The experience of studying in an MBA programme has evolved drastically in the last few decades, transitioning from a traditional path in the corporate world into a way for social entrepreneurs and environmentalists to create meaningful social impact. Increasingly, professionals are choosing educational paths which combine management, finance, and marketing fundamentals with an emphasis on social consciousness. At the same time, business schools themselves are dedicated to guiding today’s professionals on their journey through sustainable living and responsible leadership. How do business as usual and social enterprise come together to create change?
Career choices with lasting impact
Finding the right MBA course, participating in the right trip, and meeting the right classmates can make all the difference in finding a working solution to a global issue. In 2011, David Auerbach, Ani Vallabhaneni, and Lindsay Stradley, at the time MBA participants at MIT Sloan School of Management (US), launched Sanergy after meeting on a school hiking trip. Based in Kenya, their venture aims to “make sanitation affordable and accessible.” Sanergy serves thousands of people from the local population in need of adequate, low-cost, and high-quality toilet units. Today, the trio’s social enterprise employs 250, proving there is room for sustainable solutions which are profitable and create employment. “Models like ours raise the bar for innovation and lower the cost of providing sanitation at scale,” says Lindsay Stradley, one of the co-founders, in her 2017 TED Talk.
The story brings up the question of how business schools are able to facilitate this interaction even further by encouraging the implementation of great ideas born in the MBA classroom. Georgina Campbell Flatter, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan, says that programmes with a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship are most likely to instil the skills necessary to develop successful social initiatives. According to her piece for the Financial Times, “a curriculum that develops entrepreneurial leadership skills along with practical skills such as product development and entrepreneurial finance” is key.
Another inspiring Kenya-based project originated from Saïd Business School, University of Oxford (UK), where Oxford MBA graduate and current CEO Jesse Moore met the other two co-founders of the venture. In 2010, they set up M-KOPA – a pay-as-you-go solar power provider to households in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda which do not have access to grid electricity. It is a much safer, more affordable, and environmentally-friendly alternative to the kerosene lanterns, commonly used by local residents.
Evidently, the MBA programme at Saïd Business School helped pave the way to the socially important, yet business-savvy idea. “It was while at Oxford that [Jesse Moore] was drawn to the potential of mobile phone and payment technologies as a way to improve social circumstances in developing economies,” explains Canadian magazine Corporate Knights. Mr Moore was also a Skoll scholar at the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship set up by the school to grant scholarships to MBA visionaries developing social and environmental solutions.
School initiatives that facilitate change
There is plenty that business schools can do to aid innovators on their quest for social change. Many international MBA programmes offer carefully developed tracks and electives with a particular social or environmental focus. Students at Duke University, Fuqua School of Business (US) choose their concentration between Energy & Environment, Entrepreneurship & Innovation, or Social Entrepreneurship. At the same time, they have access to core courses and electives such as Impact Investing; Energy, Markets, & Innovation; Global Institutions & Environment; and Health Policy & Management.
Experts say that practical work in the field is just as important as enrolling in relevant social impact courses. According to James Freeley, Associate Professor of Management at the School of Business at LIU Post (US), students “learn best when they do problem-solving for real organisations.” There are many examples from Europe and the US showcasing how schools are able to connect their MBA participants with real-world, socially conscious businesses. The IE Social Impact Hub is a five-week immersive experience for MBA students at IE Business School (Spain), encompassing a consulting project with local non-profit or social enterprise, visits to impact investors, and cultural immersion and travel.
Schools also organise entire competitions where MBA students can team up, work on their pitches, receive mentoring, and ultimately secure funding for their social impact projects. “Through Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative, which aims to educate, inspire, and support leaders across all sectors to create social change, MBA students can participate in the New Venture Competition (NVC),” points out Kelly Vo, editor for MBA admissions news website Clear Admit. A total of 69 student teams participated in the 2018 edition, the grand prize of which is USD 75,000. Similarly, London Business School and University College London teamed up for their Clean Tech Challenge – “a global business plan competition for innovative clean technology business ideas” which awards the winning team a prize of GBP 10,000.
There are many more points of contact between schools and students that help the creation of startups and ventures with social significance. Ultimately, MBA participants need to find the right balance between trendy courses on sustainability and business and management fundamentals. As Simonil Rustomji, MBA Class of 2019 at Ross School of Business, University of Michigan (US), says: “If I want to make a difference at scale, I need to be both passionate and a businesswoman.”