With the 2020 Patagonia Case Competition Prompt Announced, How Can You Start Building Your Team Now?

Written by Tiffany Tran and John Monaghan, both Berkeley Haas MBA ’20 candidates and 2019 Patagonia Case Competition Runner Ups.

Centered around one of the most admired companies in the world and focused on solving some of the most relevant corporate sustainability challenges, it is no wonder that the Patagonia Case Competition attracts teams from across North America to compete. For the 2019 program, 123 teams were formed to compete for prize money, Patagonia gear and the opportunity to present again to the entire Patagonia staff at their headquarters. Private surf lessons with their team off the Ventura coast didn’t hurt either.

With steep odds, how can you get the most out of the program and best position yourself for success? John Monaghan and Tiffany Tran, both 2020 FTMBAs at the Berkeley Haas School of Business, placed second along with their team the Hungry Bears, provide their top tips:

Leading With Values

Few companies inspire as many people through their values as Patagonia. This was evident throughout the competition and in the case itself, and during the judging process and our experience with the Patagonia team on site at headquarters. They genuinely care about these issues and are putting forward some of the most difficult challenges that cross their desks. 

The Patagonia team wants to find breakthrough technologies and business models, as well as modest changes that help them to realize their mission of saving our home planet. Your work will be thoroughly considered and will inform their work on these core questions. That alone was a great honor and should be at the core of why you hope to participate.

Systems Challenges Require Interdisciplinary Teams

Our competition focused on how the company can distribute all its food and apparel products in packaging that is reusable, biodegradable, renewable, or easily recyclable by 2025. With such a broad prompt, we knew we’d need expertise beyond just our own and sought out partners from across campus to assemble a team representing four different graduate problems: business, material science, architecture and development practice. 

The team came with diverse subject matter knowledge, design capabilities and industry experience, but a shared passion for the project. Our backgrounds allowed us to find solutions and present material unlike any of the teams I have worked with comprised only of MBAs. In fact, all of the top three teams had materials science PhD students on their teams. Consider what skills might be necessary for this prompt and where they might live in your schools!

Consider the Full Prompt

Last year’s case was exhaustive and thoroughly cited, with extensive details on previously attempted initiatives and case studies from their peers in the industry. Be sure to address the entirety of the prompt, understanding the complexity of the challenge ahead. Using that as your roadmap, what are the solutions that they haven’t considered and can you look for adjacencies in other industries? 

Talk to Consumers and Get Creative

Though it can feel daunting, our team went to places where we thought we could find the target consumer and started asking questions about their core values and perceptions. These conversations informed some of our go to market strategies and gave us insights we wouldn’t have otherwise considered. 

A team from the University of Toronto videotaped their interactions allowing for great footage to share in their presentations. Patagonia cares about their consumer and wants to make sure they do right by them. Speak to as many of them as you can, and you’re solutions will be both more attuned to the need and more persuasive.

Try and Build Your Prototype Solutions

One of our ideas that caught the judges’ attention was packaging single serve items like soup mixes, coffee or oats, in edible, dissolvable “Tide Pods.” Though our understanding of the technology was still early, demonstrating a prototype helped to speak to the possibility of the idea with the judges. Similarly, peer schools came to the competition with prototype bioplastics or containers that helped the judges to conceptualize their idea. It also helps inform your recommendation as your propose solutions have tested them yourselves.

Our Experience

Last year’s case focused on how the company can distribute all its food and apparel products in packaging that is reusable, biodegradable, renewable, or easily recyclable by 2025. In the first round of competition, graduate teams submitted their innovative solutions to the case prompt. Patagonia leaders then reviewed all submissions and selected ten finalists to present their ideas to Patagonia executives at Berkeley Haas. Over 100 solutions were submitted, and Berkeley was among one of the finalists. 

The Berkeley team comprised of a cross-disciplinary group, made up by John Monaghan (MBA), Tiffany Tran (MBA), Aaron Hall (PhD Material Science & Engineering), Lily Fryer, (Masters of Development Practice), Natasha Mehta (Masters of Development Practice), and Thomas DeVore (Master of Architecture). The team’s solution focused on eliminating the idea of disposable packaging by utilizing usable containers to package foods and introducing edible and dissolvable food pods. The team came in second place, winning prize money and a trip to Patagonia headquarters to meet with employees and go surfing. 

Over the summer,  the Berkeley team, along with the first place MIT team, visited Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, California. The morning started bright and early with a surf lesson provided by a local surf organization. All students borrowed wetsuits and surfboards and were coached to catch some waves.

Interested in forming a team? Sign up to stay in the loop here.

Reflections on the 2019 Net Impact Conference

Written by Thais Esteves, MBA ’21 candidate

“It is all about the journey and connecting to others” is just a cliché, some may say. Even though I try, sometimes it is a hard principle to embed in day-to-day life. In today’s world, in which we are hyperconnected to numerous sources of information all the time, connections are easier and harder at the same time. Even though the number of connections you make and information you access each day is probably much higher now than it was before the incredible invention of the internet and smartphones, real connections and insights are still a precious gem, and yet they are so important. Through my experience at the 2019 Net Impact Conference these lessons were emphasized by many inspiring leaders, speakers and participants.

