​When Steven Lu started his career in industrial engineering, he couldn’t imagine that one day he would be an entrepreneur focusing on sustainable farming methods. But coming to DePaul University for his MBA changed that.

“In the world of industrial engineering, you’re trying to figure out how to eliminate as much input as possible and maximize the output. You’re essentially making the most out of very little, and I think sustainability is about understanding that,” says Lu, a current MBA student set to graduate in winter 2014.

 
Defining What Sustainability Means
 
As sustainability becomes more popular, universities are adapting their curriculum to address the topic. For example, DePaul currently offers three graduate degrees in sustainability and is exploring another.
 
But even as sustainable business becomes more mainstream, those in the industry still encounter questions about it what it truly means.
 
Kathy Dhanda, associate professor of management, recently explained sustainability in a blog post for DePaul’s Department of Management. “Sustainability is the buzz word of the moment! Yet, it is also difficult to define since it is an evolving concept. In a very general sense, the term sustainability means to endure,” she wrote. Dhanda’s background in sustainable business led her to co-author the recent textbook “Sustainability: Essentials for Business (SAGE Publications) with fellow DePaul faculty member Scott Young, chair of the Department of Management.
 
The definition of sustainability can vary depending on the audience, but to Lu, its “very basic definition is about understanding what you do and how it impacts the systems around you. Understanding the system allows you to make decisions based on a new framework and a new mindset. It’s not just about changing lightbulbs, not about green marketing—it’s about understanding the world that you live in.”
 
Exploring Sustainability at DePaul
 
Lu says his passion for sustainability grew out of interactions across DePaul. “The environment at DePaul and the professors have been really fertile in helping me shape this vision of what sustainability means for me,” says Lu.
 
In addition to being a student, he recently was hired by the Office of Mission and Values to be DePaul’s sustainability coordinator. His main project involves developing an executive education program focused on sustainability. “We really want to teach this concept of sustainability to business leaders from a much bigger perspective. There’s so much more than just energy savings and recycling,” Lu says.
 
DePaul currently offers multiple ways for students to study sustainability. There are three graduate-level degrees: an MBA in sustainable management, an MS in sustainable management and an MA in sustainable urban development. Students can gain hands-on experience by working in the campus greenhouse or hydroponics lab, which Lu established through the Environmental Science and Studies Department. A student-run group, the DePaul Urban Farming Organization, lets students grow and harvest their own produce, which they sold for the first time at DePaul through farmstands this fall.

 
Expanding Into Urban Agriculture
 
A graduate business class at DePaul, GSB 595 Developing Sustainable Strategies, led Lu to his focus on hydroponic farming. In conventional field farming, plants are rooted in and absorb nutrients from soil. Hydroponics replaces soil with a water-based solution that goes directly to the plant roots, which reduces water consumption by 95 percent and eliminates fertilizer runoff. Hydroponic farming can be done indoors, allowing vegetation to grow in the Midwest that might otherwise have to be transported from warmer climates, such as California or Florida. “Hydroponic farming shortens the supply chain and physically takes fewer resources to grow. In that sense it’s very sustainable,” Lu says.
 
Lu’s newest venture is Garfield Produce Company, which he founded with business partners Mark and Judy Thomas, a retired Chicago couple. The company, which focuses on bringing jobs and fresh produce to underdeveloped neighborhoods, wants to establish itself in its current warehouse space in Chicago’s impoverished west side.
 
“Our primary focus is on wealth creation in areas where wealth is needed the most. So for us that means building a sound business with a healthy financial outlook,” Lu says. “If you want urban agriculture to be something legitimate in the future and we want people to be open to it, it has to be financially viable.”