A training ground for the next generation of business consultants

Jonathan Cheszes used to buy and import diamonds. But after six years trading around the world, he craved a purpose other than maximizing profits. He joined Green Drinks, a pub club of environmental buffs, and was pleased to learn you could actually earn a living in the field of renewable energy. He dropped diamonds to work for a thermal energy company and then enrolled in York’s Master of Environmental Studies Program. 

Now he’s completing a thesis on his twin passions, energy conservation and renewable energy, while holding down a full-time job with the Conservation Bureau at the Ontario Power Authority.  

Left: Jonathan Cheszes

The 30-year-old is also doing consulting on the side – for the student-run York Sustainable Enterprise Consultants (YSEC). He and eight others offer a range of services – from market research to strategic planning – to non-profit agencies and businesses interested in sustainability.  

“The driver for YSEC is education, not profit,” says Cheszes. “We’re all students who want to apply what we are learning about sustainability in real-world scenarios. That being said, we offer highly skilled work at relatively low cost. Whether paid or paid in kind, YSEC works to ensure clients buy in and commit at the same level our team of consultants do. This is real work, not a hobby.”    

Recently, the student consultants have produced a guidebook on financing community power projects, for the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association; researched and written a proposal on how to approach small businesses about reducing their carbon footprint, for the World Wildlife Fund; created a business plan on developing renewable energy, for the First Nations Energy Alliance; identified energy issues and priorities for farmers, for the Ontario Rural Council; reviewed the business plan of Goldwater Solar; and done a feasibility study of a community-based geo-thermal system, for Element Village Community Services. 

You can’t just join YSEC. 

“YSEC is not a club, it is a job,” insists president Kristopher Stevens (left). It is a bona fide consultancy that offers professional service. To become a member of the team, you have to apply and go through an interview process. “We look for a combination of vision, passion and good management skills” as well as credentials, says Stevens. 

The team changes every year as students come and go. Like Cheszes, the other consultants on the current roster are mature students in their late 20s or 30s who have returned to school after several years in the working world. Enrolled in MBA and MES programs at York, they come with impressive experience – senior economist with a major Canadian bank, real estate developer in Vancouver, strategic planner for the World Wildlife Fund, industrial designer affiliated with the Beal Institute for Strategic Creativity, Peruvian engineer specializing in business loss prevention, and senior policy analyst for the Ontario government, to name a few. 

“We’re a diverse mixture of people who come from various walks of life and we all want to devote ourselves to a sustainable future,” says Stevens, who joined in 2005 after finding out about YSEC through Schulich Net Impact, a network of MBAs, grad students and young professionals dedicated to using business to improve the world.

Stevens, 33, quit a high-paying job as a corporate foreign-executive recruiter in Korea three years ago to study renewable energy, conservation and planning. He changed direction after he learned that Koreans import most of their energy at premium prices, yet have the potential to be energy independent. "Being a peninsula jutting into the Pacific, they could easily generate their own wind, tidal, bio-gas and solar power," Stevens realized. They could even profit from conservation and renewable energy production. "It was a no-brainer," said Stevens, remembering his epiphany. "And Ontario has the same incredible potential." 

Now he’s doing his dream job, working full time at the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association as director of policy and communications, and finishing his MES thesis on social friction in Ontario’s electricity sector.  

At YSEC, there’s more than enough work for the student consultants, says Stevens, as the growing numbers of YSEC alumni and repeat clients “who respect the quality of our work” send business their way. Student turnover is no longer a problem as the consultancy ensures smooth transition between tiers of junior and senior consultants. 

With access to sustainability thinkers and practitioners, YSEC benefits from its association with York. But the consultancy has another competitive edge. 

“Everything we do involves sustainability,” says Stevens. Where traditional consultants focused only on the economic bottom line, YSEC looks at a triple bottom line – social, environmental and economic perspectives. We fill in the gaps, says Stevens. “Social and environmental factors directly impact the bottom line,” he argues. “By taking a holistic approach to a problem, we promote sustainability and long-term solutions.”  

“YSEC’s student consultants are not just training to be, they are, the next generation of consultants,” says Stevens.