Nipun Mehta founder of ServiceSpace delivering his speech at the 2019 Net Impact Conference

The first morning’s “Courageous Kindness” breakfast with Nipun Metha (a U.C. Berkeley bear just like me), established the overall sentiment of the conference. Metha encouraged us to foster an environment filled with “givers”, as a giving culture can generate more synergies and better results. Prioritizing giving in times of stress, long work hours, and tight deadlines is sometimes tough. In my experience, even people who care about others sometimes end up prioritizing “getting things done” over answering a colleague’s request when pressure is high. By challenging us to care as much for the process as for the results, Metha emphasized the potential of achieving even better results when making sure everyone is involved and connected throughout the process.

This message of caring about the process and making sure to connect with others was reinforced throughout the conference. In the keynote following our breakfast, Veronika Scott, a young leader who created the Empowerment Plan out of a design thinking class – a system of empowering  homeless people to manufacture coats specifically to protect other homeless people from the cold – shared how going to housing shelters and talking to homeless people made her realize that it was not just about the coat (the result she was trying to achieve with the class), but rather the process of making it. This insight came to her because she took the time to listen and connect with homeless people. One day one of them said to her: “I don’t need a coat, I need a job” and she recognized the opportunity to not only provide coats, but to involve the clients in manufacturing them. This insight enabled her to give jobs to homeless people who have been able to leave the shelter and pursue a more comfortable life.

The power of connections to create positive impact was emphasized again by Jessica Norwood, a financial activist and founder of the Runaway Project, a suite of strategies that empower African-Americans who may not otherwise be provided with funding for their ideas to access “Family and Friends” funding for early investments through a platform that connects them to investors. Seth Goldman, the co-founder of Honest Tea and Executive Chair of Beyond Meat, shared how understanding the need to reach consumers who wanted to eat authentic tasting burgers influenced them to create Beyond Meat as the solution to incentivize people to reduce meat consumption. Dave Chen, Chairman of Equilibrium (sustainably driven real asset portfolios), stated that you need both small and radical, and big and “boring” solutions to scale the social sector’s positive impact. He emphasized how keeping a humble attitude leads to examining problems from different perspectives and coming up with innovative solutions.

Photo courtesy of Net Impact

Shannon Watts from Moms Demand Action provided a different but encouraging perspective on how caring about the process can lead to better results. Quoting “build a plane as you fly”, she explained how difficult it was for her to put her perfectionist self to the side to take action and start an activist movement without any prior knowledge on the topic. Focusing entirely on the process and on her passion for having an impact, she created a grassroots movement that is now present in every state in the U.S. and is a part of Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country with more than 5 million supporters.

Lastly, Iqbal Quadir – founder of Grameenphone in Bangladesh, which aims to provide universal access to phones, shared how he came up with this idea of making a phone for the poorest people in Bangladesh back in 1993, even though every expert he spoke to told him that his idea did not make market sense. He explained how instead of listening to the experts and conducting a market assessment (which he could not afford at the time), he decided to talk to the people. One day, his assistant asked him to take a letter to the mail, but not stamp it. Despite knowing this would require a larger fee for getting the mail delivered, she explained that it was the only way she could ensure the message would get to her family, as sometimes mail gets lost and without a stamp the mail service would record the message and her sister could go to the mail office and pay a larger fee to read a recorded version of the letter. This gave him the insight of how underprivileged people don’t always need a cheaper service, but they do need a different service to fit their needs. This insight was only possible because he was paying attention to the people and connections with those around him. Now Grameenphone is a $8B dollar company and the leading Telecom provider in Bangladesh.

This spirit of focusing on process and connections was present in all the sessions and contacts I made, from learning more about the new era of capitalism to understanding the challenges of unlocking the potential of clean energy by connecting those who can afford it through tax credits to those who can’t with Michelle Moore, CEO of Groundswell. Another example is Lindsay Lorusso, CEO of NUDNIK, who uses textile that would otherwise pollute the planet to create a line of unisex, contemporary and colorful kids wear through principles of circular economy. The conference impressed upon me the importance of focusing on connections, not only on results.

To sum up, I want to leave you with a quote from Iqbal that really inspired me: “Think about learning, not teaching. Think inclusively, not exclusively”. Coming back to the real world and to our day-to-day jobs and lives, a lot of us are easily drowned in tasks, deliverables and targets – I know I am. The Net Impact Conference reminded me of the importance of the journey, the process, and the connections we make. Making sure to learn from others with a humble attitude is a mindset that can lead to real and inspiring change in the world. I hope we all can embed this attitude in our lives and move our world in a better, more positive direction.

