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Advancing a More Sustainable World with an MBA/MPA-ID

By: Ratnika Prasad 17 Oct 2019

This post was originally published on the HBS Admissions MBA Voices blog.

Working to protect the environment has been my passion for as long as I can remember. My father was my earliest inspiration. As an officer in the Indian Forest Service, he devoted his life to balancing day to day realities of economic development with environmental conservation. For me, climate change was a reality we lived with every day – experienced in wildly fluctuating rains that flooded my house, turbulent storms that eroded roads, and increases in sea levels that caused thousands of Maldivians to migrate to my city.   

This reality drove my decision to study environmental science and economics at Cornell. My undergraduate experience quickly brought home the fact that when it comes to grassroots impact, it is imperative to use what motivates people to drive change in behavior. For example, shaping an effective environmental policy requires overcoming financial concerns. Whether it was my work with a power plant, the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change, or local county governments, financial returns often superseded the "green value" of projects. I quickly learned that beyond health or environmental benefits, government and organizations' decisions on issues of sustainability rested first and foremost on the financial benefits and cost savings.   

As a result, I decided to apply to Harvard Business School through the 2+2 admissions process as well as for the Masters in Public Administration in International Development (MPA-ID) with Harvard Kennedy School. I wanted to pursue a joint degree that would help me address the dichotomy of my intended field, where climate investment cannot be an arena for governments alone and where impact involves navigating supply chain risks as much as evaluating stakeholder incentives.   

Now about to enter my third and final year of the joint degree, I can say that the program has far exceeded my expectations in helping me prepare for a career as a leader in sustainability. The first-year MPA-ID curriculum combines rigorous training in graduate economics with practical, applied lessons from the field taught by some of the premier practitioners in international development. At the end of year one, I had the chance to take my newly minted development credentials and apply them working with the World Bank's Forest Carbon Partnership Facility. The climate change space is a classic example of a tragedy of the commons where the equilibrium is not a stable one, and incentives to deviate are high for individual actors (profitability strikes again!). Consequently, a lot of the game theory we studied actually comes into action there. Moreover, the core concepts we learned in development theory are very much in play in the day-to-day work of the World Bank, which enabled me to have a much more developed understanding of the World Bank's projects than before. 

The second year of the program as an RC (Required Curriculum year) at HBS has proved equally fruitful in helping me grow. Early on, I was extremely impressed that the emphasis was not so much on teaching us how to calculate days receivable or WACC figures precisely right, but on how to use practical interpretations of business concepts in our lives as leaders in whichever sector we choose. Not only classes like Leadership & Organizational Behavior (LEAD) or Leadership and Corporate Accountability (LCA), but also ones like The Entrepreneurial Manager (TEM) and Finance concretely covered the practical realities of what it means to work in sectors like renewable energy or social enterprises and how to balance financial returns with social utility.  

I am working this summer with Circulate Capital, an investment fund focused on waste and recycling businesses that fight ocean plastic waste and advance the cause of a circular economy. The work has allowed me to exercise learnings from my RC year - be it reading cap tables or building valuation models while staying focused on my personal cause: advancing a more sustainable world. I am excited to see how the third year pans out, as we get the chance to take electives across both schools each semester while completing a thesis.  

The common thread across both years has been the joint degree community. Harvard fosters this through the joint degree seminar each year, which enables us to thread together what we learn in both schools to act as "tri-sector" leaders across the public, private and non-profit spaces. The joint degree cohort is exceptionally tight-knit. I am amazed by all the opportunities and doors that opened to me because of the collective community. Although my approach to being an "environmentalist" is certainly not by the book, I have been fortunate with the joint degree to find a school and a community that is enabling me to achieve my ambitions in the best possible way.