Global Sustainable Leadership

Multidisciplinary course readies students for the business sector

Character 5 min. Sara Terburg

It is a unique course, Global Sustainable Leadership, for second-year students of International Business Administration. All disciplines within this program are included and experts in the fields of sustainability, leadership, and startups share their knowledge during guest lectures. “Students see the various subjects within the Tilburg School of Economics and Management as separate pillars of business whereas disciplines tend to blend in the business sector,” says Dr. Jorna Leenheer, who created the course.

Leenheer, Academic Director of the Bachelor of International Business Administration (IBA), developed the course together with Professor of Practice Ronald de Jong. It was first taught in the spring of 2022. Leadership, character building, and sustainability are subjects that are combined in the new course. “In previous jobs at research agencies and as a lecturer, I paid a lot of attention to sustainability. I wanted a stronger focus on this issue in our curriculum here in Tilburg and, rather than focusing on knowledge transfer and analytic skills, I wanted to give students a creative approach to this subject.” 

Dr. Jorna Leenheer

More sustainability in our curriculum in Tilburg

Dr. Jorna Leenheer 

Professors teach lectures 

Together with De Jong, she succeeded in making five professors of the Departments of Finance, Accounting, Marketing, Econometrics, and Management enthusiastic. “I was pleased to see second-year students being taught by full professors.” Emile Aarts, Bart Bronnenberg, Bart Dierynck, Jan Fransoo, and Luc Rennenboog taught two lectures each. “But without the commitment of lecturers Lois van der Molen and Odette Bruls, it would never have happened. They did so much: supervised students, made exam questions, assessed assignments.” 

Embedding sustainability 

In the first half of the semester, students learned how sustainability can be embedded in all aspects of business operations. “Take accountancy, for instance. Beside the profits and losses, sustainability is increasingly often part of the accounting procedure. So there is a greater focus on the planet, in addition to the profit, and fortunately also on people. The sustainable employability of staff is extremely important, especially given the aging population.”

The second half of the course consisted of drafting a business plan for sustainable products or services. In their business plans, the teams had to refer to at least one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. According to Leenheer, the character building in the Global Sustainable Leadership course mainly involves raising awareness. “Realizing that entrepreneurship is not only about profit, but also about preserving Planet Earth. Leadership was also an important topic. Students had to work in teams, attend each other’s presentations and give each other feedback.” The component of ‘global’ is expressed in both the business plans and in the participants. Leenheer: “One third of our students is international and that number is growing.” We spoke with three of these students about their business plans.

Responsible consumption and production 

Teun and his team members created a nutritious drink based on the goal of responsible consumption and production. 

Teun Geurts

We quickly agreed that we wanted to do something about food waste

Teun Geurts (26)

“During my last program, I learned that essential amino acids are often lacking in vegetarians’ diets. We tried to do something about it with our product: a nutritious drink made of fruit waste, with added amino acids from natural sources like seaweed. This appeals to a target group that is already very much involved in sustainability: vegetarians and vegans.” 

Water for a virtual garden 

Lieke’s team came up with something totally different: an app that stimulates people to reduce own their consumption of water.  

Lieke Zoon

We opted for a playful and encouraging way to get people to save water

Lieke Zoon (19)

The app is about tending a garden. “Every time users of the app use water, for instance, when they take a shower, they turn on the app. It registers how much water is used based on data like water pressure and the type of shower head. The less water is used, the more water that person’s virtual garden receives. Monitoring the amount of water used when showering is our first functionality. At a later stage, other activities can be added. Collaboration with water company Brabant Water would be a nice start.”      

Empowering Italy 

Nicolo Latino

Awareness is the key to success in the transition to a sustainable future

Nicolò Latino (20)

Nicolò tells about the business plan for a sustainability-oriented company which he wrote with three other Italian students. “Italy has 13,000 municipal and other institutions. Most of those do not have the innovative capability to boost sustainability. On our platform, companies can post their projects and we match them to Master’s and PhD students who meet their requirements. For students, it is a great opportunity to develop themselves. The main goal of our project is to empower Italy. One of the biggest problems in our country is the lack of adequate infrastructure. Therefore, our main focus is on such projects.”  

Some of the plans ready for implementation 

To conclude the course, the teams presented their business plans to a team of professionals from the business sector and to their own instructors. Leenheer: “We assessed the plans based on originality and how the business operations aspect had been elaborated. Wonderful business plans passed in review, some of which were quite ready for implementation.”   

Lieke’s team was assessed by, among others, Wim van Gils, who used to work as a senior vice-president at Philips. “We opted to do the presentation ‘shark tank’ style, with the panel representing potential investors. The sharks asked why we did not want to work together with all water companies in the Netherlands. It seemed a good idea to us to start with one water company, to optimize the app, and to work from there.” Teun: “My team also used the shark tank format. In addition to Professor of Practice Ronald de Jong, a well-known venture capitalist was on the panel. The sharks asked critical questions, focusing strongly on feasibility.” 

Listening to each other 

Lieke formed a team with three fellow students. Brainstorming was one of the toughest parts, she says. “Once we had the ideas, elaboration was smooth.” She thought it was helpful to be taught by professors from different departments on the role their discipline plays with respect to sustainability. “Even data science was discussed.” Working together in a team also was quite the learning curve. “We are rather similar: self-disciplined and orderly and we stand up for our opinions. The advantage was that we had no trouble meeting all the deadlines, but working together also meant: listening to each other, and we have certainly made progress in that department.”  

Nicolò also learned a lot from the guest lectures. “The lecturers gave us insight in how complex it is to develop a viable business plan and I felt empowered by them to do so. Drafting such a plan is complicated because you need to take responsibility for all the parties you work with.”  

What makes it great is that you can have a real impact on people and on the planet

“One of the most important lessons we learned is that our actions as a company affect people we cannot see. And we learned that awareness is the key to success in the transition to a sustainable future.” 

Future plans 

What will the future look like? Nicolò will be going back to Italy. “Next semester I will go on exchange to Taiwan. The international student experience is truly a unique opportunity. So I want to enjoy this period to the fullest and then focus on my career. When I return to Italy, it will be to give back what I have learned, both on a personal and a professional level.” 

Lieke wants to take a Master’s after her Bachelor’s. “In Supply Chain Management or Marketing and Strategy, for instance, but I’m also interested in Psychology. Maybe I’ll go traveling for a year or do a board year to learn more about myself.” 

And what about Teun? "My fellow team member Nico and I are very entrepreneurial, so there is a real possibility that we are going to start up a business together. Maybe even with the nutridrink. Wouldn’t it be great if the sharks could help us organize the funding!”