Questioning the Status Quo at the 2019 Food Summit

Written by Eva Gurfein, Sustainable Food Initiative Student Lead and MBA ’21 Candidate

On October 21st, Food@Haas hosted the annual Food Summit in partnership with the Career Management Group. The summit kicked off a week of discovery and reflection as the first industry-specific program held during Career Week – the designated time for first-year MBA students to delve into our career search.

Founders of Ficks Drink, A Dozen Brothers, Spero Foods, Bread SRSLY, and Just Date Syrup closed out the Summit.

Since joining the Berkeley Haas community this fall, I have found myself at home with a passionate group of like-minded students committed to advancing careers in the food and beverage industry. While some have previous industry experience, others are exploring food as a target industry to pivot into. For all of us across this spectrum of career exploration, the Food Summit provided an opportunity to hear alumni perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of working in food. The diverse lineup of speakers came from a range of food industry organizations and represented the different functions open to MBA graduates. In addition to a panel on entrepreneurship, we heard from alumni working in a variety of roles including responsible ingredient sourcing, marketing, and operations within CPG, foodservice, technology, and startups.

Over the course of the summit, a focus of the discussion centered on the evolution currently underway in the industry. Keynote speaker Jane Franch, Director Strategic Sourcing & Sustainability at Numi Tea, shared the unprecedented challenges the industry faces stemming from climate change. Franch also addressed the shifting consumer demand for products that deliver on sustainability, health, and transparency. For Numi Tea, the foundation of the company was built around the belief that if you honor people and the planet, and bring forward a product sourced with integrity, that will drive consumer interest and profit. Not all businesses are so forward-thinking. Dennis Macray, Former Senior Vice President Impact at Rebbl, Inc., commented on the food industry’s focus on food safety; arguing that much of the industry’s investments are not “progressive” but instead just concentrated on avoiding recalls. Macray and Franch introduced a rallying message that resonated throughout the summit’s panel discussions – the pressure to question the food industry’s status quo has reached a crescendo.

Each speaker provided unique insights into how this significant pressure spurs industry innovation. It is evident that this mounting demand to rethink industry norms has created unparalleled opportunities for those of us launching food industry careers. Given the sector’s potential for positive impact on environmental and human health and the pressing consumer demand, there has never been a more dynamic time to join the better food movement.

So, how can we build careers in food with this ambition?

Professor William Rosenzweig, faculty director of the Sustainable Food Initiative, kicked off the Food Summit 2019.

For starters, Macray challenged us to reframe our conversations around the industry’s biggest issues. Instead of talking about supply chains, he encouraged focusing instead on ingredient networks. Talking about accessible food is important, but it’s more important to talk about just and equitable food. If you’re talking about sustainability, you’re too late – let’s evolve the conversation to focus on regenerative. Instead of safe food, let’s talk about traceable food – ultimately, you can’t have safety without traceability. And finally, instead of food waste let’s consider “re-ingredients” – how can we put what would otherwise be considered waste to good use? 

Professor William Rosenzweig, faculty director of the Sustainable Food Initiative (SFI), offered additional words of wisdom, encouraging us to become “pragmatic imagineers.” To establish conditions for effective innovation, he argued, we must understand the pragmatic connections between policy, public health, and business systems. We must work nimbly, while taking the long view – understanding the long-term implications of food system decisions. Above all, we must champion big ideas by taking the small steps to get the work done. I feel lucky to be part of this Berkeley Haas community of food industry leaders and to grow over these next two years into a pragmatic imagineer for the future. 

About the Author

Eva Gurfein, MBA ’21, Sustainable Food Initiative Student Lead
Prior to Haas, Eva worked as a Managing Director at RF|Binder, a communications and consulting firm focused on building, growing, and transforming brands. Her work included brand development, integrated marketing communications programming, and product launch strategy with a focus on positioning food and beverage clients for consumer adoption, including Corbion’s algae ingredients portfolio, Perfect Day Foods, and the German Wine Institute.  

Sustainable Vikings: Introduction

The following is a chapter excerpt from the in-progress book “Sustainable Vikings: Nordic Leadership in Sustainable Capitalism” authored by the CRB Executive Director Robert Strand.  This book serves as the base text for the Haas undergraduate course “Sustainable Business in the Nordics” and Haas executive MBA course by the same name. The CRB will publish a chapter from this book throughout the academic year on the CRB blog.  This is a work-in-progress so please leave your feedback and suggestions for improvement in the comments section!


I believe the Nordics can save the world.

I recognize this bold statement is likely to make my humble Nordic friends blush.  Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is this friendly little region known chiefly for its Viking past today lays claim to the strongest sustainability performances on the planet.  The world must learn how the Nordics – comprised of the five Northern European countries of Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, and Denmark1 – are achieving their comparatively strong sustainability performances.  That’s what this book is all about.

Message to my Nordic friends:  Whether you like it not, the world needs your leadership now more than ever.  So you had better get used to blushing.

