Terry students discover Mittelstand, green milestones on international programs trip to Munich

From international corporations to startups, Terry students find a commitment to sustainability in Germany
UGA students in Munich
Terry College students in Munich.

The German economy might be known as a top producer of good beer and ultimate driving machines, but in the past 20 years, Germany has also become a premier creator of green jobs and thriving midsize companies.

This summer, 20 Terry College students toured Munich and Berlin to learn about the distinct culture and business infrastructure guiding Germany to take the lead in sustainable industries while maintaining its global economic leadership position.

“We cast a wide net,” said Connor Kuck, a University of Georgia senior studying finance as well as entertainment and media studies, who started the summer with the Terry Study Away program and remained for an internship at a Berlin startup coordinated through the Terry College international programs office. “We were drinking from the fire hose. It was a chance to soak up as much as we possibly could about Germany, how they operate and their approach to business.”

The Terry College International Business Program organized the Maymester course. Marc Ragin, assistant professor of risk management and insurance, led the trip and taught the corresponding class.

With Germany being Europe’s insurance hub, Ragin visits the country frequently, and his goal was to help students experience the German business culture firsthand.

During the three-week program, students toured and interviewed leaders at international companies — such as Volkswagen and Allianz — and startups operating at the intersection of technology and green industry. While the companies were different, the culture of many was similar.

“The key points we saw repeated were the emphasis on sustainability and innovation,” Kuck said. “Even if the company was not part of the ‘green industry,’ we saw an emphasis on environmentally friendly solutions. That is a big aspect of their operations.”

Students were quick to connect innovation and a focus on sustainability to Mittelstand — a German focus on building its economy on a vibrant core of middle-size, privately-owned businesses, said senior marketing major Andrew Shirley.

“It is very important to their economy,” Shirley said. “Each company brought its environmental stewardship as an important point of pride.”

“The focus on sustainability is ingrained within the culture,” Kuck added. “There is not necessarily a cookie-cutter approach for each company, but they all definitely have it in mind throughout their daily operations.”

At international insurance company Allianz’s headquarters in Munich, students were wowed by the Silicon Valley-like campus, with cafeterias, gyms, and gardens. They were also impressed by the holistic approach to employee well-being and corporate stewardship, said Samantha Dilley, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in economics and ecology and plans to work in corporate sustainability.

“When we met with the team from Allianz, I think it was amazing because they had an entire wall showcasing their steps toward attaining sustainability,” Dilley said. “They were in a net zero facility, and they made gardens for people to walk around in, fresh food, vegetarian options, and a focus on wellness and health. Sustainability encompasses so much more than just the environment — sustainability is also about the welfare of the communities you’re serving and the governance you have in place to do that.”

Seeing how small habits — such as meticulous recycling and future-focused planning — affected the economy may be one of his biggest takeaways, Kuck said. 

When he returns to Athens this fall, he will jump back into his UGA Institute of Leadership Advancement service project to develop a plan for electric vehicle charging infrastructure in Georgia. Seeing the power of habits in action gave him new hope for that project.

He plans to combine what he learned at his internship — working for an electrified railway safety startup — with everything he gleaned from tours of businesses and watching his German colleagues go about their daily lives to elevate his team’s plans for EV charging networks.

“If we start by changing those little habits in our daily life, we have the potential to foster substantial change in the world,” Kuck said.