Today is the day. I am packing for Rio. Analogous to “Frankie goes to Hollywood”, this is not just another business trip, this is not business as usual. Looking at my wardrobe, I skip the usual formal work clothes and I create a mixture of casual and funky that I hope I can get away with in the many very formal sessions and presentations. I grab the “A Rebel with a Cause” t-shirt, my partner brought me from Amsterdam with the instruction that this is THE right t-shirt for me in Rio!
I remember the feeling 20 years ago, when the original Rio conference took place. I was 22 and studying business (yes, at BSL) at the time. The world stopped and watched — Rio was the news and suddenly everybody was talking about the environment, the role of business, of rain-forests dying, the ozone layer disappearing over Australia and the extinction of wildlife. Schmidheiny’s book “Changing Course” changed my life. I remember sensing a new possibility — something shifting within me. The so-far unimagined possibility of maybe, just maybe, being able to combine two parts in me that I thought could not be united in the adult world I was entering.
On one hand, I have always felt this deep sense of connection and care with nature and the world. I spent my youngest childhood roaming the forest in the area I grew up. Ah, that smell, that light! I am tempted to say that anybody growing up in Switzerland automatically becomes an environmentally conscious person. It is so much part of the Swiss DNA, this ridiculously serious sense of responsibility for the “Gemeinwohl” (the common good, although that is a sad translation lacking the caring cosiness the German word radiates and makes you want to be a part of this common thingie) that is instilled in all of us through our upbringing both at home and in school. I am personally scandalized if I see spray-paint. When I pick up my mobility car, a 80’000 members car-sharing organization, the car is spotlessly clean and I make sure I leave no garbage in the car when I return it. To us, public property feels like private property and we treat it very similarly.
On the other hand, my three year commercial apprenticeship and my jobs in Australia and then at a F50 US multinational had kind of implicitly taught be that bringing my whole self to the job was not what was required or even desired. At age 16, my initiation to business at my apprenticeship included all kinds of hurdles. The three years tamed me into a somewhat more docile corporate citizen and I laughed exclusively in private. I had understood that my passions and interests had nothing to add to being a good employee. When interviewed for a promotion at Alcoa, the manager mentioned that she knew that I played nearly every Saturday night in a jazz band and that if I wanted the job I would certainly have to forget about such extravagance. I was 21 at the time and this was the craziest thing I had ever heard.
The two versions of me, the fun-loving tree-hugger and the serious professional, had little to do with each other. Until the Rio Earth Summit hit me. Suddenly, I felt that a bridge could be built between these two sides which generated a boost in creativity unlike anything I had experienced before. I started dreaming about helping companies become sustainable. I thought that maybe I could start a consulting company, I still have a hand-drawn logo of “stratecology” which included a blue planet. But things worked out differently, I kept on getting promoted and ended up in the U.S. In mergers & acquisitions, then in Russia in charge of a manufacturing start-up and life took off. Rio and sustainability gathered dust in my soul.
It was only about 2 years ago, during a side conversation at the “breaking the silo” pre-conference of the Academy of Management annual meeting in Montreal, when we established that business schools had done nothing as a community to participate in the public debate around the increasingly complex social, environmental and economic challenges we faced. The business community had at least created the World Business Council for Sustainable Business (WBCSD), yet what had we to show for? Wasn’t it even more our task to ensure that the world had responsible leaders? Wasn’t it up to our professors to come up with interesting alternatives to our defunct economic system and our “make-break” growth-driven consumption pattern? After all, who if not us would be there to figure out a solution?
The WBCSD had been founded by Schmidheiny (a fellow Swiss who obviously also had gotten his proper dose of Gemeinwohl-DNA) right around the 1992 Rio conference. As an act of self-depreciation we decided in Montreal to founded the World Business School Council for Sustainable Business (WBSCSB) — the world’s most unpronounceable acronym. Our aim, to take part in the public debate on sustainability and to do our job in providing the right kinds of leaders and the right kind of research that would actually serve the world. Since then, we worked on our contribution for the 2012 Rio conference: a radically new vision for management education that would contribute in all possible ways to a world worth living in. This is what we are now about to go and do.
Join me on my personal journey and follow our initiative which we call 50+20 on www.50plus20.org (#50plus20).