Earth would carry on just fine with or without humans so by “save the world” I mean ensuring that human beings can live a good quality of life on our home planet.  This requires tackling our greatest societal and environmental challenges including climate change, growing inequalities, and threats to our democratic institutions.  The young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg reminds us that when it comes to urgent challenges like climate change, the whole world needs rapid improvement very much including the Nordics.  Nordic societies certainly have their problems and do not have answers for everything, but a “Nordic approach” rooted in cooperation, consensus-building, humanism, reverence for democracy, systems thinking, and stewardship represents our greatest hope to effectively address our greatest global challenges.

Greta Thunberg

The U.S. is the world’s largest and most consuming economy so if we want to save the world, we need the U.S. onboard.  In contrast to the Nordics, the U.S. context could be characterized as promoting hyper-competition and extreme individualism.  I realize that a society of extreme individualism is not a place where saving the world for altruist reasons is likely to land a solid punch.   So I will attempt to appeal to individualism.

Message to my most self-interested, hyper-individualistic American compatriots:  This book is about YOU realizing a better life.   Now I can tell you are a smart person so you know all about prisoner’s dilemma2.  America is stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma and the Nordics can help show us how to get out of it.

I am convinced that so many of us Americans are not fully aware of how much better things could be.   My wife Sarah and I have moved back and forth and back and forth between the U.S. and the Nordics. This has raised our awareness of the differences and opportunities for improvement.   (Of course, there is much for the Nordics to learn from the U.S. The fact of the matter is the Nordics have paid, and continue to pay, close attention to the U.S. I intend for this book to help symmetrize the objects of attention.)  During this period, I have also led over 500 U.S. based university students and dozens of U.S. based university professors on study tours of the Nordics. I have repeatedly seen how the Nordics can excite our curiosities and stimulate inspiring considerations for how we might try to improve life in the U.S.  This is not about America bashing – this is about America fulfilling its potential3.

Furthermore, for those of you like me who are concerned about rising populist attacks against capitalism, you have likely noted these attacks are often rooted in expressed concerns about extreme inequalities.  Capitalism is the greatest poverty alleviator in the history of humankind but as inequalities grow, as we have seen in the U.S., the concept of capitalism comes under threat. The Nordic countries are market-based economies that demonstrate capitalism and extreme inequalities need not go together.   Nordic countries demonstrate some of the lowest levels of inequalities in the world and extraordinarily lower levels of inequality than the U.S. Understanding how the Nordics have achieved great efficiencies through capitalism without the ills of exasperated inequalities is vitally important.

For as long as I can remember, I have had an eye on the Nordics.   I grew up in the small town of Fountain City, Wisconsin in the upper Midwest of the U.S. where many Nordic settlers planted their roots in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, my Norwegian ancestors included.  We proudly celebrated our Norwegian traditions. The annual Strand Family Reunion in Tamarack, Wisconsin was sure to include an “Uff-Da” or Viking ship t-shirt or two and if anyone had actually ever traveled to Norway the photobook of their journey, however dated, was sure to be on display.   Knut and Anne Strand, the original family members who came to Tamarack and built the first home in what became known as “Norway Valley,” had assumed an almost mythical, hero status. As a child, I would stare at the words “In Memory of Knut L. Strand (1834-1918) and Wife Anne (1833 – 1921)” inscribed at the base of a magnificent stained glass window at the Tamarack Lutheran Church, and I would imagine their lives.

The stories told of Knut and Anne Strand were ones of hardship and fortitude.  Knut was a poor tenant farmer in Norway with no land of his own moving from farm to farm working the difficult Norwegian terrain.  Anne was a servant to a wealthy Norwegian man. As the story goes, she smoked a pipe, which was rather uncommon for women at the time, because one of her jobs was to pack and light the pipe for her master in the evening and puff on it until it was just right for the wealthy man.  Like so many others from the Nordic region, Knut and Anne made the voyage to the United States to build a better life.

During the holidays, the Norwegian symbols came out and my family would celebrate the traditions of Norway as we knew them.  I spent my fair share of time eating lutefisk, lefse, and krumkaker with my family. I recall my Grandpa Milton Strand getting up at 5am to make the lefse because, as he would tell me in his rather thick Midwestern/Norwegianish accent, “Der is more yuse in da early morning, Bobby.”  Grandpa had a theory that electricity – or ‘juice’ as he called it – was ‘hotter’ in the early A.M. before others were awake.  I have my suspicions whether my Grandma Gladys actually subscribed to grandpa’s theory of electricity nevertheless she was up at 5am making lefse also4.


