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Economics AND Sustainable Business with Bruno Van Pottelsberghe

AND is the Future podcast - Season 3, Episode 8

Reimagining businesses, building bridges and inspiring sustainable leadership 

When you educate students you can transform the world! Top economist and educator Bruno Van Pottelsberghe speaks with Ilham about the importance of a sustainable business education to inspire true sustainable leadership. They discuss the Solvay Business School’s Executive Masters in Sustainability, his advice for young leaders, how we can reimagine businesses, and much more! 

01:58 - Upbringing and start of career
04:53 - Solvay Business School and legacy of its founder Ernest Solvay
08:36 - Top Business School projects
11:58 - The Executive Masters in Sustainability

17:10 - What does it mean to be a sustainable leader?
24:16 - Advice for young leaders
28:24 - Hobbies and interests

Podcast available on   Apple podcasts     Spotify     

Meet Bruno Van Pottelsberghe

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe is the Dean of the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. He is a Professor, a top Belgian economist, a Senior Fellow at the Bruegel think-tank in Brussels, AND an expert on how we can create businesses that are both sustainable and profitable.


Ilham Kadri: Hello, everyone. Today, I'm delighted to be here with the Dean of the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management here in Belgium, Bruno Van Pottelsberghe. Bruno is a professor, a top Belgian economist, a senior fellow at the Bruegel Think Tank in Brussels, and in general, an expert on how we can create businesses that are both sustainable and profitable.
I can't wait to hear what he has to say about that. Bruno, thank you so much for joining me today.

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Good morning, Ilham, and thank you very much for the invitation. I'm very glad to be here today.

Ilham Kadri: Me too. Bruno, you are one of the foremost economists in Belgium and head of one of the best business schools in Belgium, and I'm biased, it carries a name which is very close to my heart. But before we talk about the school, I always start my podcast like this. I would like to talk about you. Can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing, and what put you on the path to an economics career and how you became interested specifically in sustainable business and in education?

Upbringing and start of career 

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Thank you very much. So, about me, I lived all my youth in Africa, in Zaire. And then we came back very suddenly. I came back with my sister to Belgium when there was the war in Katanga. We were located in Calouesie and we fled instantly through the brush and, in two days I was back to Belgium, which I didn't know actually. And then I lived in the countryside and we came back to Brussels because we really liked the values of ULB. Université Libre de Bruxelles. The libre is very important because it's about freedom of thinking. It's about critical thinking. 
I was not aiming at doing a PhD. I wanted to go into the industry and I actually started enjoying doing research. And probably it became a passion when I was accepted to collaborate. I did my own Erasmus exchange, I would say. I became a visiting researcher in MITI in Tokyo, working with a professor from Tsukuba for six months.
And then I came back and I went to Columbia University, in New York to work with a professor as well. And that's where I really dived into research on innovation policies, innovation economics and patent actually. And when I came back from the US before the end of my PhD, I was recruited by the OECD in Paris, and I worked on science and technology policies. And that's the time my boss came up with a huge floppy disk. That was a very big one. There was no USB stick at that time.

Ilham Kadri: Yeah, yeah. I remember those.

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: He had two million patent files at the European Patent Office, and he asked me to crunch it and to create the first series that we would use at the OECD to measure innovation performance in countries and regions. I was appointed at ULB after two years at the OECD as the holder of the first privately funded chair at ULB. It was back in 99 and it was the Solvay Chair of Innovation. And I'm still the owner of that chair. And so I came back here and very happy I joined the Solvay Business School, which later would become an autonomous faculty.

Solvay Business School and legacy of its founder Ernest Solvay

Ilham Kadri: Well, thank you, Bruno. And I think we have a lot in common. You're an Africa lover, you know, love Japan as well. And it's interesting what you said about getting to PhD by accident and then loving the research and putting science technology together, including with policy makers.
So you've been teaching at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management at Université Libre de Bruxelles. By the way, Libre in French means freedom. That's why you were alluding to the importance of that word. And last year was a very special year for you, because it was the school's 120th anniversary, and thank you for including me in that celebration.
And of course, we have a lot in common again here because we have the same humanist founder, Ernest Solvay, who started the Solvay Brussels School in 1903. So like us at Syensqo today, which is the demerger from the Solvay Company, I'm sure you are proud of this legacy. Can you, can you tell us what it means to you?

