Q&A with Marya Wilson, Sustainable Management Instructor

Tiffany Stronghart January 22, 2024
ESG and sustainability concept symbols superimposed on a photo of a person typing

For Marya Wilson, sustainability is just as important as quality management in a business. While some organizations have dedicated professionals in sustainability or quality roles, everyone must participate to make it a success. 

“I started my career in quality management,” she says. “We need quality managers. But everyone in the organization is responsible for quality. It’s the same thing with sustainability. It’s everybody’s job.”

Marya Wilson started her business career working in Silicon Valley, California, before coming to the Universities of Wisconsin. She’s now leveraging her extensive operations experience by teaching about the supply chain for the Master of Science: Sustainable Management program through UW-Stout.

In her course, SMGT 782, Supply Chain Management, Marya works hard to build meaningful relationships with her students. She also challenges and inspires them to reignite their passion for making real change in the workplace.

Can you tell me more about your course and how it can help students?

This class can help anybody whether they’re a solopreneur or working at a large corporation. We talk about each piece of the supply chain: the logistical side, distribution, transportation, purchasing. Then, we dive into the details of sustainability in each piece.  And of course, I always talk about ethics in any class that I teach because it’s so important. And what I like to do with this course and what’s super fun about it is you write a mini thesis on the topic of your choice.

Discussion boards are an important part of my class because they allow everyone to interact; it’s not the same as face-to-face, but the interactions are incredible learning.  My favorite discussion board at the beginning of the semester is, “What’s your experience with the supply chain?” Several people say, “I don’t have experience with that.” I’m like, “Yes, you do–everybody does. If you buy things, you have experience with the supply chain.”

What do you like about the course?

The students are a blast. The topics are just amazing. It’s just fun. We do a foundation of the supply chain and then layer it with what’s going on from a sustainability perspective and then they get to dive into a topic of their choice with their research.

What’s super cool about this class is, one, students get to focus on something that they really like. They do interviews. They mix the qualitative and quantitative, which I think is super important. And, everybody ends up turning in a paper that they absolutely love.

The other awesome thing is a lot of the students end up using this work to apply to their capstone (a final project required for the master’s degree) so talk about a double bang for your buck.

How do students in your course interact?

Every single module has a discussion. That’s the space where they get to have a little bit of fun. For example, one of the modules is focused on production, so layout and design of the factory, design of the operation, and focuses on product and service design, like the specific product and service design. I use a video from the Modern Marvels series on the History Channel focused on household wonders. I ask them what’s changed, have our products gotten any better from a sustainability perspective? It gives them a chance to, one, get out of their topic, but two, just spark some different thought processes. The discussions always crack me up because, if you think about it, the historical evolution has always been that they catered all those products to women. And people are like, “oh my god, how things have changed.”

What other course activities do students have to look forward to?

I also bring in guest speakers. I record them [for students who can’t make it]. We’ll do something at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday. This allows students (and me!) to engage in a different way in the online space.

How do you set course expectations?

I put together an introduction at the beginning of the semester: “Here’s the difference between a baccalaureate degree, a master’s, and a PhD” (an explanation). And “this is the level of work you must do.” “You’re going to have to do a ton of reading, and you’re going to have to do a ton of reflecting.”  This intro was set into motion by years of student questions about how this course would work (and even a few complaints that there is too much reading and writing, ha).


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What kinds of backgrounds do your students have?

Most of the students have business backgrounds. And to me, if you want to get into the research and science side of it, you are going to need a science or engineering background. But what’s great about this program is that it allows practically anyone to build sustainability into whatever operation or organization they’re doing.

How can students interested in sustainability affect change in their organizations?

Probably the best way that they can affect change is to constantly take back the data. So, all the research that they’re doing, they can put that together and share that with their organization. Truth be told though, the only way that they can truly affect change is, one, just be passionate about it. Two, share the data.

There are so many ways to work sustainability in. And the truth is we must. It’s not just about climate change; it’s also about ethics. To me, it’s also giving power back to the people. This is where sustainability from the green perspective is crucial. But I think a lot of what we teach as well, and at least in my class, isn’t just about the green side of it. This is how we create thriving communities. How do we create not just surviving or barely surviving? How do we create thriving anything? Sustainability really does that.

A lot of companies claim to be sustainable because consumers demand it, however, it seems like there’s still some resistance to implementing sustainable initiatives on the corporate level. Can you speak to that?

I don’t mean to be a downer, but [students] are going to have a really hard time effecting change. That’s just a fact of life. And one of the things I’m working on is how do we share that core sustainability efforts can be expensive, but the return is huge. And that’s the problem with a lot of companies– they see sustainability efforts as super expensive without any return. 

Sustainability is a completely different mindset. We’ve got centuries of mindset focused on the financials. The whole balanced scorecard to measure the success of a company came out in 1995. And as sustainability leaders, we have not done a good job at explaining the return on investment. Too many companies are focused only on the numbers as a success factor. It’s a mindset that’s going to be hard to change. But the more people who get involved with programs like this and classes like this, that’s how we help start the change: getting the knowledge into people’s hands, the real knowledge into people’s hands, not something they got off Google in the top three searches.

How can we change the mindset?

When we talk about change, we must do more work. That’s the other issue we run up against with sustainability. It’s super popular for about six months and then it never sticks. Right?

One of the things I like about this program is we’re allowing people to pursue their passion. The projects that I’ve got coming in this semester are all over the place, everything from the fashion industry to food to table, food waste. 

Otherwise, it’s just a directive from the leader. And if the leader is not even passionate about it, it’s not going to happen no matter what he or she says. Well, again, with the balanced scorecard, you look at the financials. And let’s get realistic: We are in this to make money. But there’s the customer focus. There is the process focus. And that’s where a huge part of sustainability can come in. Where in our processes are we being as sustainable as possible?

[Sustainability] can be built into overall measures of success. Even on the balanced scorecard you could add a whole sustainability section.

Interested in learning more about the 100 percent online UW Sustainable Management master’s program? Take a look at the curriculum page or reach out to an enrollment adviser with any questions about the program. For more information, call 608-800-6762 or email

Programs: Sustainable Management