How Leeds alumni are making the case for sustainability.

Hexagonal tiles alternate between CU colors and images, including students delivering presentations, Kathryn Wendell speaking on a panel, a hand writing on a stack of papers and students in a classroom.

Working in financial risk management gave Ralph Drabic a larger perspective than, say, what he might consider in doing due diligence on a proposed loan or deal.

“Ultimately, if there’s no planet, there are no financial services,” said Drabic (Fin, Mgmt’07), a vice president and senior manager of the environmental and social impact audit team at Wells Fargo. “If we don’t get this right for our planet, for our environment, none of what we have matters.”

Many professionals feel a sense of urgency and responsibility in adopting better business practices that benefit the environment. But because Leeds weighs environment, equality and sustainability as heavily as finance, marketing and accounting in creating academic programs, alumni often find themselves in corner offices—or just outside of them—where they have opportunities to advocate for practices and policies that create meaningful change.

For Megan Lorenzen (MBA’21), the idea that her work can make a difference brought her to Salesforce, where she’s senior manager of sustainability. Her work involves collaboration with partners in various business units to understand needs and create impact.

“We believe we have a responsibility to help bring the entire community with us,” said Lorenzen, who was named to GreenBiz Badass Women, a power list of key players in environmental justice, in the spring. “If we reach our company targets and get to the finish line alone, we will have failed to actually impact climate change.”

‘Accountants are going to save the world’

The good news, she said, is leaders are listening when it comes to not just setting targets but also the strategies that help companies meet emissions pledges and climate goals.

Megan Lorenzen walks on a stone walkway.

Megan Lorenzen (MBA’21), Senior Manager of Sustainability at Salesforce

“I always say that accountants are going to save the world,” Lorenzen said. “You are increasingly seeing accountants who are now ESG professionals. And our business partners—legal, government affairs, finance—are critical to our success.”

Lorenzen and Drabic pointed out that a lot of leaders’ actions are being driven by changing regulations, whether from the Fed or SEC. That outside pressure has helped Drabic find a ready audience when he presents ideas to his team and stakeholders.

“It makes it easier for an audit team to have credibility when it comes to what regulatory activities are taking place and what needs to happen,” he said. “When you’re a bank, the last thing you want to do is run afoul of regulators, so their work is pivotal for teams like ours.”

And while Lorenzen said that growing credibility has made now “an incredible time to work in this industry,” that wasn’t always the case. Just ask Kathryn Wendell, executive director of Leeds’ Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility (CESR).

“When I graduated from college back in 2000, I was very interested in corporate social responsibility and sustainability, but there was no clear career path to get there,” said Wendell, whose work experience includes corporate responsibility roles at Chevron and World Bank.

“Today, this whole field is evolving so fast that even people like me are struggling to try to stay on top of what’s happening. But it’s exciting be­cause, as we rethink risk, we’re seeing sustainability take on a stronger focus for private-sector leadership.”

An ESG portfolio

CESR plays a key role in helping prepare students to lead those conversations. In addition to student competitions, the center supports students enrolled in the social responsibility and ethics certificate and CESR Fellows organization for undergrads, as well a new MBA pathway in ESG and sustainability.

Wendell said the center’s programming is an outreach of the clear strength in sustainability and ESG coming out of our faculty research.

“This deep caring about the environment and society is what brings a lot of people here to Boulder—both faculty and students. It’s a shared passion and expertise that cuts across our school and makes us unique.”

David Drake listens to a student during the MBA Last Lecture

David Drake, Associate Professor and Chair of the Social Responsibility & Sustainability Division 

In fact, that helped bring David Drake, associate professor of strategy, entrepreneurship and operations, to Leeds. Before moving into higher education, he was a director at Random House, where one of his projects was recommending whether to print books with recycled paper.

It turned into a much more involved project as Drake worked to understand the hurdles with partners—like paper mills and customers—and internal stakeholders. Ultimately, he advised the CEO to use recycled paper, though the economic case was unclear.

“It was a harder sell, at the time, because customers purchase based on the content of the book, not the paper it is printed on—if they want the new John Grisham, they generally want the new John Grisham whether or not it is printed on recycled paper,” Drake said.

Random House went forward with the initiative, he said, because the cost was reasonable, the impact was significant, “and we were a privately held company whose owners cared about doing better. We felt the economic upside—if there was one—was through an improved potential of landing book deals with authors who shared that ethos.”

Drake has brought lessons from that project to his research. He studies innovative business models that improve quality of life through resource preservation and greater access to products and services. His current focus is mobile money, which gives people in rural and underdeveloped areas access to banking services.

“It’s another example, like cases in health care and education, where people innovated in unique ways to bring products and services to people who haven’t had access to them,” Drake said. “If you design that business model well, it can be profitable as well as beneficial for society.”

Even alumni who aren’t yet in leadership roles are finding ways to influence the C-suite. In his role as a deal advisory senior associate with KPMG, Alex Freimuth, CPA (Acct, Fin’18; MAcct’19) has carved out a niche in the energy space; “at first, I was seeing more traditional oil and gas deals, but a couple years later, the majority of my work tends to have a renewable focus,” he said.

Economics, environment ‘can go hand in hand’

Freimuth’s deal book tends to follow larger energy market trends. So oil and gas deals may be more prevalent as prices rise, while renewable energy deals are driven by a favorable regulatory environment and the associated tax incentives for those investments. He’s also seen traditional oil and gas companies spend more time analyzing and executing clean-energy investments.

Gold bar section divider

“Profitability and sustainability do not have to be mutually exclusive. They can go hand in hand.”

Alex Freimuth, CPA (Acct, Fin’18; MAcct’19), Deal Advisory Senior Associate, KPMG

“The main thing for leaders right now is balancing how to make decisions that promote sustainability while still remaining financially responsible to shareholders,” Freimuth said. “This allows executives to address stakeholders and communicate that these decisions are founded in the interest of our business and but that also accomplish something in the interest of the broader community.

“Profitability and sustainability do not have to be mutually exclusive. They can go hand in hand.”

That’s the same hopeful tone Drabic struck when thinking about how his team’s work could help leaders and decision-makers set the course for the future.

“That’s what I like about this audit team—we’re the last line of defense,” Drabic said. “This is the influence we can have on a major bank that ultimately plays a role in driving this transition.”