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Yes, very proud of the legacy actually of both the school and the university, Université Libre de Bruxelles. I think that Ernest Solvay, well, I don't think, Ernest Solvay helped Brussels University, Université Libre de Bruxelles, a lot before creating the school. He funded the Physiology Institute, the Sociology Institute before the business school.

Ilham Kadri: In Park Leopold, by the way, Bruno, they are the three institutes.
Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Yes, indeed. And it was highly innovative at that time to fund the sociology institute, some laboratories in chemistry and so on. So he was a very big, important funder of the university in general. And the last, well, maybe not the last action, but the most important one came in 1903 when he created the Solvay Business School.
It started beside the university, but it was very quickly fully integrated in a broader faculty, which at that time was called Soco. And I think the values of the school, on top of the one of ULB, which I already mentioned about critical thinking, freedom of thinking, research orientation.
The values he brought to the school was the value of innovation, entrepreneurial thinking, which is of course very closely associated with freedom, and as well a kind of dynamism and a very strong multidisciplinary approach to education. It's still highly innovative and not frequent nowadays to have a business engineering degree.
Whereby you have such a multidisciplinary approach, including physics, chemistry, but as well law, sociology, economics, and of course the managerial disciplines. And as well in our Bachelor in Economics, this multidisciplinary approach transpires a lot. And the research orientation of the school, which is really I would say our flagship, we have very good programs and very good research and we extend the quality of this program in our lifelong learning services.

Top Business School projects

Ilham Kadri: And indeed I think, like you, I always admired Ernest Solvay, right? He was a humanist, a lover of science, technology, and he brought sociology and then education. So it’s interesting you know, you became the Dean of the school. So how did you become the Dean of the school? And I'm intrigued by, obviously, I know a lot about your career right now, but during your tenure, what are those key initiatives or projects or contributions that you are most proud of?

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Yes, thank you. So the first time I became a Dean of the school, it was in 2011 and actually it was also by accident. I was the Vice Dean of the faculty at that time because we created an autonomous faculty of economics and business in 2011. I was the Vice Dean for six months, and I agreed to be devising because I had a project in mind related to internationalization and creating a global network. After six months in the position, the Dean, Professor Dewatripont, was appointed by Elio Di Rupo, Prime Minister, as a Director of the National Bank of Belgium.
And so in two to three weeks, I suddenly became the Acting Dean because the Dean had to go to help the country with this important role. And I was first Acting Dean and then Elected Dean, but at that time it was really not foreseen. And I like to be project-oriented, so I had a very important project which was to create the QTEM network.
It's called QTEM, so Quantitative Techniques for Economics and Management. It's a network which nowadays includes 24 universities. It's at the master level, and each university or business school can send up to 20 students in the network and they are trained to be more analytical oriented for managerial disciplines.
They must go abroad, they must do an internship, and they must have a project with other students in the world, where they receive a challenge from the industry, and a few years ago we had a challenge from Solvay Company, and they have to crunch the data to analyze it, but jointly with colleagues from other parts of the world so then they must learn about digital leadership. So that was a QTEM network, one important project. And the latest entry into the network is actually Rabat Business School. And we will actually have the yearly meeting of the QTEM network next October in Rabat. So we are all very enthusiastic because it's the first time we have a member on the African continent, and we hope to have more than one, but we start with that.

