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Fordham Business Students Ride in an Electric Car to Study Sustainability

By Patrick Wall | October 3, 2013 10:57am
 Students in Michael Pirson's sustainable-business class got to test ride a Tesla Model S.
Tesla Model S at Fordham University
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FORDHAM — A class of Fordham University students streamed out of the business-school building recently and gathered around a sleek black sedan, which looked like it could have been driven there from the future.

The door handles fold into the car’s body to reduce drag, the key starts the car automatically, the driver controls everything with a 17-inch touch-screen and instead of an engine up front, there is an extra trunk, or “frunk,” the driver explained.

Then he took some students for a test drive. Though versions of the car can blast from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds and reach 130 miles per hour, it moved without a sound.

And the car, a Tesla Model S, does all that without gasoline — depending on the battery pack, the electric car can drive 300 miles on a single charge, without producing pollution.

“It’s sexy, this stuff,” exclaimed Michael Pirson, the professor who invited the Tesla representative to his sustainable-business class on Tuesday.

The popular course — Pirson said it is always full — asks students to evaluate companies according to the “three P’s”: people, planet and profits.

Sustainable businesses, students learn, heed all three.

Pirson, a native German who has lived in several countries, is a founding partner of the Humanistic Management Network, a coalition of academics, policymakers and businesspeople who hope to create a “life-conducive” economic system whose ultimate aim is to create well-being, not just wealth, Pirson said.

“Basically,” he said, “it’s doing business to improve the world.”

Students in Pirson’s class read the textbook “Capitalism at a Crossroads,” which offers sustainable business practices, and hear from weekly guest experts.

The roster this semester will include representatives from GreenSoul Shoes, Whole Foods Market, Eileen Fisher and the Concourse Group, a Bronx-based microfinance nonprofit founded by a recent Fordham graduate.

In the latter part of the semester, student teams will develop their own sustainable-business plans.

But why bother?, some might ask. What’s wrong with a company whose only concern is to reap maximum profits at minimum cost?

“Because that mindset is not going to work anymore,” said Jennifer Whitford, a senior accounting major who said she might try to design more energy-efficient dorm laundry rooms for her class project. “Eventually, business-as-usual is going to be sustainable business.”

Pirson agreed, arguing that, increasingly, employees want to work for socially conscious companies and consumers want to buy from them.

And when it comes to products, any talk of a trade-off between quality and sustainability is a “fallacy,” Pirson added — just look at the zero-emissions Model S, which Motor Trend named its 2013 Car of the Year and Consumer Reports gave its highest-ever car rating.

“It’s not a tree-hugger product,” Pirson said.

For James Holt, a junior business major, sustainability boils down to ethics.

“Is it right? Is it fair?” he said. “That’s the challenge of a sustainable business: Can you operate ethically and still make a profit?”

While several students said Fordham incorporates ethics into many lessons, not every business course wrestles with balancing the three P’s, said Anna Gonzalez, a senior majoring in finance and marketing.

“When I’m in my finance classes, all you talk about is making money, making money,” she said.

But it is the sustainable-business lessons she has learned, Gonzalez added, that she hopes to bring back to her native Philippines, perhaps to help develop more efficient agricultural or waste-management practices.

After most of the class had taken a spin in the Model S, the students returned to their basement classroom Tuesday, where they appeared just as animated hunched over their notebooks as they had huddled around the electric sedan.

As his team rated the sustainability of Chipotle, Vinny Paglia, a junior finance major, pointed to his well-worn copy of “Capitalism at a Crossroads.”

“This is the only book I’m reading for all my classes,” he beamed.