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Career Advice From an Early Sustainability Advocate

The following is a profile of Al Nierenberg, (MBA 1990), as part of the Social Enterprise Club’s mentorship program.

Al Nierenberg’s passion for sustainability was evident during his time at HBS where he spearheaded the school’s paper recycling program. Just as the recycling program has increased in prevalence on campus, so has the concept of sustainability in the corporate world. Sustainability is generally used to describe practices that “meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Al Nierenberg has been involved with the sustainability movement to various degrees since he earned his MBA in 1990. He has been very willing to coach and share career advice with current students and alumni based on his experience of the last decade.

Upon graduation, Al bucked many of the trends among his classmates who were pursuing high-salary banking and consulting jobs to become a general manager for a distributor of purified water and water coolers.

He later introduced the industry’s first recycled paper cups as part of the Dixie Recycled line of food service products. He also developed relationships with leading sustainability thinkers from McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry and the World Resources Institute, ultimately garnering consulting assignments with these organizations. Al returned to Massachusetts in 1997 as a change management consultant and facilitator. In this capacity he has worked with government, for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, some of them with explicit environmental missions.

Based on his experience with the sustainability movement, Al shared relevant advice for those considering a career with sustainability in mind.

First, “don’t burn bridges.” Relationships with individuals are still critical to business transactions and often lead to unexpected career opportunities. Careers are more often random walks than carefully planned journeys and help often comes from unexpected sources. Al’s second piece of advice reflects a more realistic view of the state of the sustainability movement. “I’m surprised it’s not further along than it is,” he said. “I would have thought that we would have a more sustainable economy by now when I was working for Bill McDonough five years ago.

I still see a sustainable economy in the future – but it could be another 10 to 50 years away. I’m not so sure it will happen in my career or even in my lifetime anymore.” As a result of his sober analysis of the adoption of sustainable thinking, Al offered practical advice for graduates: “There are other ways to participate in the sustainability movement without trying to make a full career out of it.” He emphasized the opportunity to bring sustainable thinking to existing organizations, effecting change from the inside out, rather than the outside in, as he did with Dixie Recycled. Additionally, industry associations can serve as vehicles for change. Al himself is an active leader of several organizations, including the Responsible Business Association and Sustainable Step New England.

Through these organizations, he has been able to continue forwarding sustainability while still “putting food on the table” through his own firm, Evergreen Consulting & Training, which facilitates organizational change for sustainable competitive advantage. Al’s experiences show us the importance of following a passion but also the practicality of balancing this passion with professional development.

This profile is part of a semester-long series that highlights the lives of HBS alumni involved with nonprofits, socially oriented for-profits, and government. Each featured alumni is a participant in the Social Enterprise Club’s mentorship program, which currently facilitates interactions between 35 mentor/student partners. For more information about this program, please contact Ted Hill at thill@mba2004.hbs.edu.

March 3, 2003
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