The Executive Masters in Sustainability

Ilham Kadri: Yeah, and I love it, Bruno, because you are building bridges, right? I mean, you talked about Harvard and you know obviously Rabat is close to my heart because I grew up in Morocco, so bridging with Africa, which is also, we understood, it's part of your route. But I think connecting our students with the rest of the world and other regions and continents is so critical these days. And one of the most exciting developments I witnessed myself at the Solvay Brussels School is that you are starting Belgium's, I would say, first executive masters in sustainability transformation, which is very much in line, we talked about what Ernest Solvay would have wanted and done.
And of course, you asked me, and I'm honored to be an ambassador for this great initiative because it fits perfectly in my values, the values of my institution. And it's the perfect topic to discuss on our podcast, because as you know, it's about the power of the and, A N D. So how we can make businesses both sustainable and profitable. And this degree is so important because today you can't conduct business by just looking at numbers. Financials are definitely not enough. And it's also about the people, about the planet, about how to impact the ecosystem around us. And leaders do understand this will create companies that last are those who are going to thrive.
So very glad to see your school, The Solvay Brussels schools has an incredible opportunity here to be a driver of that change by instilling the mindset shifts, which we need, especially, with the younger generation, our successors. So please, can you tell our audience more about this degree?

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Yes, so the degree, the Executive Master in Sustainability, it's actually the cherry on the cake of all our actions that were related to sustainability and our deep dive into sustainability. It actually started with the support of the Solvay Foundation back in 2017, who helped us to deploy a sustainability strategy within the school.
And actually, it has started with the bachelor degrees. And we really implemented the sustainability initiatives all over our degrees to end up with this, what I call the cherry on the cake, the Executive Master in Sustainability for which you are part of and you support very nicely and thank you again for that.
So, what we do at the, why sustainability is important, you said it, it's a must to accelerate the transition and to make sure that we train our younger generation and older generation to be more effective towards sustainability initiatives and to create sustainable companies, sustainable institutions, be they public or private, by the way, and actually to reduce our carbon footprint and have, I would say, a happier future, and a future which is more acceptable for the future generations.
And so, the initiative which started with the help of Solvay Foundation, actually, was led by Professor Cantillon, Estelle Cantillon, and what she did instead, we do have courses specialized in sustainability, on sustainability, but what we also did is to, to have professors coordinating each other, so that we see sustainability project from different angles. The Legal Viewpoint, The Economic Viewpoint, The Technological Viewpoint, The Financial Viewpoint, of course, and so on. And so we have a fantastic project which is within the school, thanks to the leadership of Estelle, and now many more professors have been involved, that coordinates on various tracks. So we have the tracks on energy, we have a track on the secular economy, on happiness at work, and on global welfare.
And then at the end of the value chain of our activities, we have the Executive Master in Sustainability, which is very young. It opened two years ago and with your support. And that actually focuses on all the dimensions of sustainability, including, of course, the more scientific based, but as well the finance based, the economics based, the strategy dimension of sustainability.
And it's a very nice program. Actually, I wish I wouldn't be Dean. I would follow it.

What does it mean to be a sustainable leader?

Ilham Kadri: Well, you may be doing both and, and frankly, I may just join you in the classroom. You're right. I think I wish I was younger, right? Even to be just in the class, a hundred percent. And I like what you say, because we realize in our jobs today, as leaders of a publicly traded company or private company that you need a holistic view on sustainability, that you need that we call it scope three even between the end to end with your suppliers, customers, and the end users.
And I like what you said about looking at it from a different angle from a legal, economic, technological, and financial point of view. You cannot just look at it just from the environment, or CO2 emission, greenhouse gas emission, you need it all. And what is unique as an ambassador of the program, one of the most interesting models, I think, is sustainable finance, because that's something which we need badly in our corporations, right? Can you tell us a bit more about how the course helps to inspire students to promote sustainable financing mechanisms that will attract and retain investors? And also maybe broadly, Bruno, what exactly does it take to be a sustainable leader in your view today?

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Thank you. So two very interesting questions. So sustainable finance, indeed, it's true that in the past, I would say 15 years ago, when we were talking about sustainability, it was about the sustainability of the business model and whether you could survive and now, of course, it has completely switched.
The definition includes sustainability in terms of integrating the social and environmental impact. And that's very important, and it's true that you need to be profitable. But you need to integrate these environmental and social dimensions.
And we really see a switch in mindset. And I would say that companies change a bit less fast than our students. When we look at our students, they are much more convinced. And I would say I am more passionate about these challenges than some of the companies we interact with. And that's okay, that's logical. And that's an illustration of the challenges that we face in terms of training and the speed of the transformation. And so we do have to create new courses of sustainable finance. We sit in its various dimensions because you could have sustainable finance in which you focus more on the reporting and the measurement of the other dimensions than pure finance like the CO2 footprint and the social impact.
But you as well have an impact on finance and the current tendency that goes towards investing in projects which have a bigger impact on society and attempting to measure this project while staying, of course, profitable because otherwise it can't survive for long.
And it evolves a lot, I'm sure that the course that we will deliver five years from now will be completely different from the course that we deliver today.
So that's one. What was your second question? 