During my later twenties, my interest in the Nordics would grow beyond the Nordics as something that I inherently associated with the past toward inquires of modern-day Nordics.  By that time, I had been working for a few years in Corporate America with the multinational corporations IBM and Boston Scientific. I enrolled in the evening-weekend MBA program at the University of Minnesota while working full-time and during my course “World Economy,” I began to notice a pattern.   In virtually every measurement of country-level performances, ranging from the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness ranking to The Economist’s Global Business Environment Ranking, the Nordics were clustered at or near the very top.  Furthermore, during this course I was introduced to the Gini Coefficient, a measure of economic inequality.  Again, the Nordics stuck out given their comparatively low levels of economic inequality that were strikingly lower than the U.S.  I was so intrigued by this because just over a century prior, the Nordic countries had been among the poorest in all of Europe and what little wealth they had was concentrated in the hands of a few.  This is why so many people emigrated from the Nordics to the U.S. – my ancestors Knut and Anne Strand included. In a matter of just a handful of decades, the Nordics had propelled their economies from rags to riches and with high levels of equality.  How?

Moreover, Nordic successes went beyond economics as the Nordics were dominating virtually every measurement of social and environmental performances as well.  This really piqued my interest because it seemed to run counter to the narrative I was being taught by my business school professors about “trade-offs.” In economics, a trade-off is a sacrifice within a zero-sum game mindset where, in order to achieve one thing, something else must be sacrificed.  If you want to do some of that social responsibility stuff, it must come at an economic cost.   Care about the environment? You’ll have to pay for it.   However, in every measurement I saw, the Nordics were demonstrating remarkably strong and balanced economic, social, and environmental performances.  Nordic countries sat at or near the top of the UN Human Development Index measurement of societal well-being; Nordic countries sat at or near the top of Yale’s Environmental Sustainability Index measurement of environmental performances; and the Nordics did all of this while sitting at or very near the top of economic performance measurements.   How?

My business school professors were also teaching “fiduciary duty.”  This translates to the presumption that a company’s managers have a primary duty to the shareholders.  In turn, this meant managers are responsible for maximizing the company’s profits whereby this would be achieved by focusing on efficiency.  The line of thinking was an efficient company was a more profitable company – and the more profitable companies we have in a society, the more goods and services are generated for the society and overall wealth.  I followed this line of thinking but still something did not feel entirely right about a singular focus on profits within a company when human beings were involved.

Near the end of my MBA, I enrolled in two “outlier” courses from the mainstream curriculum that would change everything:  Business Ethics and Sustainability.   My business ethics professor, Norm Bowie, taught me to challenge the notion that a company’s sole purpose is profit maximization.  Drawing directly from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Professor Bowie taught about the importance of taking an ethical stance toward those stakeholders affected by business whether they be the employees, customers, suppliers, community members, or shareholders5.   During my undergraduate studies in industrial engineering, I had been schooled in Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management – or “Taylorism” – whereby this line of studies emphasized efficiency.  Cold, hard calculations were the norm.  A central element of my training was labor planning to determine how many people are needed in a factory and how they should be deployed to maximize a factory’s efficiency in order to maximize the company’s profits.  Later, I assumed a role at IBM as a labor and capacity planner at the world’s largest IBM manufacturing plant. People on the manufacturing floor were often discussed little differently than equipment in the manufacturing process.   Efficiency was everything. Many of the conversations disturbed me but over time I became numb to it to the degree that I too found myself talking about ‘headcount’ little different to equipment. It was not until I encountered Professor Bowie’s business ethics course that I felt as if I had the space to critically reflect upon the human element of business, and to consider issues of equity among stakeholders.  Why should the shareholder interest be the only interests considered?  Why not employees or other stakeholders affected by the company’s operations?

My sustainability professor, Alfie Marcus, showed me that developing environmentally positive benefits did not have to be solely economic costs.  In this course, Professor Alfie Marcus led us on an exploration of the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change. Professor Marcus showed investments in environmentally and socially responsible endeavors can lead to strong economic performances where trade-offs were not always evitable.  We learned that through cooperation and consensus building, many times trade-offs could be avoided entirely over time through collaborations between stakeholders – perhaps even including governments and “competitors” – and the resultant innovations. Rather than thinking of a company as an individual entity we were encouraged to consider the overall system in which a company was but one piece.  Furthermore, we considered the challenges in relying upon a market based approach solely with an issue like climate change given the so-called “negative externalities” (eg. costs incurred by the public for the pollution by a company) are so delayed. The harm being done through the greenhouse case emissions of a company would not be felt for decades.  This gave rise to considerations for me that issues of sustainability were a bit different than issues of efficiency.  Sustainability required longer-term, intergenerational considerations.

In 2005, upon completing my MBA, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to go to Norway.  I wanted to study how the Nordic region was achieving such strong and balanced economic, social, and environmental performances.  The Nordics seemed to align efficiency, equity, and sustainability. (I had a secondary objective to study whether everyone in Norway actually said “uff-da” like my Grandma Gladys did every time she got out of her rocking chair.6)  Fortunately, I was accepted so I took an extended leave from Corporate America and my then fiancée Sarah and I shipped off for Norway.  The Fulbright requires the completion of a research project and mine involved studying a case company from each of the four largest Nordic countries:  Equinor (formerly Statoil) in Norway, IKEA in Sweden, Novo Nordisk in Denmark, and Nokia in Finland7.

