Todd Moss: Sustainability Is a Way of Life
Todd Moss doesn’t just teach about sustainability and entrepreneurship at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management.
He and his wife, Jenifer, lead a sustainable life for their eight children on their 11-acre farm in Tully, in the hills of Onondaga County 19 miles south of campus. They purchased the farm in 2013, when he came to Whitman. “We wanted our children to experience living close to nature, which our land provides with a creek, pond and forest,” said Moss, whose five daughters and three sons range in age from 20 to 5. “We teach sustainability and entrepreneurship to our children by raising grass-fed beef on our pasture, which also teaches them the value of hard work and perseverance.”
Farm animals have included one horse, 10 turkeys, 12 cows, 15 chickens, two dogs, one cat and one rabbit. Their son Andrew, now 18, started the family on livestock, as he wanted to raise grass-fed beef to earn money for college. “Now that he has graduated from high school, his younger sisters have picked up where he left off,” Moss said.
An assistant professor of entrepreneurship and faculty director of the Sustainable Enterprise Partnership, Moss teaches undergraduate and graduate courses supporting the Certificate of Advanced Study in Sustainable Enterprise (CASSE). His research focuses on the intersections of entrepreneurship, social responsibility and innovation.
The road to teaching about sustainability and entrepreneurship was not straight. His first three academic degrees were from Brigham Young University. After completing a B.S. in mechanical engineering, he was accepted into a dual MBA/M.S. mechanical engineering program.
“The MBA opened up a whole new realm of understanding for me. As an M.S. student, I learned how to develop new products, while the MBA taught me about building an organization around those products to continue innovation,” said Moss.
The child of a career engineer at Ford Motor Company, Moss went to work for Ford, first as a chassis engineer and then in product strategy and planning. After six years, he returned to graduate school, enrolling at Texas Tech University to explore the intersections of technology and social responsibility and earn a Ph.D. in business administration.
In his dissertation, he studied the interplay of the exploration for new knowledge and the exploitation of existing knowledge, as well as their effects on firm performance within high-tech firms.
“I found that while high-tech firms benefit from consistently pursuing their chosen strategy over time, rather than vacillating between exploration and exploitation, this effect was very pronounced for family-owned tech firms,” Moss said. “Much of my research to that point had been focused on the social component of value creation — social responsibility through entrepreneurship — so I wanted the dissertation to focus more on technology development and economic value creation.” For two years, he was an assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Oregon State University. Then, Whitman posted an opening that aligned with his interests: “In academic circles, Whitman is known as one of the top programs for entrepreneurship research and one of the few business schools with a department dedicated to entrepreneurship.”
The Sustainable Enterprise Partnership (SEP) links Whitman, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems to offer education and research on sustainable enterprise and provide transdisciplinary understanding of sustainability.
The CASSE capstone course offers experiential learning opportunities that always come up in job interviews for the graduates. “It sets them apart from other candidates,” Moss said.
Students work in cross-functional teams to apply the analysis tools they have learned in their core disciplines to real-life organizational challenges. Acting as external consultants, they gather information, generate recommendations and present their findings to the leadership teams of sponsoring organizations.
“Students see how their skills and teamwork can lead to economic, social and environmental solutions relevant to those organizations,” Moss said.
Since the first graduating class in 2010, more than 85 students have graduated with a CASSE diploma. Their impact extends from SEP projects on campus to the United Nations. CASSE graduates work at regional companies like OBG and United Renewable Energy, as well as international firms like Intel and Facebook. Two recent MBA graduates—Giorgio Parlato ’18, from Italy, and Thuy Nguyen ’18, from Vietnam—started Miruku, which makes and sells peanut milk from a food incubator in New Jersey.
This semester, Moss said, two student SEP teams are working with Toks Restaurant Group, the second-largest restaurant chain in Mexico. One team’s project is aimed at reducing the number of single-use plastic items used by the restaurant and its customers. The second project explores how coffee cooperatives can partner with Toks to sell organic, certified premium coffee directly to consumers. In spring 2018, students enrolled in the CASSE capstone course participated in a project sponsored by the United Nations Global Compact, the voluntary initiative based on CEO commitments to implement universal sustainability principles. Students split into three groups that researched implications of supply chain automation and digitization in consumer products, information technology and energy, and manufacturing for nearly two-dozen companies that are part of the Global Compact.
The teams created several case studies that showcase what companies are doing to address future trends in the global labor force in ways that preserve the livelihoods of their employees.
“They found that, while some jobs are likely to be displaced, forward-thinking companies see this trend as an opportunity to upskill their labor force to add value in new ways,” Moss said.
Sustainability projects also are ongoing on the Syracuse University campus. For three years, SU has sponsored student-led and faculty mentored sustainability projects on campus and in the broader Syracuse community through its Campus as Lab for Sustainability grants. An ESF professor and student designed and built a tiny home prototype on campus. Professors from the School of Architecture and College of Engineering and Computer Science used drone technology to study the heat loss from buildings on South Campus.
In the wider community, two engineering students evaluated the water and energy performance of the green roof at the Syracuse Center of Excellence building. And an engineering professor is designing a safe, more efficient low-cost battery for electric vehicles. The Moss family moved across the country from Corvallis, Oregon, to Onondaga County in 2013. The home they purchased in Tully had a 97 percent efficient furnace and air conditioning system to keep the family’s energy costs lower by using less energy to operate. “Our family situation is not very conducive to living downtown, so Jenifer and I carpool to work most days,” Moss said. Jenifer, who graduated from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs with an M.P.A. in 2018, works for Onondaga County’s Department of Social Services as a HUD housing grant administrator. With so much experience raising a family of eight — Jakob, 20; Andrew, 18; Anna, 16; Ellie, 15; Leah, 12; Lily, 10; Eve, 7; and Ben, 5—Jenifer spent 10 years as a mommy blogger. (Find “Moss Moments’’ at toddnjenifermoss.blogspot.com.) The blog was so popular that the agency that found Chip and Joanna Gaines for HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” approached the Mosses to be on a reality TV show.
“After talking it over, we decided that that kind of thing was not for us. We like the anonymity,” Moss said. But it’s still hard being the husband of a celebrated blogger: “Random people have stopped me in Costco to ask if I was Jenifer Moss’s husband. They recognized me from her blog. It’s a bit surreal.”
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