Ilham Kadri: What does it mean to be a sustainable leader? But I think you started alluding to that it's all comprehensive and holistic and it has to be inclusive of all dimensions. That's what I think I'm hearing.

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Yeah, definitely. I'd like two contributions to that debate or to that question. The first one, you know, I'm in charge of the sustainability lab in the Executive MBA. And the Executive MBA at Solvay is an open enrollment program. So it's not in partnership. And in their second level, they must do the sustainability lab and it must be useful to one of the student's companies, one of the learner's companies. So it's a real case that they must develop. And what's interesting is that over the past three years, all the projects had to be validated by the company because we wanted to be useful to the company. And the company said always, one, thank you, please go ahead, but at zero cost.
And so it's a bit, the context in which we navigate is that we do have an understanding and a willingness to go, but I would say the finance matters and we don't have yet a huge commitment. Hence the challenge of training future leaders and current leaders. And we had a fantastic discussion, actually, when we kicked off the 120th anniversary. You hosted us last January 2023, if you remember. We had 40 CEOs from Belgium, from small and many large companies.
All the banking sector was there. We had the Prime Minister. We had Thomas Dermin as well. We had you, of course. And all these leaders were in the same room debating on what should be the training of a future leader, if you remember. And then we pursued a survey and a more in-depth analysis of these companies and other companies through a collaboration with BCG and Russell Square.
And the outcome of this study was very interesting. That was kicked off in the Maison Ernest Solvay, by the way. You know, we asked ourselves, do we still need to have chemistry, physics in our degree, in business degree, business engineering? Do we still need multidisciplinary focus and so on?
And the feedback was overwhelming. Please keep a very strong multidisciplinary approach. It's more important than ever. Keep the sciences. And so what's interesting, they told us what to keep. And then what should we add? And there was a bit more soft skills in the ability to lead people, I mean, to bring people on board to have more empathy, to have better leadership skills that are needed. We are not anymore in a system with a boss and its employees. 
And so the feedback from that exercise was very interesting. And I would say multidisciplinary approach, understanding all the disciplines, the role of science and sociology for the sustainability transformation of our society.

Advice for young leaders

Ilham Kadri: By the way, for our audience, Maison Ernest Solvay means the house of Ernest Solvay, it still exists. I'm sitting here, podcasting Bruno, and it has a history of gathering. So the Solvay conferences started here from 1911, so we like to see the great minds gathering and reinventing models, be it business models or science or technology. So you were here and indeed Bruno talked about the current Prime Minister of Belgium who was a student and graduated from the Solvay Brussels School.
Thomas Dermine, the State Secretary for Economics, Recovery and Strategic Investments is also, you know, coming from the Solvay Brussels School. So it was interesting to see your alumni gathering and even co-innovating with you and co-brainstorming about the new ways of bringing the soft elements. You talked about empathy, etc. So switching gears maybe to the youth, right? I look at them and how they can succeed us and do better than us. So tell me now, what's your favorite thing about working with the young leaders and what advice would you give to the young leaders in the audience, other than to sign up for the course! By the way, how can they sign up for your course?

