On Wednesday, the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business hosted an event that they dubbed the Sustainable Shark Tank. The Sustainable Shark Tank provided an opportunity for MBA students to present sustainable business plans to a panel of expert judges. Unlike the real Shark Tank (the one on television, not the one at The Aquarium) the judges weren’t deciding whether or not to write a check at the end of the program. However, the judges were providing honest and valuable feedback so that the MBA students could decide whether or not it would be worth it for them to take a chance and pursue their sustainable business ideas outside of the confines of the classroom.

Five student teams presented to the panel of sharks and their ideas ranged from building mini hydroelectric dams in Eastern Africa to utilizing skilled refugee labor to make custom-made pants for the outdoors. The businesses tended to focus on increasing sustainability and decreasing waste, which are important aims in the face of growing concern over climate change. What was particularly interesting, though, was the focus of the judges. Although this event was specifically designed for sustainable business ideas that, by nature, will have a positive impact on society, the judges questions centered almost exclusively around the financial aspects of the businesses. The judges picked apart the sales and marketing strategies of the businesses rather than diving deep into their social or environmental impact components. The judges seemed to be more concerned about revenue streams than sustainability, which was odd given the title of the event.

It begs a larger, and much greater, question though: how will sustainable businesses continue to get funding and grow if investors are primarily concerned about profit? Research has shown that businesses that make sustainability and social impact a priority tend to be more profitable, yet investors still seem to have it backward: Be profitable first, and then you can worry about the community or the environment. Yet, for sustainable businesses to flourish, the message needs to be flipped: Do good for the community and the environment and the profit is sure to follow. Perhaps this message would encourage more of those MBA students to risk it all and follow their sustainable dreams.



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