A ‘mutually beneficial’ partnership: the Sustainability Internship Program builds students’ skillsets and enables companies to strategically invest in sustainability 

Sodexo, the global food services conglomerate, recently committed to cutting its carbon emissions 34% by 2020. The move, which was announced at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21), could compel other companies to follow suit. 

“It’s a leading target for the services industry,” says Jeff Malcolm, Director of Private Sector Engagement at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which has a longstanding relationship with Sodexo.

Sodexo’s ambitious pledge is, in large part, due to the work of Mayank Agarwal, the MIT Sloan alum. Through the Sustainability Internship Program, Agarwal spent a summer at Sodexo helping it develop a plan to shrink its carbon footprint. “Mayank put together calculations for how the company could become more energy efficient and the impact that it would have,” says Malcolm, who supervised the internship. 

“And because of his work, Sodexo publicly released its carbon footprint and has pledged an absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

For Agarwal, who today works at the Boston office of Deloitte Consulting with a focus on supply chain sustainability, Sodexo’s move is gratifying. “The internship was a great learning curve for me,” he says. “Even among people driven and committed to sustainability, it requires lot of effort to align everyone to a goal. The experience prepared me to drive sustainability in the future.”

Agarwal and Malcolm’s sentiments are a common refrain. The Sustainability Internships, now in their 5th year, represent a series of powerful, mutually beneficial partnerships: they provide students with the opportunity to gain real experience leading organizational change and they enable companies and nonprofits to invest in sustainability in ways their R&D budgets typically do not allow.

The Sustainability Initiative and MIT Sloan’s Career Development Office award the internship grants, made possible by a generous gift from Anna Gabriella C. Antici Carroll ‘92 and Joseph D. Carroll ‘91, to selected MBA students to explore sustainability-related careers without undue financial distress.)

Carolyn Mansfield duPont’s recent internship at Encourage Capital is a case and point. duPont, a dual degree MBA/MPA student at MIT Sloan and the Harvard Kennedy School, began talking to executives at the asset management firm while working on a research project. Encourage, which specializes in investments that address social and environmental challenges, was eager to hire duPont as an intern but only able to pay a small stipend. 

“I was thrilled about the offer but I was also entering my third year of grad school and finances were a concern,” she says. “I feel very fortunate that the extra funding made it possible for me to pursue this opportunity.”

duPont spent three months working at the New York-based firm on a project related to urban investment in green infrastructure. “In terms of my career, it was a clarifying experience: sustainability is what I want to be doing,” she says.

Sarah Nolet, who interned at Frontier Co-op—which sells herbs, spices, and a variety of foods—says the experience taught her valuable lessons about the economic trade-offs involved in devising a sustainability strategy. “Big picture, the question I tried to answer was: How, as a for-profit company, can you do right by the planet, do what’s best for the environment, and be a strong corporate citizen, while also being practical?” she says.

Ashaya Basnyat, who interned at St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M developing metrics to propel sustainability initiatives, says she learned about the challenges of getting buy-in from disparate stakeholders. “I learned that making the business case for sustainability requires pragmatism,” she says.

Kathy Lin, who interned at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), says the experience taught her about “the complexities of sustainably managing common pool resources.” Lin spent eight weeks travelling through New England visiting fisheries and conducting research into how the fishing community is adapting to the effects of climate change. 

“It's a real challenge because the fisherman and other stakeholders are doing the best they can while operating under a great deal of uncertainty,” she says. “There's a lot we don't know so it’s hard to make the right decisions.”

The internship subsidy also helps companies and organizations make strategic investments in sustainability. KC Hardin, the social entrepreneur and co-founder of Conservatorio, the Panamanian real estate development company, recently hired Drew Morales to help his firm create an environmentally conscious distribution plan to reduce pollution in Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City.

“Our company is too small to have an R&D department, so we use internships to investigate far out-ideas,” he says. “That only works if you have really smart, motivated people who have a sense for the subject matter, which is why Drew's internship worked so well.”

These internships have become an integral part of the Sustainability Certificate program and a selling point to prospective students. “I wanted a chance to work with decision makers driving change on the front lines of sustainability,” says Ryan Sheinbein, who interned at Autodesk, the Silicon Valley software company. 

“[This program] was, after all, one of the reasons I went to Sloan in the first place: I wanted to apply what I was learning in the classroom to help solve some of the sustainability challenges facing real organizations.”

In some cases, the internships have led to fulltime jobs. Omar Mitchell, for instance, interned at the National Hockey League (NHL), where he helped investigate energy usage at the league’s clubhouses. Today Mitchell oversees the NHL's Public Affairs department, including NHL Green, the environmental platform, the NHL Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the League, and the Stanley Cup.

“I’ve learned how to advance an agenda with a holistic mindset: sustainability is more than a cause,” he says. “It has value in an organization.”