By Laura Ertel

These, days, one in four students in the Nicholas School’s Master of Environmental Management (MEM) program are planning to make their environmental impact through a career in business or industry—a huge increase from even a decade ago.

That means it is more important than ever for our students to learn sound business practices and application of environmental concepts to business before they graduate, so they’ll be able to hit the ground running in their post-graduation careers.

The Nicholas School is stepping up our emphasis on business skills, knowledge and application to sustainability. In addition to expanding opportunities for students to intern or do master’s projects at companies, this fall, the school launched a Business & Environment (BE) concentration within the MEM degree program. Led by Associate Professor of the Practice Deb Gallagher, BE is designed to prepare students to become effective managers and analysts who can support organizations in implementing environmentally sustainable business practices.

One of the Business & Environment concentration’s core courses is Business Strategy for Sustainability. Each spring, Nicholas alumni and others who manage sustainability practices in companies and organizations serve as clients for small teams of students to apply classroom learning to a sustainability-related strategic challenge the business is facing. Students share their findings and recommendations with their clients, who gain actionable data to drive future business decisions.

“These projects are win-win for students and clients,” says Gallagher. “Managers get a bright, motivated workforce to attack a specific area of need, so our students provide real value. And for our students, it’s really important to be able to talk about this real-world experience when they apply for internships or jobs after graduation.”


For Kevin Fritze MEM’09 MS’13, working with Nicholas students offered an opportunity to complete a project for which his company hadn’t had the internal bandwidth.

Fritze, a corporate services and sustainability coordinator at global paper manufacturing company Domtar, enlisted a team from Gallagher’s class to develop a total cost of ownership model for factory lighting. The customizable tool developed by students helps Domtar facility managers make more informed choices about what type of lighting to use.

“I knew this model would be a valuable tool for our organization, and one that we can build on going forward,” Fritze says. “Thanks to the student group, the model was actually developed.”

In addition to benefitting his company and the students, Fritze himself relished reconnecting with the Nicholas School. “I very much enjoyed working with students going through the program now, hearing what was going on in the program that I was part of, and picking up a bit of the energy and enthusiasm of the current students.

“I also enjoyed passing on some of my perspective and advice as an alum, though you’ll have to ask the students if that was of any value,” he says, laughing.

Clients for the Business Strategy for Sustainability course range from large national corporations to small local businesses; an entirely new slate of business challenges is attacked each year. Other student teams have developed strategies for a regional hospital network to implement sustainability practices at its many sites; designed a dashboard to show employees at a large construction company the impact of its sustainability practices; and helped a nonprofit aquarium identify partners to apply its marine biology research to sustainable seafood. Clients gain a unique perspective on challenges they face, and most go on to implement the students’ recommendations.


While the Business & Environment concentration is new, corporate clients have played an important role in providing experiential learning experiences for Nicholas students for decades—and have seen how student involvement can benefit the bottom line by solving business challenges and recruiting top talent once these future leaders graduate.

Many Master’s Projects (MPs) and internships are hosted by corporate clients, says Charlotte Clark, assistant professor of the practice of sustainability. Current and past clients include Fair Trade USA, Cree and a real estate development firm looking to “green” its large apartment complexes.

“With the new BE concentration, and the large and increasing number of our students who combine our MEM degree with an MBA at Fuqua or UNC’s Kenan-Flagler, providing MP and internship opportunities that allow students to gain practical experience outside of the classroom, while also making tangible progress toward a professional network, is highly beneficial, Clark says.

“Our corporate partners tell us they appreciate the ability to hire students from a program that attracts the best and brightest students who come to Duke for an MEM. Students who are trained not only in important content in environmental science, policy and economics, but also in teamwork and the ‘tools of the trade’ such as geospatial analysis, statistics, program evaluation, and research design and implementation,” she adds.

In addition, the student-run Business and Environment Club (BEC) organizes speakers and networking events, a

“Business Bootcamp” series, and club trips to prepare students for careers in corporate sustainability. In October 2017, a group of BEC students traveled to the West Coast to meet with managers and executives at a variety of corporations, foundations and consulting firms to learn what they need to be industry-ready.

“It was a valuable experience to be able to meet with sustainability professionals from a variety of fields and to learn about the different opportunities in diverse industries,” says Bobbi Lesser MEM’18, who will be one of the first to graduate from the Business & Environment concentration. “It was helpful to talk with Nicholas alumni and to be able to ask them how I can best tailor my degree for a career in corporate sustainability.”

To help guide the BE curriculum and identify opportunities to enhance students’ preparedness for the corporate sector, the Nicholas School has convened an Advisory Council comprised of Nicholas alumni and volunteer leaders who work in the corporate sector. Interested in learning how your business or department could benefit from connecting with Nicholas School students as a client or MP or internship host? Contact Ann Thurston, Nicholas School associate director for development services & corporate engagement, at 919-613-8018 or

Laura Ertel is a freelance writer living in Durham, NC, and is a longtime contributor to Dukenvironment magazine.