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Alumni Stories · Sustainability

All systems change

There are no easy fixes to the polycrisis, says Stefanie Held (MBA 2000), who advocates a collaborative and systemic approach to a sustainable and livable future for everyone. Every stakeholder, including business schools, has a role to play.
June 2023

Climate advocacy may be a lengthy and tedious cause, but it also holds an ironic appeal for sustainability advocate Stefanie Held.

“Sustainability is fascinating intellectually,” she said. “We’re seeing global population growth and an ever-increasing appetite for energy to power our lives coupled with the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and improve our environmental footprint. Yet the world has never lived longer and better. So the real question is: how do you thrive in a world beset by a confluence of climate, economic and geopolitical threats?”

In particular, climate action can be a tricky business, given the complex interconnection between economic development and societal needs. “There are always trade-offs. It is never a straightforward approach,” she explained.

As the planet reaches climate tipping points, Held said, there is an urgency of action in tackling the climate crisis with a “systems change” approach. She added that “business as usual” is no longer an option and the world has to find forward-looking climate-proof solutions. These include harnessing the power of digitization for smart systems and innovative financing that help leapfrog solutions toward carbon neutrality.

“There are always trade-offs. It is never a straightforward approach”

“There is a pressing need to get the carbon out of the air and buy more time for the planet through new urban and rural planning approaches, different transport solutions, and new products and services so that all countries can develop and enhance their quality of life. Bear in mind that nearly 800 million people around the world still lack access to electricity and 2.5 billion people do not have access to clean cooking facilities. We all have to change the way we think, produce, consume, and live our lives, every day,” she said.

“This means inventing new ways to build societies through the formulation and implementation of inclusive economic development and industrial policies that can provide adequate social protection and gender equality. There will be a new definition of what is ‘fair’ profit and burden sharing without leaving anyone behind.”

Beyond learning a new business language

Held began her career in energy and environmental management after securing a Master of Science in chemistry from the University of Kent, UK, and a postgraduate degree in environmental sciences at Fondation Universitaire Luxembourgeoise, Belgium. Following a stint in the private sector in Belgium, she found herself at a career crossroad.

“If you want to negotiate with someone on an issue and convince them, you have to understand what drives them. Taking a purely environmental approach with an idealistic attitude is not going to help,” she said. “I was missing the knowledge of business language. What I wanted to learn was how to combine a sustainable way of doing business with a healthy bottom line. Different entities speak different languages. They’re not driven by the same motivations, but the ultimate goal should be the same: adding value to society.”

Looking to expand on her knowledge of general business management, Held signed up for an MBA at IMD, drawn by the brevity of the year-long program and smaller class size. “I went to IMD fully aware that I wanted to leave environmental sustainability and do something else,” she said. “I honestly believed that the world of sustainable development held no more secrets for me.”

“I went to IMD fully aware that I wanted to leave environmental sustainability and do something else”

But the MBA program made her reconsider the career switch she had planned. “From the class presentations and my interactions with fellow classmates, I saw how ignorant the world was about the interconnectedness of things, from resource needs to trade, to the role of business and the impact these processes have on the quality of life globally.”

The collapse of US energy giant Enron Corporation that year got her thinking about sustainability and its wider relationship with business organizations, stakeholders, and the community. “Cases like Enron showed how few people were working on issues such as ethics and the social aspects of sustainability, including their interconnectivity, and how all of this was integrated into the way businesses function. I realized there is still a lot to be done in the area of social protection and ethical investment, and essentially what matters in this world.”

With renewed fervor, Held pivoted to sustainable development. After obtaining her MBA degree, she joined International Finance Corporation as an investment officer where she developed private sector solutions for more inclusive economic growth.

“Logic will tell you that it makes sense financially to invest in well-designed sustainable projects, and to actually put that down on paper and seek allies in this new way of financing turned out to be really challenging but rewarding,” she shared.

A people-centric approach

Held has not looked back since. Over the next two decades, she developed sustainable energy and climate strategies in international organizations such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the International Energy Agency, and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

In March last year, she joined the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as the director of its Sustainable Energy Hub, a global network that aims to build net-zero, people-centric societies driven by sustainable energy transition and seeks systems change through innovative partnerships.

Her work mainly involves developing neutral and practical solutions for governments to scale up a just, inclusive, fair sustainable energy transition through approaches that harness the collective knowledge of the entire organization, from inclusive growth to environmental protection, biodiversity, extractives, and energy. It also includes the development and implementation of sustainable energy policies and projects as well as energy capacity building in developing countries across the globe such as Myanmar, Sudan, and Yemen.

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“Years ago, the environment was at the center of the sustainability movement, but now the focus is on people. This is why the Sustainability Energy Hub adopts an integrated approach when working with partners from the public and private sectors to achieve UNDP moonshot goals and bring energy to 500 million more people by 2025. It’s a stretch goal to remind us every day that there are still people out there who lack the basics to live a life with dignity.”

A noteworthy project developed by the hub is the Africa Minigrids Program, which aims to provide 265 million people in sub-Saharan Africa with access to energy through renewable energy minigrids by 2030. The program, which provides a methodology to de-risk renewable energy finance by bundling risks, will be rolled out over 21 countries to provide potentially 54 million minigrid connections. The Sustainable Energy Hub also aims to bridge the public and private sectors by sharing sustainability knowledge to catalyze sustainable development policy change.

“We’re looking at systemic change and must understand that no one can do this alone,” she reiterated. “Policymakers, academia, and the private sector: we have to work together to find a solution.”

Business schools: shaping the future sustainable agenda

While the adoption of a collaborative mindset is important, stakeholders must also find ways to leverage their key strengths, Held said.

She cited the example of the private sector that is currently taking the lead in sustainable energy R&D. “If you look at many of the pathways that have been proposed to facilitate energy transition, 30% of the technologies in these pathways don’t actually exist yet,” she said. “Today, the private sector invests more than the public sector in energy R&D and the technologies that will be used for global energy transition will mainly come from the private sector.”

In short, she highlighted, not everyone can or should do everything. “Everyone should do what they’re good at and come together to create new knowledge to facilitate systemic change,” she said.

Held also believes that business schools, where future leaders are being nurtured, can play a bigger role in tackling climate change as they can influence and shape the sustainability agenda moving forward. They not only have a fundamental role in creating knowledge but also facilitate the exchange of technologies and policies between countries and businesses.

“Everyone should do what they’re good at and come together to create new knowledge to facilitate systemic change”

In her opinion, graduate schools can double as a platform to crowdsource innovative solutions to fight climate change. “This has tremendous potential as it can create networks for crowdsourcing of ideas and financing as well as bring together enthusiastic experts to work on climate-related issues,” she explained.

Business schools can also fill the sustainability skills gap amid the growing global demand for green skills. “There is currently a lack of skills to make this transition to net zero. The educational sector has an important role in developing those skills that we need for the future, such as sustainability engineering,” she said.

While the road to sustainability may seem like an uphill battle, Held is optimistic. “Ultimately, we will find a solution by working with like-minded people who are equally enthusiastic,” she said. “It truly creates a ripple effect. Having a network and a shared passion means that systemic change becomes possible. It creates something that is bigger than the sum of its parts, just as IMD did for me.”