew's internship was manageable and his MIT Sloan background convinced everyone his work would be valuable.”

Drew says his research project and internship have not only provided him with a deeper understanding of the complexities of sustainability, but also have shown him possible career paths in the field. “The most valuable thing I have learned is how to dive deep into an issue and really sort out all the pieces.”

Today Drew works on the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) team at a large Boston-based asset management group but the lessons he learned in Bolivia and Panama stay with him. “Sustainability should not be viewed as an add-on, or a ‘nice to have,’” he says. “It needs to be woven into the fabric of the organization.”