In April of 2010, Sahil Sahni boarded a small plane along with fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Alex Loijos. Somewhere around the moment the aircraft reached an altitude of 11,000 feet above the sprawling Nevada desert, the two made a pact. If they survived their initial foray into skydiving, they would start a company aimed at helping businesses reduce their carbon footprint, as well as their business costs.
Not surprisingly, Sahni and Loijos survived the jump. They also followed through on their test of fate, founding LinkCycle soon after.
Not every founding narrative in the business world begins with such existential flair, but a growing number of the nation's university graduates are plunging headlong into careers promoting sustainability, whether building solar arrays, designing more energy-efficient homes or offices, or, like the work of LinkCycle, offering consulting services to Fortune 500 businesses.
According to Paul Rowland, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, nearly 300 sustainability programs were planned or launched by universities and colleges in the past two years.
"What I hear, and I've had conversations with people at Dow, in the wind industry and your typical utility folks," said Rowland, "I would say they agree that they're looking for people with a skill set aimed toward problem solving in teams, across disciplinary boundaries, and are able to understand the classic triple bottom line: economics, but also environmental and social impacts."
Rowland said many academic institutions are struggling to integrate sustainability curricula into their course offerings, unsure of whether to create new, stand-alone degrees or certificate programs or to make sustainability studies a component of already existing disciplines, whether engineering, business or economics.
"I'd like to see sustainability studies integrated into, become a foundation for, all the academic areas as opposed to stand-alone programs," he said. "Not every student will major in sustainability, but every graduate should understand it in their personal and professional decisionmaking. "
While higher educational institutions, from community colleges to top-tier research universities like MIT, are increasingly promoting their green credentials, Rowland credits private-sector demand and federal stimulus dollars for the recent spike in inaugural sustainability programs on the nation's campuses.
Campus that learns by doing
Perhaps no other school in the country demonstrates the tightly bound nexus of private-sector interest, student demand and public-sector support for sustainability than Butte College in Oroville, Calif., which lies just outside of Chico.
The largest community college in California by acreage, the school this year became "grid positive," meaning it is generating more electricity than it consumes.
Since 2005, it has installed 25,000 solar panels on campus, which are projected by the college to generate $130 million in cost savings over the next 30 years.
"You're not going to come to Butte College without seeing a solar panel," said Les Jauron, vice president for planning and information at Butte.
Aside from the cost savings, and even revenues from selling excess power back to the grid, the institution turned the build-out of its solar infrastructure into a classroom for students and has tapped federal stimulus dollars to develop a curriculum of sustainability-focused courses.
The school offers certificate programs in clean energy installation and project development. The classes cover solar photovoltaic and solar thermal instillation, water and energy efficiency, and other clean energy strategies.
Students have gone on to work for local companies, installing solar panels, or have started their own green energy businesses, said Annie Rafferty, director of contract education, training and development at Butte.
"The profile of students varies from underemployed and unemployed with basic construction experience to, in our advanced certificate program, we pre-screen individuals with five to 20 or 30 years of experience," said Rafferty.
Feeding the 'triple bottom line'
As federal aid diminishes, Rafferty said the school is increasingly turning to the local business community for ways to maintain the training programs. Businesses in the region, she said, are eager to draw on the expertise of Butte students to build clean energy systems or improve energy efficiencies.
In addition to community colleges, businesses are tapping large public universities for graduates with expertise in sustainability. Each year, Dow Chemical Co. recruits several business students from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan for its summer master of business administration sustainability internship, which it has offered since 2007.
Rose Perkins, associate director for sustainability, business integration and employee engagement at Dow, said the MBA interns work at the corporate level, not within the sustainability section of the company. In this way, they are put at heart of the company's work and aid in addressing its triple bottom line.
"We want outside perspective," said Perkins.
Interns, she said, often have experience at nonprofits or in government agencies, but most crucially have the ability to work as part of a team that cuts across disciplines of science, engineering and corporate management.
The MBAs, she said, have worked on reducing material costs in automobile construction, assessed customer demand for more environmentally sound products and addressed waste management issues.
Of 20 interns who have come through the program, said Perkins, six have been hired, four of whom remain at the company.
Dow seeks a 'cultural shift'
Mike McCaffrey, a public affairs officer in Dow's sustainability division, said the company is aware of concerns that its efforts at reducing its environmental footprint might be viewed as "greenwashing" but emphasizes that a genuine cultural shift is under way.
"[The MBA internship program] is part of what it takes for the organization to change," he said. By bringing young professionals into the company, the program helps to change the existing culture within Dow, he said.
Perkins added, "At the end of the day, we are a business, and as a business, we have to make money. We think we can turn sustainability into profitability."
MIT's Sahni will complete his doctorate in materials science early next year and said that prior to attending the Cambridge, Mass.-based institution, he had little interest in sustainability.
Mentoring from professors, startup capital won during student competitions and professional advice from the school's Entrepreneurship Center engendered his interest in taking up the issue.
As a result, he sees several reasons why sustainability has caught his attention, as well as that of a growing number of other university students. "First and foremost, I'm interested in the social aspect of sustainability," he said, "I'm doing the same type of research as other scientists, but there's a real social benefit to our work."
He points to two underlying dilemmas that further piqued his interest. On one hand, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that nations must halve their greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury in order to avoid runaway climate change. On the other, resource demands will double during that time period.
Sahni adds that a lot of research has focused on the level of the individual device -- how to make a particular gadget work more efficiently or how to build it more cheaply. But nowadays, he and his peers are interested in addressing problems on a more systemic level.
"And what could be a more cutting-edge problem than climate change?" he said.