Northern Lights: Scandinavian MBAs Come of Age

Business schools in the Nordics are at the forefront of teaching about responsible business and sustainability, which is drawing students from around the world

Business schools around the world are burnishing their green credentials — teaching future leaders about responsible business and sustainability, to reflect growing societal pressure for all institutions, public and private, to address the climate crisis. 

There is one region of the world, though, that has long embraced green business: the Nordics. Business schools in Scandinavia have languished behind their peer schools in Europe, with few ranked by top publications, but they are now coming of age because of students’ growing interest in sustainability. 

Institutions in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and further south in the Netherlands have for years placed sustainability in their core curricula, while many schools in other parts of the world, such as the US and western Europe, are only just beginning to make such content mandatory. 

“We try to embed sustainability and responsible business in everything we do, instead of having a short course,” says Karin Wiström, MBA director at Sweden’s Stockholm School of Economics (SSE). 

“We do indeed see a growing interest from international applicants,” she says. “Certainly, our focus on sustainability and responsible business is mentioned as a reason to choose SSE.” 

Scandinavia: a leader in sustainability

This reflects the fact that Scandinavian countries are leaders when it comes to sustainability. A wealth of businesses, investors and politicians are in the vanguard in addressing climate change or championing solutions on the world stage. Take, for example, the former Norwegian leader Gro Harlem Brundtland who runs a United Nations commission that coined the phrase “sustainable development”. Or Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate activist and Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ in 2019.  

Companies all across the globe also want their recruits to reflect their values, and many students are taking up the sustainability baton, recognizing the moral imperative and business benefits of sustainability. 

Sam Solaimani is director of the full-time MBA at Nyenrode Business School in the Netherlands. Although the Netherlands is not a Nordic country, Solaimani says the course has always strived to shape responsible leaders through, for example, dedicated courses on the circular economy — where resources are reused rather than thrown away.  

“We have been consistently committed to our virtuous cause,” he says, noting that it seems to have paid off. “We have been able to welcome more and more brilliant minds to our full-time MBA program who share the same interests and values.” 

Solaimani notes that students are drawn by the prospect of learning not just from Nyenrode’s faculty, but from case studies on the many companies in the Netherlands that lead the way on sustainable business, such as Philips, Unilever and AkzoNobel.  

“Responsible business and sustainability spans far beyond all the theories and practices taught in the lecture room,” he says, adding that students meet CEOs who serve as role models and mentors. 

In addition to having a tradition for sustainability, the Netherlands is well known for its open and hospitable culture and a diverse and multicultural working environment, where English is the language of business, adds Solaimani. 

Many MBA seekers attracted by the Scandinavian lifestyle

Scandinavian business, meanwhile, is well known for design, innovation, creativity, gender equality and productivity, says Sissel Thune Hammerstrøm, director of international executive programs at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo. 

She says students can gain a unique perspective in Norway, where labor costs are high, so companies are quick to embrace technology to raise productivity and deal with staffing shortages. “Low hierarchy, flat structures and trust are a must ,” says Hammerstrøm. “Norway is a great place to get inspired to challenge more traditional business cultures and facilitate creativity and innovation.” 

Over in Stockholm, Wiström agrees. “Many of our international students are attracted by the Swedish lifestyle: we are very close to nature, and environmental issues are important to us. We have a good work-life balance and a more informal, less hierarchical management style.” 

Despite all these strengths and growing interest from overseas students, Scandinavia is still some way behind peers in western Europe in terms of ranking and reputation. In Norway’s case, this reflects its own status on the world stage, which has only grown since the 70s when the country discovered oil, its source of wealth, says Hammerstrøm. 

“However, we are the only country to build a pension fund to secure the welfare of future generations,” she adds. “We are quite unique, and I believe we have quite a lot to offer for those who dare to think out of the box.” 

Even though, for many prospective students, MBA rankings are important, representatives from Scandinavian business schools are quick to point out that they shouldn’t be the only factor that goes into deciding on an MBA.

Wiström at SSE points out that MBA rankings put a lot of emphasis on internationalization and salary levels. “The latter does not benefit Scandinavian schools,” she says. “The salary system in Scandinavia implies that salaries are simply not at the same level as in other regions.” 

Finance is a challenge for SEE too, she adds. “We do not have the same level of financial resources as many of our larger competitors. SSE is a small, standalone business school. To reach out to and attract the best global applicants is costly.” 

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