A team of students and recent graduates from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies this summer traveled to Switzerland where they were finalists in the 2017 Sustainability MBA Challenge hosted by Nestlé Nespresso, an operating unit of the Nestle Group.
The team, which included four women from four different nations, had the opportunity to present before Nespresso executives and international experts in sustainability, human resources management, and marketing.
Members of the team were Michelle Mendlewicz ’17 M.E.M., a native of Brazil; Thuy Phung ’18 M.E.M., a native of Vietnam; Ariel Russ ’17 M.E.M., a U.S. native; Sharada Vadlamani ’18 M.E.M., a native of India.
The Yale team — which took second place in the competition — was one of just three finalists from a field of more than 80 applicants.
In their proposal, the team suggested that Nespresso develop regional “green teams” to better engage its employees and customers on sustainability challenges and opportunities. These green team members — which would include sales associates — would have a strong understanding of how to convey important messaging to customers as well as what customers are asking about, the team suggested. In addition, they would bridge the traditional hierarchical structure of the organization to ensure that each participant has equal weight on the team. According to their proposal, the green teams would submit proposals and receive funding as well as mentorship from senior managers to successfully implement their innovative ideas.
The team also proposed that Nespresso integrate sustainability into every function of human resources, including hiring, training, communication, and performance appraisal.
Vadlamani, who came to Yale with six years of experience in management and technical operations for sustainable agribusiness, said was intrigued by the challenge of bringing environmental management and sustainability science perspectives to customer-facing business challenges.
“The positive reception to our idea — enabling sustainability behavior change among customers through greater employee engagement — proves how integral responsible business practices have become for multinational companies like Nespresso,” she said. “And as environmental management scholars, this was an exciting opportunity to bring our academic and professional background to put forth innovative ideas to Nespresso’s sustainability division and company leadership.”
In developing the proposal, the team used customer and employee data that they gathered to garner insight from these stakeholders. They received 137 survey responses from current customers and spoke with 10 employees at four Nespresso Boutiques in the New England area.
Russ, a recent F&ES graduate, worked in corporate sustainability for several years before coming to Yale. She says she decided to participate in the competition because she wanted to prove that F&ES students could compete with top MBA students from across the world on sustainability challenges.
“The challenge was quite interesting and relevant to what many organizations are facing today — how do you engage your customers and employees on sustainability while improving profitability,” she said. “I am most proud of our all-female F&ES team competing against 87 business schools, thus proving the value of the Yale MEM degree.”
Phung, who recently completed her first year at Yale, said the competition offered a valuable opportunity to learn about Nespresso’s end-to-end approach to sustainability and to help develop solutions that address the company’s heightened commitments.
“The topic this year was employee and customer engagement, which was extremely timely as this is an area that many companies struggle with in the journey to become sustainable businesses,” she said. “Specifically for Nespresso, which has developed capacity to recycle 100 percent of their coffee capsules and have invested heavily in creating programs to make it easy for consumers to recycle, yet only about 25 percent of customers return the capsules.”
In addition to presenting their case, the team members had dinner with some of the judges and with Nespresso’s sustainability team. Those discussions allowed opportunities for frank discussions about the relative sustainability of single-serve coffee versus bulk-brewing systems, and whether luxury branding is compatible with sustainability, Phung said.
“Overall, it was a great learning experience and I feel empowered knowing that Nespresso will put some of our ideas into practice,” she said.