Derry offers food for thought

One might not be able to see the correlation between a love of cooking and an academic career in business ethics and moral reasoning – that is, until one talks to Dr. Robbin Derry.

After completing an undergraduate degree in French at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Derry's interest in cooking led her to France to apprentice for a school backed by Julia Childs. She worked in a variety of restaurants upon her return to the United States.

"I learned a lot about labour and management – as well as some things about cooking frozen vegetables and frozen desserts," says Derry, with chagrin. "I eventually ended up back in New York City and what I saw there got me thinking about ethical conflicts in business."

Dr. Robbin Derry teaches management strategy and environmental management.

Derry searched for answers in an MBA, but it wasn't until she began to pursue her PhD in business ethics and gain some teaching experience that she discovered the same satisfaction in teaching that she had felt in cooking and feeding people. An informal meeting at a conference with John Usher, policy/strategy chair in the Faculty of Management, opened up the possibility of teaching at the University of Lethbridge.

"I was intrigued by the U of L because there seemed to be a real faculty-wide interest and commitment to social responsibility. The idea of being at an institution where there were many other people interested in ethics and CSR (corporate social responsibility) helped me see the U of L as a place where I might really fit in and not be swimming upstream."

She has taken her life experiences to the classroom at the Edmonton campus and enjoys watching students come to their own realizations.

"In my environmental management class, the students' first assignment was to do a self-audit on sustainability; to analyze their own patterns of consumption and waste in their households. They found the process surprisingly informative.

They just hadn't thought much about their own consumption patterns and how their own habits had impacts on the environment as well as the practices of large companies. It is this kind of nurturing education that I find satisfying: helping students to recognize the consequences of their choices."

Derry joined the Faculty of Management in 2007 and currently teaches management strategy and environmental management.

Her latest research bridges industries. She is comparing the strategies developed and practiced by the tobacco industry to gain acceptance and legitimacy in society with the strategies used by other industries facing strong public and activist pressure for social accountability.

"Greenwash or CSR window dressing is a lot like fast food. It is only briefly satisfying and fundamentally not a good solution to the real need or hunger. We need a slow food kind of commitment to provide thoughtful solutions to our economic and environmental challenges."

But she says she's always ready to cook for 20-30 people at a moment's notice. Just don't expect fast food.