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  • Writer's pictureKatrin Heucher

Pilar Acosta, Universidad Icesi (Colombia), Assistant Professor

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

“Impact is about incrementally transforming the lives of the people: our students, the people on our campus, and the managers that we work with during our research to make our societies more sustainable. Impact means making our lives as academics meaningful.”

Impact as part of our Mission as Academics

Pilar Acosta is an Assistant Professor at the Universidad Icesi in Cali, Colombia. Pilar feels strongly about the role of educational institutions within communities and sees impact as part of her mission as an academic. In particular, she highlights three areas of impact: teaching, campus life, and research, which are deeply interconnected for her.

Leveraging Teaching for Impact

Pilar did her Ph.D. at ESCP in France and experienced that sustainability was a big topic in European business schools. However, in returning to her hometown for a position at Universidad Icesi in Colombia, she realized that “this was not yet the case in developing countries”. Instead of accepting the situation, Pilar decided to create sustainability courses. She developed a series of sustainability-focused electives. Since the conversation in Colombia was more about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at that time, she started with CSR as a course topic. This CSR course offered students new perspectives on the things they were learning in their other courses. Next, she created a course on sustainable development. “The students enjoyed that I taught them about the Sustainable Development Goals and they felt it as an opportunity to be part of a global trend and to participate in the global discussion on how to make a transition towards sustainability,” Pilar says. She hopes that one-day sustainability will not be simply an elective or a stand-alone topic, rather integrated into all courses.

Connecting to Nature in Campus Life

For Pilar impact does not stop at the classroom door. Changing campus life is equally important to her. Pilar affectionately describes her campus in Colombia: “We are lucky to have green campuses that are built around the landscape. So, students can experience sustainability, and campuses can be like living laboratories”. Also, because of the warm climate, there are a lot of open spaces. Yet, Pilar is convinced that “we need to do more to intentionally foster students’ connection with nature”. Therefore, Pilar joined the environmental committee at her university. With other colleagues from different areas, she initiated green activities on campus, such as energy efficiency, rational use of water, or reducing single-use plastic in the cafeterias. With a colleague from engineering, she published an academic paper on how to assess the ecological footprint of a campus. The next thing on Pilar’s and colleagues’ agenda is to work with the sourcing department to make sure the university’s resources are sustainably sourced. Although campus activities are currently on hold due to the pandemic, Pilar is eager to get back to developing more activities and spaces which can connect students with nature.

Building Research Collaborations to Make Less Present Voices Heard

In Latin America, the business landscape is made up mostly of small businesses. Small businesses have fewer resources to deal with sustainability challenges and thus require support from academia and other institutions. Together with a colleague from the engineering school, Pilar has created a self-assessment tool for small businesses to evaluate the level of circularity of their business processes.

For another project, Pilar and a colleague from the business school set up an Observatory for Corporate Sustainability to raise awareness on different topics related to sustainability. In 2017, they created a seminar series for local businesses in partnership with Deloitte to share experiences on action towards sustainability. Today, they are working with multiple companies to tell their stories on sustainability through case studies, seminars, or developing tools and research to make some topics, such as water management, visible.

During her Ph.D., she collaborated with a small and medium-sized company. She worked with lower-level managers in this company to understand how their voices, beliefs, and actions about sustainability changed when they became suppliers of a multinational company. “Developing long-term research relationships offers opportunities to both make managers’ struggles and tensions when dealing with sustainability visible and potentially change managers’ views on sustainability,” says Pilar. Her trusting relationship with the company uniquely positioned her to make these voices relevant in academia and beyond, including by publishing the results of this longitudinal research in high-ranked international journals.

Weaving the Areas Together

Through her various efforts at the Universidad Icesi in Colombia, Pilar met many like-minded scholars from different disciplines. “Sustainability is such a complex topic, that you need to work with colleagues with different perspectives to even come close to the richness of sustainability”, Pilar says. For instance, together with a few of her colleagues, she created a group to launch an interdisciplinary sustainability master's degree. The students will work on projects about grand challenges; thus bringing together environmental problems, with legislation problems, conservation approaches, and business models, etc. Pilar’s goal is to teach students how to create a transformational impact in a community through a problem-based approach. By focusing on real-world issues, this approach is expected to increase the number of students and later managers, who question the status quo and push the sustainability agenda forward. Also, working closely with her colleagues from different disciplines also creates opportunities for new interdisciplinary research collaborations to advance sustainability. Teaching, research, and campus life are thus deeply interconnected in Pilar’s view and approach to impact.

Advice for Early Career Scholars

Pilar offers several takeaways for Ph.D. students and junior scholars:

Begin at home

Pilar decided to start with the challenges in her own country, and even closer, on campus. She emphasizes that it is all right to start with one step at a time, as change will happen incrementally. However, from Pilar’s story, it becomes clear how collaboration in one project, such as the university’s environmental committee, can turn into a long-term community activity of fostering positive change.

Don’t be afraid to push boundaries

The university, the community, or the government might not yet have integrated sustainability into their mission and mindset. But everything starts somewhere. Still, Pilar emphasizes: “do not be afraid to raise topics that you believe are important. It may be that the university’s strategy is not overhauled entirely based on your first attempt, but it is important to keep going”. Inspired by Pilar’s first sustainability courses, more like-minded colleagues and students found her and showed her that change is possible as she wasn’t afraid to push boundaries.

Make your voice heard

Voices from developing countries are still not mainstream. Pilar urges: “Do not let that stop you from making your voice heard. Find people in your region and across the world and build or join a community that will help you elevate your voice.” Pilar has joined the Network for Business Sustainability and Organization Scientists for Future – OS4F as well as the environmental committee at her university, and, together with her colleagues, she co-created a group to work on sustainability.

Lead by example

“Lead by example in all three areas of impact (teaching, campus activities, and research) and, even more, your life. We sometimes are not aware that what we have done so far can be an inspiration to those who follow.” Pilar says. At first, Pilar was not sure whether she should reach out to have her story told here. Still, she is hoping to lead by example and that more will share their stories, too.

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