Pursuing an MBA Career with Meaning: Social Entrepreneurship

Pursuing an MBA Career with Meaning: Social Entrepreneurship

Until last year Ashwin Halgeri had never heard the term ‘social entrepreneur’. Today, he is one. 


The Kellogg School of Management MBA student founded EduIndia, a startup trying to foster education access in India, which won recently a sustainable investing competition run by the bank Morgan Stanley.

“It’s not philanthropy – I am not giving away money,” Halgeri says. “But I want something other than financial returns: I want to make an impact.” 

The reason for the shift, says Megan Kashner, director of social impact at Kellogg, is that more students are seeking meaning in their career, exploring how business can be a force for good. “Millennials expect to be able to bring their values with them into work,” she says. 

Social entrepreneurship no longer a nonprofit pursuit

One catalyst for this shift in attitude is that academics, executives and students no longer consider social entrepreneurship as a nonprofit pursuit. Social enterprises increasingly prove that they can be both profitable and socially effective. “The field is evolving, with the rise of B corporations – for-profit entities which are driven by a mission,” says Erin Worsham, executive director of Duke Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship.

For example, one of the most successful social startups coming out of Oxford University’s Saïd School of Business is M-Kopa – an off-grid solar operator offering clean power to consumers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Founded in 2011 by Jesse Moore, it turns a profit by selling pay-as-you-go solar power to households, reducing their reliance on expensive kerosene lanterns that emit unhealthy fumes, and are susceptible to frequent power outages. M-Kopa has connected over 500,000 homes, offering projected savings of US$300 million and reducing CO2 emissions by 400,000 tonnes.

Professors at Oxford aim to help student entrepreneurs achieve measurable social, environmental and financial returns. In 2003, the school launched the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which offers scholarships to MBAs who pursue entrepreneurial solutions to social and environmental challenges. 

“In this age of global disruption there is an urgent need to accelerate progress through social innovation,” says Peter Drobac, the center’s director.

Duke’s Worsham believes that social entrepreneurship is becoming an integral part of MBAs, rather than mere electives. 

Half of Duke MBAs involved in social entrepreneurship

“At Fuqua half of the MBA cohort of 450 is involved in social entrepreneurship in some way,” she says. “We are integrating social impact throughout the curriculum.”

Duke MBAs can take part in the course “Program for Entrepreneurs”, in which they form teams, create an idea for a social venture and form a business plan in class. During the summer between years one and two of the MBA, they can enroll in “The Launchpad” program instead of a corporate internship. They receive US$10,000 to develop their social companies or cover maintenance costs. 

“Even if they don’t end up starting their own venture, they develop an incredible set of skills and experience to bring to a potential future employer,” Worsham says. 

In addition to core MBA modules in finance, strategy and accounting, the skills social entrepreneurs need to succeed are increasingly ‘soft’. “MBAs need empathy, team-work skills and resilience,” Worsham says. 

Patrick Beattie, co-founder of Redbird Health Tech, which offers diagnostic tests for a range of diseases through pharmacies in Ghana, is a former Oxford MBA student. “The diverse cohort helped me think through different business models that aligned sustainability with impact,” he says. Redbird Health Tech came second place in the annual Skoll Venture Awards, winning £7,500 that Beattie will use to net his firsts customers. 


An MBA is not a golden ticket to success

However, an MBA is not a golden ticket to success. The biggest challenge social entrepreneurs face is burnout, says Duke’s Worsham. “There is a rich fulfilment that comes from a career in which you use your skills to have an impact,” she says. “But these are complex problems entrepreneurs are trying to solve. It can be challenging to keep up pace and the urgency needed to be effective. You must be extremely passionate to pull it off.”

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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