State of the Planet

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Student Sows the Seeds for Career in Sustainable Agriculture

Michele Aquino
MS in Sustainability Management student Michele Aquino

After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua, current Sustainability Management student Michele Aquino was drawn to the program because he saw the need for sustainable programming in development interventions. Since starting the program, Michele has gotten involved with various projects on campus, including working with his fellow MS students to submit a prospectus for the Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenge that would propose a land restoration and sustainable palm oil production program for smallholder farmers. Upon graduating in May, Michele hopes to pursue a career in the food processing and consumer packaged goods space or exploring the field of clean energy.

1. What drew you to the Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MSSM)?

Two work experiences drew me to this field of study. First, I gained international development experience in the field while serving with as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua. I saw the need for sustainable programming in development interventions (i.e. long term solutions in addition to stakeholder capacity building). Second, my work experience in the Food Manufacturing sector showed me the massive amounts of energy and water needs necessary to produce our food supply. The program seemed interdisciplinary while still offering opportunities to gain skills in management and corporate finance that would pivot my career.

2. What do you intend to do professionally once you achieve your degree?

I am most interested in leveraging my knowledge of the food and agribusiness space to manage sourcing/supply chains through a lens of sustainability thinking. I hope to prove to a future employer that embedding sustainability management techniques into processes can align with business KPIs and reputational goals. I want to manage risk by maximizing the efficient use of resources, including human capital, in a responsible way that still allows a corporation to grow. I’m interested in staying in the food processing or consumer packaged goods (CPG) space and/or exploring entrepreneurial opportunities in clean energy.

 3. What do you think is the most important sustainability challenge?

I believe the most important sustainability challenge has to do with the complexities of changing incentives (financial, political, and behavioral) so that large corporate actors, especially extractive industries, act now to make their business models resilient to the changing climate and a crowded earth.

 4. What skills and tools have you acquired through the program so far?

The top skills that have added value to my undergraduate degree are an understanding of corporate financial considerations and basic financial modeling, as well as how to analyze such a model to make informed management decisions.

5. How have you applied what you’ve learned in the program so far?

During my first year of study, after taking the Sustainability Metrics course, I was able to implement a small money saving and waste reducing part change at the R&D Pilot Facility where I worked for Dannon Yogurt. During my final year of study I was able to utilize the improved writing skills acquired in the program as an Agriculture Research Intern at the Earth Institute, where I contributed research and writing for a grant proposal.

 6. Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular sustainability related have you engaged in with your fellow Sustainability Management students?

One of my SIPA colleagues and I won a business plan pitch contest for entrepreneurial sustainability business concepts. Our proposal was for a sustainably grown and harvested cocoa operation based in Trinidad. I contributed the sustainable agriculture model for shade-grown cocoa that would use integrated pest and soil management in order to preserve the productive capacity of the land. Additionally, I joined a group of Sustainability Management students to submit a prospectus for the Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenge. Our proposal used a project finance model to propose a land restoration and sustainable palm oil production program for smallholder farmers.

 7. What is your favorite class in the MSSM program so far and why?

I am happy to report that I have a few favorite classes, but that Scott Fisher’s course, Financing the Green Economy was particularly beneficial for me. Professor Fisher is a knowledgeable energy industry practitioner and his course taught me a large amount of new knowledge about the industry sector with a minimally stressful course structure. This class introduced me to the concept of project finance, which I have utilized in subsequent classes. The skills gained in this class also helped me obtain interviews with a renewable energy company who is a potential employer for me after graduation.

8. How do you intend to utilize your degree from the MSSM program to further your career?

At my most recent full-time position before returning to graduate school, most of the managers ranked above me had Masters Degrees. I decided it was a good investment to work toward an MS at Columbia because I enjoy learning and I felt the degree would open doors for me throughout my career. I’m hoping to work first in the private sector, showing my next employer how Food Science/Manufacturing can be synergistic with sustainability thinking. Later, I hope to transition my career back to sustainable international development and hopefully take on a part-time role as a professor at the college level.

9. How has collaborating with your fellow students in projects in the classroom benefitted you professionally and personally?

Having entered the program with previous professional experience, I was accustomed to working on team projects. This program allowed me to work with finance experts, architects, and lawyers, not just fellow scientists. As a result, we have been able to leverage our skill sets and teach one another new perspectives. The group work in this graduate program has also improved my abilities in project management and collaborative editing skills for producing concise written reports.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.

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Gai Michel Aquino
Gai Michel Aquino
9 years ago

I was impressed by this interview post on Michele J. Aquino. It educated me a lot on what he has learned and studied at Columbia University. When I heard the mention of a degree in Sustainable Economics, I had no idea what that actually entailed.