In my first taste of the Nordics, I immediately observed a very different approach to leadership and company culture than what I was accustomed to in the U.S.   I saw Nordic business leaders who encouraged cooperation driven through committed consensus building, and who were far more modest, humanistic, and nurturing than what I had experienced in U.S. industry where the macho John Wayne beat ’em at any cost approach was more likely considered evidence of strong leadership.  I saw more women in positions of power and I sensed cultural norms and practices antithetical to cultures of “toxic masculinity.” People seemed to arrive at work and leave at more reasonable hours than what I was used to. I saw flatter corporate hierarchies with much more intermingling between the “bosses” at the top with the “regular people” down below than what I was used to in the U.S.  Formal titles didn’t seem to matter so much. Over time, I realized employees were granted a high degree of autonomy and freedom and were empowered to take decisions. Relatedly, I saw continued efforts to utilize democratic principles as a means to organize and take decisions in the company. I witnessed companies and their leaders who actively sought out and engaged with critical voices. These leaders seemed to demonstrate humility to openly express that they did not have all of the answers and, instead, a willingness to ask questions and encourage discussion. The apparent difference in leadership approaches between the Nordics and U.S. was exacerbated because at the same time, back in the U.S., Donald Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice” was gaining in popularity.  With the catch phrase “You’re Fired!” this brash, hyper-competitive, all-knowing, oftentimes chauvinistic display by an individual in a position of leadership was completely antithetical to what I was witnessing in a Nordic context8.

Perhaps most striking for me given the focus of my Fulbright research project, I observed company cultures where sustainability was far more mainstream and taken seriously and in a holistic “systems thinking” view of the world.  In the U.S., the grey-haired men in the companies told me about our “fiduciary responsibility” for growth to maximize profits for the shareholders. In this view, the only thing we really needed to consider was our own company’s interests and making as much money as possible.   However, in the Nordics when I would ask questions about the company’s responsibility to its shareholders, I would more often get a very different response. People talked about the “stakeholders” of a company and their responsibilities to take into account these differing perspectives and attempt to build consensus regarding an approach that is more likely in the interests of those affected by the company and its actions. In these descriptions, shareholders were an important stakeholder, but one of many important stakeholders for the company.  I found it commonplace for the employees with whom I spoke with to bring up their employees, community members, and environmental issues before mentioning shareholders. In the U.S., it seemed that all attention was focused on the company and the all-mighty “business case” was used as sole justification for decisions as a means to achieve maximum profit. When I asked whether a company should concern itself with issues of sustainability in the Nordics, I was often met with quizzical looks and a response like “of course we should” with a rationale that “we are part of the community” and “our children depend on us doing so.”  Upon later reflection, I experiencing evidence of a systems thinking approach that I would come to identify as a norm in the Nordics, meaning that businesses taking into consideration how a system’s constituent parts interrelate – i.e. are connected – and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems. I also realize the Nordic propensity for “systemized humanism” – to set up systems supportive of a good quality of life. The willingness and ability to identify systems problems and develop responses using systems thinking would become a key element I would later identify as a central reason the Nordics were performing so comparatively well in virtually all sustainability performance metrics.  In contrast, I came to realize that in the U.S., we have a tendency to push most problems down to the level of the individual –systems problems included.

In 2006, I returned to the U.S. to rejoin Corporate America9.  In addition to my corporate job, I had begun developing a two-week study abroad course to the Nordics for U.S. MBA students focusing on sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) based upon my Fulbright experiences.  I pitched the proposed course to the University of Minnesota; to my surprise, they agreed; I was hired as a part-time adjunct; and we launched the new course in 2008. The cohort twenty-five MBA students and I traveled together by metro, train, bus, and foot across Norway, Sweden, and Denmark for two weeks to meet with the people and organizations I had gotten to know through my Fulbright and thereafter.  I sensed that many people across the Nordics were proud in many respects of the societies and companies they had built but were perhaps a bit uneasy to boast about it on their own behalf10.   As a loud-mouthed American who was captivated by the Nordic story, I was happy to assume my role as the Nordics’ #1 hype man:  the Flavor Flav of the Nordics. The inaugural class was deemed a success with strong student interest whereby it became an annual event.  This only fueled my Nordic passions as I felt the growing excitement and genuine curiosity of others.

I got this Viking stuff, Flavor.

After much deliberation, Sarah and I made the decision to return to the Nordics to both pursue graduate degrees.  In 2009, I launched into my Ph.D. at the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark. This brought with it teaching obligations so I did what I knew:  I developed a class to teach about Nordic sustainability. At the time, I didn’t really think so much about how audacious of an idea this was that an American would show up to tell a bunch of people from the Nordics about the Nordics.  (Only upon later reflection would I realize how very ‘American’ this was.) Nevertheless, I came to learn that my “outsider” perspective was very useful as I was highlighting to my Nordic students what was unique about the Nordic context in comparison to the U.S. context.  I noted the business school library and syllabi of other courses in Denmark were filled with American textbooks despite a longstanding, rich tradition of managerial scholarship from the Nordics. I found this troubling. The Nordics had something particularly special to address our world’s greatest sustainability challenges and I was worried it may be at risk of eroding if we did not take stock of it.  So I would come to assume a rather strange position of being the American who was running around telling everyone to stop listening to all of the Americans. As part of this, I would begin working to cultivate a research paradigm dedicated to Nordic sustainability as a field of inquiry in its own right.

