2023 Best Undergraduate Professors: Tensie Whelan, New York University Stern School of Business


Tensie Whelan
New York University
Stern School of Business


“As the driving force behind the Center for Sustainable Business at NYU Stern, Professor Whelan has exemplified academic excellence and dedication to fostering sustainable business practices. I had the privilege of attending her sustainability impact consulting class, a holistic course that intricately blends rigorous case studies, hands-on work with real-world clients, and insightful field trips. Under her hands-on guidance, we weren’t just learning in the classroom; we were active participants on the ground, working shoulder to shoulder with local businesses, understanding and addressing sustainability challenges first-hand.” Anita Ding 

Tensie Whelan is Clinical Professor for Business and Society, Founding Director of NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business at New York University Stern School of Business. She has 25 years of experience working on local, national and international sustainability issues to engage businesses in proactive and innovative mainstreaming of sustainability.

As President of the Rainforest Alliance, she built the organization from a $4.5 million to $50 million budget, transforming the engagement of business with sustainability, recruiting 5,000 companies in more than 60 countries. Her previous work included serving as Executive Director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, Vice President of the National Audubon Society, Managing Editor of Ambio, a journal of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, and a journalist in Latin America.

Whelan has been recognized by Ethisphere as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics and was a Citi Fellow in Leadership and Ethics at NYU Stern. She has served on numerous nonprofit boards and currently serves on the advisory boards of ALO Advisors, Buzz on Earth, Edelman, Giant Ventures, Inherent Group and Nespresso. She was most recently appointed to the board of Emerald SPAC, and is an Advisor to the Future Economy Project for Harvard Business Review. She was awarded the Stern Faculty Excellence Award in 2020 and appointed Distinguished Professor of Practice in 2023.


At current institution since what year? 2015

Education:  BA Political Science, NYU; MA International Communication, American University; Owners-Presidents Management Program, Harvard Business School

List of Undergraduate courses you teach: Sustainability for Competitive Advantage


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when … I took the three-year certificate course at Harvard Business School and was wowed by the quality of the faculty and the insights they gave us.  At the same time, I guest-lectured at NYU Stern (I was an undergrad at NYU!) and got a taste for teaching myself and enjoyed the engagement with the students.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?  I have been researching the business case for sustainability, first for corporate leaders and now for private equity.  We have developed a methodology “Return on Sustainability Investment” (ROSI) which has identified nine mediating factors such as innovation, operational efficiency and sales and marketing that drive better financial performance when a company embeds sustainability core to its business strategy.  One key learning is that the CFO’s office does not generally track avoided cost, which is a big benefit of sustainable practices such as reducing waste and energy use.

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be … Prior to coming to Stern I was an NGO leader, running the Rainforest Alliance for 15 years, and other NGOs before that.  If I were not a business school professor, I might go back to that!

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?  My real-world experience as a change agent in sustainable business working with hundreds of companies around the world to improve their practices as well as my ability to translate those experiences and academic research into accessible information about how students and executives can be change agents themselves.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Excited

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor:  It’s really hard work and sustainability is fast-moving, so I have to update my course material every semester.

Professor I most admire and why:  Jonathan Haidt for teaching students about ethics, happiness, and work-life balance, amongst other topics  


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?  Business has real- world impact on the planet and people, and I enjoy giving students the tools to make a meaningful difference to corporate sustainability in their careers.  I am starting to get letters from former students about how the class changed their trajectory into areas such as impact investing, which is incredibly rewarding!

What is most challenging? This is a very volatile time in terms of current events as well as the job market, which can create extra uncertainty and stress for students. Also, sustainability is not an easy career path as it is so new.  It doesn’t have the standard trajectory that, say, a management consulting or investment banking job might have.  We try to address this, at least partially through providing mentorship, internships, and a jobs board.

In one word, describe your favorite type of student:  Inquisitive. The student who reads everything with curiosity.  Asks questions to which they really want to know the answer. Brings in ideas from other classes – finds the synergies.  Brings good analytical thinking and creativity to the assignments.  Wants to make a difference for people and the planet in their work.

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student:  Inattentive. The student who shops or watches content on their device during class.

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as … Tough but fair


What are your hobbies? Reading science fiction and mysteries, hiking, traveling, playing frisbee

How will you spend your summer?  Teaching in Estonia, vacation in France, a niece’s wedding in Stockholm, and working out of our family home in southern Vermont.  With occasional forays into NYU for executive courses, research touchpoints, and meetings.

Favorite place(s) to vacation:  Our farm in Vermont

Favorite book(s): NY 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?  I don’t watch movies very often, but I did go see Barbie, which was the first time I had been in a theater since the pandemic. I enjoyed being back in a movie theater again, and the movie was light-hearted with a bite.  It had been so pumped that I don’t think it could have lived up to that, but I enjoyed the acting and cinematography with a side of satire.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?  My daughter is a musician and I enjoy seeing her perform as well as her musician friends—keeps me current.  My own tastes are eclectic:  I like swing, old time country, rock, blues, and so on.  No heavy-metal!


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this … The business school of the future would be able to move nimbly, adding more contemporary content to the core and elective classes on a regular basis.  Sustainability is part of the core as students learn how to deal with topics such as climate change, water scarcity, and inequality – which already have outsize impacts on business.  And finally, the business school of the future recognizes that shareholder primacy and a sole focus on profits does a disservice to society and to business and its professors no longer teach it as the roadmap for healthy capitalism.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at … Embedding sustainability core to business strategy.  Too many treat it as a nice to have, not a must have.  Students today want to work for a company that will ensure they have a future and that aligns with their values.  Driving sustainability innovation through new products and services and circular solutions, so we can decouple economic development and business profits from natural resource use and waste, is essential to all our futures.

I’m grateful for … NYU Stern leadership has given me the opportunity to be a social entrepreneur, supporting me as I launched a sustainable business concentration for undergrads and MBAs, extra-curricular programs such as sustainability bootcamps and fellowships, and a cutting-edge sustainable business research program.  I am grateful to Stern alums and others who have supported my Center for Sustainable Business with their time and dollars, and to the students who nominated me for this honor!



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