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As political leaders around the world grapple with how to reduce the emissions that cause climate change, several US companies have signed up to an intern scheme that puts some of the brightest MBA students to work on lowering energy consumption.

The non-profit Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps programme recently completed its second summer of “embedding” interns from universities including Yale, Duke and Stanford at a group of companies that includes Sony Pictures Entertainment, Cisco Systems and Accenture.

MBA students such as Russell Baruffi served as an intern for 10 weeks and focused on analysing energy consumption in an attempt to find possible savings.

Baruffi attends the Ross School of Business and School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, where he is a fellow at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. His internship was with Sony Pictures, the Hollywood studio behind recent hits such as 2012 and District 9.

“I was very interested in Sony for a number of reasons,” explains Baruffi. “I wanted to work on energy efficiency and renewables projects for a large, publicly held corporate entity so I could better understand the operational processes and motivations that drove decision-making.”

Sony, for its part, is keen to lower emissions associated with its sprawling studio lot in Culver City, California. As the site of the original Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, the lot and its many sound stages, is steeped in history.

“We have a very unique situation,” says Jeff Hargleroad, executive vice-president of corporate operations at Sony Pictures Entertainment. The site is 80 years old and includes dozens of buildings, which complicates matters. “We have stages and facilities that are inefficient because they were built so long ago,” he says. “A couple of years ago, our corporate leadership decided to make our green effort more meaningful.”

Every part of the company was asked to examine its energy use and carbon footprint. “We looked at where we could save power, water and how we could improve our waste management,” he says.

Baruffi provided a fresh, analytical perspective, says Hargleroad. Crucially, all of his time during the 10-week internship was devoted to energy efficiency. “Russell did a number of things, such as evaluating where our money was being spent in terms of utilities,” says Hargleroad. “We also have a number of data centres, which can be a real energy hog and by having them, we lose certain efficiencies.

“He evaluated different data centres … and put together a plan showing what we could save. What I liked about it in comparison with some of the consultants that we might have had around [in the past] was that he had a broader background in business. Some of the consultants we have used before tend to be so focused on green issues that they didn’t have any awareness of capital.”

In their eagerness to improve the company’s energy efficiency, these consultants did not appreciate that the studio “could not be taken off-line for days at a time”, Hargleroad adds. “Russell offered a more pragmatic approach.”

Baruffi says he put many of the skills taught in his MBA to good use while at Sony.

“I needed to use financial analysis and my understanding of organisational dynamics. Even my marketing skills were critical.” He says he had to know which executive to target and also “how to communicate a clear value proposition about the project’s importance”.

Once he found the right person to pitch to, he had to present a solid case for making changes. “It’s not always apparent that adding additional costs for energy efficiency to a budget makes sense,” he says. “So you have to be very deliberative to make a pitch and make the business case to the right individual.”

Hargleroad says having a fresh perspective was beneficial to Sony. “Having Russell bring those disciplines to our analysis was very helpful,” he says.

Sony had explored some of the energy-efficiency issues analysed by Baruffi before, including the company’s solar power portfolio and its storm water discharge systems. “We had some level of analysis on all of those fronts,” says Hargleroad. “What Russell did was peel back the layers to give us more data, as well as move things along more quickly.”

Baruffi was not alone in making a positive contribution during his internship, with other participants in the Climate Corps scheme completing research that was welcomed by the companies they worked with.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s intern at Cisco found that minor increases in the ambient temperature of data centres could save the company about 18m KW of electricity – and $1.8m each year.

The EDF intern at TXU Energy’s two main office buildings found ways to reduce energy consumption by 10 per cent and 30 per cent respectively, generating a potential annual saving of $200,000.

“Several of the interns in our programme have been hired [by the participating companies] to work on energy efficiency.” says Gwen Ruta, vice-president of corporate partnerships at EDF. “The companies that have hired them have recognised the value [of energy efficiency] and decided to make the necessary investments.”

Participating interns can have a considerable impact, she adds. “They can overcome everyday barriers. They can look beyond departmental boundaries and bridge the gap between facilities people and the chief financial officer.