On a personal level, Sarah and I were increasingly drawn to a Nordic lifestyle.  Sure, it was dark and rainy half of the year but people were nevertheless outside on their bicycles, enjoying coffees in hyggelig candlelit cafes, and seemed to display stress levels at markedly lower levels than what we were accustomed to in the U.S.   After we had both completed our degrees at the Copenhagen Business School, I was offered a role there as a sustainability and leadership professor.   I accepted. By this time, Sarah and I desired to start a family whereby we were grappling whether we should return to the U.S. or plant our roots in Denmark.  Sarah became pregnant in 2013 whereby this became the question on repeat. Thanks to the generous parental leaves across the Nordics, in the case of Denmark that amounted to 52 weeks of paid paternity leave, we had the opportunity to consider whether we desired to return to the U.S. for a temporary period to be near family for the birth of our first child.  We had been subletting our home in Minneapolis where a return would be relatively easy. I arranged for sequential visiting scholar positions at the University of Minnesota (corresponding with the Sarah’s expecting date in September) and thereafter University of California, Berkeley (corresponding with getting the hell out of Minnesota for the winter). The universities of Minnesota and California represent two excellent Nordic minded universities that would help me as I had set out to build a network of U.S. based universities and researchers interested in establishing the field of Nordic sustainability.  This year back in the U.S. would also give Sarah and me a chance to test whether we wanted to move back to the U.S. on a permanent basis.  Everything was set up for a grand return to the U.S. and we were excited.

Our desire for a “welcome back to America” turned out to be a tough lesson in American capitalism.  Sarah’s pregnancy was classified as a “pre-existing condition” by American insurance corporations. The result was nobody would sell us health insurance11.  With every passing month of Sarah’s pregnancy, I felt increasingly angry and powerless.  I could not necessarily fault the people within insurance companies who denied us because they, like me, were probably schooled in “fiduciary duty.”  Selling health insurance to someone guaranteed to incur significant expenses certainly does not maximize profits for shareholders. But this spurred me to begin asking questions about the American variety of capitalism, where markets do and don’t work so well, and how this all relates to the idea of freedom.  At the time, the Affordable Healthcare Act was being debated in a U.S. context, and I was hearing disparaging characterizations of the Nordic countries in U.S. political discourse as Soviet style communism where citizens had no freedom. If we had been a Dane, Swede, Norwegian, Finn, or Icelander we would have the freedom to return home without issue but as Americans, we couldn’t.  The “Land of the Free” was not feeling so free. This experience spurred on all sorts of further anxieties for us. What if our baby is born in Denmark with a pre-existing condition? Would that mean we could never move back to the U.S. because no private health insurance company would sell us insurance? What we thought should have been one of the happiest periods of our life became one of our most anxiety ridden.

Thankfully, our U.S. residence was established in the state of Minnesota which had established the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association (MCHA) in 1976 “to offer policies of individual health insurance to Minnesota residents who have been turned down for health insurance by the private market due to pre-existing health conditions.”  It was not the easiest thing to secure, but after jumping through a number of hoops we were allowed to buy a health insurance policy through MCHA. The freedom to return to the U.S. was granted through a governmental policy, not the “free market.” Thanks to smart policy, we were able to return to Minneapolis and welcomed a beautiful addition to our family in later 2013.

Our return to the U.S. became more permanent as I was offered a role at the University of California, Berkeley to lead the Center for Responsible Business at the Haas School of Business and join the faculty.  This was very attractive because I felt that if there was a university in the U.S. that could serve as a platform to usher in Nordic ideas and inspiration in the U.S. in a big way, it was UC-Berkeley. In 2014, I assumed this role and it is from this position I write this book in an effort to further raise global attention to the Nordics.  In the time since, I have developed a series of dedicated courses to deeply explore sustainability practices in the Nordics at UC-Berkeley on campus and through which I regularly lead cohorts of UC-Berkeley MBA students on study tours of the Nordics. This book represents an effort to succinctly package the lessons I have found most impactful for my students through these ongoing comparative explorations.

By now you have probably realized this book titled “Sustainable Vikings” has little to do with the Vikings of yesteryear. I would suggest that modern-day Vikings, however, are even more worthy of global attention given the mounting global challenges we collectively face and the promise that Nordic approaches present to effectively address them.  To help frame the discussions, throughout this book I will refer to efficiency-equity-sustainability framework. Efficiency-equity represents age-old terrain covered by public policy and economist scholars over the years12 to which we will add sustainability.  We will relate this framework to extractive versus stewardship approaches and will expand upon all of this in Chapter 1.