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Thank you very much. I also have teenagers who will soon reach the university level, and I would say my first recommendation is to follow your passion because when you are passionate, you don't work anymore. You are not a student anymore, you learn and you learn to be better in a field that you love.
So when possible, of course, it's to follow your passion. 
Whatever you study at university, it always has a multidisciplinary component, and so you may like or dislike some field or some, like economics or statistics or chemistry, but it's useful at the end of the day. And so you have to go through this first year of education, keeping in mind that you prepare yourself and your competences for the future.
What's interesting is that the current system is completely changing and the way the students integrate and perceive their future. In the past, when I was a student, we went to university without having any clue about what we would do in the future,
What matters is to learn. And here, of course, they still want to learn, but they have a more precise view of what they want to do in the future. That's one. The second, in the past, well, 10 or 15 years ago, when there was a job opening in a large company, or in a big bank, the students were running and queuing, they were fighting, competing to have the job.
Nowadays it has changed completely. The priority is a good balance between their private and, of course, professional life. And I think that the corporate world has to adapt to that because the time in which you would start working and be ready, in some of the consulting companies to work over the weekends and to work very late, It doesn't work anymore to attract talented students. The talented students, they know and they are aware that you need a healthy life, and that goes to your friends, to your family, and of course to your job. So that's the new generation. And I think companies have to find ways to adapt because they are talented students. And it's important to, so it's a bilateral adaptation that we see which was not there 10 years ago.

Hobbies and interests

Ilham Kadri: Absolutely. You're right, my generation and some of us were educated and we grew up working hard. And here I hear more about mental health, right? that's a balance of healthy life.
And what does it mean? It means different things for different people, but it's part of the conversation and the dialogue and your rights are coming to the workplace, which is by the way, healthy as well. So, I think there are different ways of living your day. 

Now I'm curious, what are your areas of interest or hobbies outside of work? And I get it that your hobby is probably your work as well. And are all of these interests connected in any way?

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Yes, It's true that I have a truly international and multicultural experience, both in my family, my professional experience, and my private life. So I love multiculturality and research is really one way to be exposed to multiculturality, and internationalization.
And I have a passion for cooking, and I love to cook dishes that are inspired by Africa, by Asia, and by Europe. 

Ilham Kadri: So what's your favorite meal or what do you cook best?

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Okay. The last three dishes I have prepared or that I will prepare tomorrow for my family, actually, tomorrow is a poulet tagine, olive citron.

Ilham Kadri: Ah, I love it. My God, that's very close to not only my heart, but my skills as well. So one day we should trade our recipes, Bruno. So for the audience, this is a Moroccan dish.

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Yes

Ilham Kadri: And it's lovely because it's salty and sweet, right? 

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Indeed. It's salty and sweet and it must cook a long time in order to have less confit and it's really good. Otherwise, aubergine farcie, the recipe of Ottolenghi, he has a fantastic recipe that I adapted to how I like to cook it and as well le coeur d'Artichaut au farci, that's from Lebanon, Lebanese.

Ilham Kadri: Lebanon, well, yeah. And cooking is probably a key to other cultures. By the way, we had a podcast on cooking and chemistry so Bruno is all in the podcast scope. So we love this. We did it with a molecular professor in Paris, right? So it was really exciting. 
Well, thank you so much, Bruno, for joining me today.
I really enjoyed this conversation. You brought us so many insights and I thought it was really important to bring a Dean of the school because it's all about education and helping our youth, the future leaders to be well equipped, to live their life at full potential.
And thank you for the great advice on practical steps we can all take to achieve that power of the AND and be both sustainable and profitable. Thank you very much for inspiring us, Bruno.

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Thank you, Ilham, and if I may say, one last word, the biggest challenge, and I would say private and, of the school, that we are currently, in the making. We are really entrepreneurial. We are creating our two bachelors. We duplicate them in English so that we can internationalize the vision of Ernest Solvay.
And so from next September onwards, our two bachelor degrees will be offered in English. It's a real entrepreneurial project because we launched it without yet having the funding for it. But, we are working endlessly on that. And if I had to say that one of the contributions of the current mandate that I have is this fantastic project. And actually We internationalize the vision of Ernest Solvay for education.

Ilham Kadri: Thank you for that. I think it's the best ending for our audience. They cannot see it, but behind you, there is a map of the world. So it's called the world, and when you internalize education, when you educate the students, when you educate the classroom, you simply transform the world.
Thank you, Bruno.

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe: Thank you very much.


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