Sustainable is Trainable

Gifford Pinchot’s Bainbridge Graduate Institute sets out to transform business education.

By Manny Frishberg December 13, 2008 Published in the November 2008 issue of Seattle Met

IT’S NOT EASY GROWING UP in a great man’s shadow. Especially when you also bear the great man’s name. Just ask Gifford Pinchot III, whose namesake grandfather, the U.S. Forest Service’s founding chief, is still widely hailed as “the father of American conservation.” “It sort of felt as if I didn’t own my own name,” says Pinchot III. Inspired by granddad’s example, he threw himself into environmental and civil rights activism—apt preparation for his future career as a business educator.

Along the way Pinchot earned a BA in economics from Harvard, but even as a student in the 1960s he showed maverick tendencies. He wrote his thesis on what he calls “nonmonetary ways” of measuring economic output—standards that he thought “were more relevant to human happiness.” His professors told him he was clearly a sociologist, not an economist. So he took a sociology class. His first paper traced the evolution of altruism from ants to humans, so the sociology profs decided he was a biologist. He enrolled in neurophysiology at Johns Hopkins, said he wanted to study consciousness, and was told that made him a philosopher, not a scientist. “That was when I became a blacksmith.” Perhaps a careering career path is the secret of enduring youth; Pinchot, still slender and flaxen-bearded, could inspire fits of envy in the world’s other 65-year-olds.

“I was still of the opinion that an MBA in Sustainable Business was probably an oxymoron.”

Pinchot next took up creating correspondence courses in entrepreneurship and developed the concept of “intrapreneurs”—entrepreneurs within large companies. In 1985 he wrote the best-seller Intrapreneuring and became a sought-after consultant to Fortune 100 companies and (hello, family tradition) the U.S. Forest Service. In 1991 he founded the Internet-security software firm Consensus Development. In 2002, with the money banked from selling Consensus, Pinchot and his wife Elizabeth, an executive coach and author, set out to change the world by changing the way business students think about their careers. “Business schools were educating people that it was immoral to serve your local community or the environment or future generations if it took one penny away from the shareholders,” he says. “We thought that was a very dangerous way to run a society.” So the Pinchots started the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, a B-school dedicated to sustainable practices and social responsibility. In September 2002 they received their first 20 students, and they’ve since expanded to about 200.

In 2003, Kevin Hagen, who’d worked 20 years in what he calls “business as usual,” heard Pinchot speak at a conference. “I was still of the opinion that an MBA in sustainable business was probably an oxymoron,” Hagen recounts. “Gifford articulated that if business wasn’t a part of the solution, then there was no solution.” Hagen was so inspired he enrolled in the class of 2005. Today he is REI’s director of corporate social responsibility. Other BGI graduates have also landed well: One is head of sustainability for the City of Corvallis, another vice president for North American sales at forklift-maker Genie Industries, a third sustainability director at Columbia Forest Products, a pioneer in formaldehyde-free particleboard.

“Gifford’s the type that, if he gets an inkling [of the tune], will dance,” says graduate Callie Ridolfi, managing director of the green-building consultancy EcoFab. “He taught me that to have a successful business in a time of change it’s important to be nimble, like he is.”
Nimbleness seems to have paid off for the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. Six years in, it’s the international green-business association Net Impact’s highest-rated MBA program and one of _BusinessWeek_’s “best design schools.” That last honor “did puzzle us a bit,” admits Gifford Pinchot, but he sees the logic. “The new demands of sustainability and other challenges that we’re facing in this rapidly evolving world require a way of going about doing business that is more like design and less like regular management.” The secret of success, he explains, is to think in three dimensions: “Profit is important, but so are people, and so is the planet.”

Filed under

Related Content


In a Meinert Key

12/08/2008 By Michael Hood


Edgar’s Solution

12/18/2008 By Jeff Meisner


Into the Wildland

12/20/2008 By Francesca Lyman


Man of Many Acts

12/27/2008 By Kevin Friedman