Unit of Analysis Sólarsteinn

The word Viking originally comes from the Old Norse word “vīkingr” which stems from the phrase “fara í víking” – meaning to go on an expedition.  Vikings purportedly used the fabled sunstone, called sólarsteinn in Icelandic, to navigate through the northern seas using the sun even in periods of dense clouds and fog13.   I hope that you will consider this book a smooth and sunny sail; nevertheless, I bestow upon you the “unit of analysis” sólarsteinn.   Our explorations will take us across multiple levels of unit of analysis: global, supra-national, national, organizational, and individual.  We will traverse these domains throughout our journey whereby it will be important to keep track of where we are.  As a business school professor, I tend to steer the attention of my students on the lowest levels unit of analysis:  individual and organizational (i.e. company) levels. I do this because, with critical reflection and self-awareness, we have great control over how we act as individuals and we can actively manage and affect cultures and policies at our respective companies.  In other words, we can rather quickly do something about things at these levels. The national-level is critically important for us to consider but whatever changes we may desire are more related to systems thinking and the construction of smart public policy. This can be a bit overwhelming at the very start.  An old quip comes to mind about the tourist in a foreign land who asks a local, “How do I get to the capital city?” and the local replies, “I wouldn’t start from here!” We will spend considerable time in the pages to follow considering the supra-national and national levels but I want to avoid sending the unintended message that for any of us to effect change, we must start at the highest level unit of analysis.  This is daunting.

Through critical reflection enabled through comparisons with examples from an inspirational place like the Nordics, we can become aware of change that possible through which we can inspire change at the organizational level (eg. your company) and the individual level (eg. YOU).  In doing so, we can have incredible impact on the national level (eg. U.S.) and beyond. Together, with the Nordics, we can save the world.

#SustainableVikings #TheNordics @BerkeleyHaas @respbus

1The word ‘Nordic’ is derived from the French word nordique where nord means north.  The establishment of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 1971, an official collaboration between the Prime Ministers of the five aforementioned countries, formalized the meaning of the word Nordic in association with these five countries.  Scandinavia (and Scandinavian) is a closely associated concept that is used by some as synonymous with Nordic while others may associate it solely with Sweden, Norway and Denmark (Bondeson, 2003).
2The prisoner’s dilemma is one of the most well-known concepts in modern game theory. It depicts a paradox in in which individuals, each acting in their own self-interest, do not achieve the best possible outcome for any of them. Cooperation is necessary to realize it. In cases of the prisoner’s dilemma, we are well advised to appeal to “enlightened self-interest” for hyper-individualistic actors to embrace cooperation in order to achieve a more optimal outcome for everyone.
3This is a point clearly made by Anu Partanen in “Nordic Theory of Everything.”  [Partanen, Anu. The Nordic theory of everything: In search of a better life. HarperCollins, 2016.]
4Lefse is a soft tortilla-like flatbread made with potatoes, flour, and butter that is cooked on a flat, hot griddle.  The Sons of Norway offer a nice recipe at www.sofn.com/norwegian_culture/featured_recipes/lefse. Or you could buy it from Countryside Lefse (www.lefse.com) in Blair, Wisconsin – birthplace of my Grandma Gladys!
5We studied the Ford Pinto case in which Ford elected to continue manufacturing a known defective fuel system even though it was known to cause deaths.  Ford went ahead because its engineers had performed a “business case” in the form of a cost-benefit analysis to make their decision. The case is particularly jarring because one of the costs included by the engineers in the analysis was the expected number of deaths multiplied by funeral costs.
6Don’t know what I am talking about?  Ask someone – anyone- from Minnesota.
7Sorry, Iceland.  I was on a meager $18,500 annual stipend.  To put things in perspective a pint of beer cost north of $10 in Norway.  Having grown up in a small town in Wisconsin, my beer budget was prioritized above my Iceland travel budget.
8I don’t watch a lot of television so you’ll have to forgive me for asking – what ever happened to that Trump character?
9In case you’re wondering, during my entire years as a Fulbright, I heard the expression “uff-da” uttered by a Norwegian exactly once.
10“Janteloven” may explain this in part.  Janteloven, or “The “Laws of Jante”, refers to a fictional small Danish town Jante in a 1933 book by the Danish-Norwegian author Askel Sandemose.  The townspeople of Jante had constructed 10 laws by which its citizens were expected to behave related to humility and putting the collective interests ahead of the individual.  As example, the first law states “Do not to think you are anything special.” The degree to which Janteloven is more fiction or fact in a Nordic context – and whether its effects are positive or negative (or both) – represents an ongoing debate.
11The federal Affordable Healthcare Act – that outlawed denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions – would not come into effect until January 1, 2014.
12Okun, Arthur M. Equality and efficiency: The big tradeoff. Brookings Institution Press, 2015.