The old-fashioned assumption of the environmental movement was that business and industry were the problem. World Wildlife Fund President and CEO Carter Roberts (MBA 1988) is bullish that they can be part of the solution.
A new breed of CEO and business school graduate, Roberts says, views the world not as an objective to conquer, but rather as a resource we all share.
"The best and the brightest don't just want to make money; they want to make money and save the planet—they want their cake and they want to eat it too," says Roberts, who took over the world's largest network of international conservation organizations in 2004. "It goes way beyond the stock price of the companies they lead. It means solving the biggest problems that the world faces. And the new generation is impatient; they don't want to wait to make an impact."
Roberts worked for Proctor & Gamble and Gillette prior to attending HBS, and is known for bringing a business-centric focus to the conservation movement. He credits a taste for entrepreneurship developed in b-school and a bit of luck for his change in career paths.
In the late 1980s, he was collaborating on a business plan for a venture involving green baby products when his partner interviewed for a job running The Nature Conservancy's Boston office. The partner returned from the interview saying he thought Roberts would be much better suited for the job. Roberts held numerous posts at The Nature Conservancy for the next 15 years, including director of scientific and international programs, prior to taking over the World Wildlife Fund.
At WWF, Roberts's strategy has been to forge partnerships with major business players and governments in key regions and resource areas. The organization has also identified the 15 commodities and 100 companies that have the greatest effect on the planet and put a new focus on sustainability. So far, WWF has signed 56 memoranda of understanding designed to deliver large-scale improvements in resource management and conservation.
"I am relentlessly optimistic, mostly because I see companies like Coca-Cola and Walmart, and governments like South Africa and Bhutan and even China, investing in sustainability," he says.
The 51-year-old Atlanta native is married to Jackie Prince Roberts, director of sustainable technologies, climate and air for the Environmental Defense Fund. They share a home in Maryland and a reputation as power players inside the Beltway. Though collectively they've been dubbed "the Green Giants," Roberts says people would probably be surprised by the topics of their dinner-table conversations. "They're really more about trying to get our three kids to eat their dinner and do their homework," he says.
Roberts says he hopes to do more to get the US government out of gridlock and into the fight to save the world from climate change and resource depletion. "We're running out of time," he says. "No matter where I go in the world, people in other countries are looking to the US and looking to our Senate to make those commitments."
Roberts appreciates how HBS is integrating environmental and sustainability concerns into case studies and says he would love to see Harvard continue to build a strong multidisciplinary approach to the environment across the University. He also credits the HBS alumni network with helping him forge closer connections with key business leaders who can make an impact on the environment and help him fulfill his fondest wish.
"On the day I die, if the Amazon is still intact, if businesses like P&G and Walmart and Coke are selling sustainable products, if our government incorporates nature into its foreign policy objectives, and if our grandkids are talking about creating businesses that are all about the planet and they're still finding salamanders in their backyard, I'll be happy," he says.