“They have been incredibly effective in not only finding the opportunities but finding them in a way that convinces the companies to act on them.”

EDF stays in close contact with the participating companies, which report to the organisation at the end of the internship and then again a year later.

The programme has been popular: this year, 26 MBA students took part and Ruta says the organisation aims to enlist 50 participating companies in 2010.

Participating MBA students tend to approach the programme with genuine enthusiasm and want to come up with effective – and cost-effective – ways of fighting climate change, she adds. “The other part of the programme that is really valuable is we’re helping to create the next generation of business leaders. They develop an understanding of the strategic value of environmentalism that is not typically taught.”


To be an intern

One of the selling points of a two-year MBA programme is that it includes an internship – a 10-12-week work placement, writes Linda Anderson.

MBA students with a year of business school under their belts take time out from their studies to work in a variety of sectors and fields, before returning to school and the second half of their programme.

According to data collected by the Financial Times, internships are most popular in North American schools, where the two-year programme predominates. They do not feature as frequently in Europe, where one-year programmes are more common, and participants do not have the luxury of taking 2-3 months out.

According to Financial Times statistics, while almost 80 per cent of MBA students in the North American class of 2006 completed an internship as part of their programme, that figure fell to 42 per cent in Europe.

An internship allows students to work for a time with a prospective employer, says Julie Morton, associate dean of career services at Chicago Booth School of Business in the US. It provides the student with a time to reflect on whether they really want to pursue that particular career. For some, an internship can be a real eye-opener. Having begun their internship at a consultancy, students can realise the job is not for them. Perhaps it is insufficiently hands-on, or not as people-orientated as they had hoped. Whatever the outcome, MBAs return to school for the second year of the programme with a “more refined sense of what their goals are”, says Morton. “It gives them insight.”

“An internship allows them to take the skills they have learned in the classroom and apply them in a company setting,” says Tracee Petrillo, director of the Center for Career Development and assistant dean at the Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College.

In addition to bringing their own MBA talents into the internship setting, participants also learn from the company. Though the internship experience is relatively short, it is intense. Such a full-throttle experience eventually finds its way back into the classroom. “They certainly come back with examples of what they see being done in the real world,” says Morton.

At the MIT Sloan School of Management, a popular elective for students returning from their summer internship involves reflection on the practice of management. As part of the course, students are asked to think of their internship as a project, and consider what they would do differently and what they learned.

One obvious aspect of an internship is the possibility of a full-time job offer at the end of it. “From the company’s perspective, it is a 12-week job interview,” says Petrillo. “It gives the company the opportunity to try someone out in a low-risk setting.” Companies can see if their MBA interns are a good fit, whether they are team players and would be an asset to the company.

At Sloan, about 35 per cent of students who are offered a full-time position as a result of their internship accept a job. At Chicago, about 50 per cent of students receive offers from their summer internships; for the class of 2009, 75-80 per cent accepted the offer. According to Financial Times data, of those who completed an internship, two-thirds were offered a job at the end of it.

However, some students accept an internship with no intention of taking a full-time position, even if it is offered. Some, says Jackie Wilbur, career director at Sloan, want to use it to learn something new; some are sponsored, and others use it as a stepping stone to a job elsewhere.

Companies, too, can have alternative agendas. Some see interns as cheap labour; others have short-term projects that need completing, and welcome the opportunity of a finely honed management brain.

Nonetheless, when an internship works well, it can be a positive experience on both sides. “There are some very thoughtful companies out there,” says Wilbur. Such companies help the students to develop and take their role seriously, she says, and at the end of the internship, even if the two go their separate ways, they frequently maintain contact.

For Maria Karaivanova, a Harvard MBA who recently completed her internship in South Africa with Lapdesk, an initiative to provide school children with plastic lap desks, the experience was life changing.

It was, she says, a risk-free option to do something new and different. “I hoped to have my imagination stretched, my assumptions challenged and my newly minted MBA skills employed to the fullest, and it all happened.”

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