Why Today’s MBAs Are Chasing Careers with a Positive Social Impact

Why Today’s MBAs Are Chasing Careers with a Positive Social Impact main image

Catalyzing entrepreneurship across the African continent, curbing the impact of pollution on the rainforests of Indonesia, and getting girls to code in Ghana are not traditional MBA careers. But business school students are increasingly pursuing jobs where they can have a tangible impact on society or the environment, prompting schools to rollout new learning opportunities.

Aarti Ramaswami, director of the Global MBA at ESSEC Business School in France and Singapore says, “Coming with global experiences and powered by technology and globalization, MBA graduates are very aware and cognizant of issues around the world.”

“For many, money may not be the number one factor when selecting a job. They may be interested in seeing their efforts translate into something more than just salaries, as well as achieving personal and professional goals that are more meaningful to them.”

In fact, a 2015 survey by the consultancy Bain & Company found that 66 percent of women MBAs and 59 percent of men would put positive social impact ahead of financial rewards in their careers.

Business and social change can interlink

Not long ago, pursuing an impactful career was largely considered to be at the expense of profit. But today, MBA students can make a decent income without abandoning their ideals at the door.

Jerry Davis, associate dean for Business + Impact at Michigan’s Ross School of Business says “It’s a good and noble thing to head directly into the social sector, but if you have student loans to pay back, you can still create positive social change.”

David created a course for MBA students on how to be a “social intrapreneur” — to drive entrepreneurial projects within large organizations.

He cites the example of Kevin Thompson, who went to work at IBM after getting his MBA and spearheaded the creation of the “corporate Peace Corps” at the technology company. The initiative has deployed thousands of IBM employees on pro-bono assignments all over the world, working with non-profit organizations, government agencies, universities and entrepreneurs to deliver positive impact to communities that need it most.

Defying societal norms

One such project helped bring technology education to young women in Ghana.

Davis says, “Students could use the resources available in business to have a positive impact by creating products or services, or organizational change, or ways of connecting with the community that served a purpose beyond profit.”

These types of courses have proliferated at business schools in recent years, as issues around gender discrimination, diversity and fraud in business have hit the headlines. At the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, an advance career concentration in sustainability covers everything from sustainable business practices to supply chain operations. In addition, RSM offers electives in ‘circular economy’ and ‘new business models,’ plus a mandatory one-week study trip centered on sustainable business practices.

Brandon Kirby, RSM’s head of marketing and admissions says, “I believe that the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle have contributed to a greater awareness of issues and the desire to make a difference.” There’s a lot more monitoring of how companies do business and make their profits. Because of this, I think there is a natural tendency to want to be part of a better future.”

Tailoring your program to fit you

The career opportunities for those who wish to work in CSR have also grown, as companies realize it’s no longer something they can pay lip service to — and many opportunities are embedded into the MBA curriculum. At ESSEC, participants have the opportunity to do a capstone consulting project with African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC) in Rwanda and Tanzania, a non-profit that offers business education, mentorship, technical support and access to affordable capital to entrepreneurs. Aarti Ramaswami says, “They also come up with their own ideas of a social enterprise relating to an issue that they are passionate about.”

However, it can be a difficult cultural change for students to move between the commercial sector and international development. Ramaswami adds, “Certainly, social and commercial enterprises operate on different bottom lines and value propositions. MBA graduates who move from the commercial to the social sector without prior exposure or experience, would have to reflect and re-analyze their business frameworks, models, and strategic thinking in order to adapt their mindsets to the new ways of working.

“Soon they learn that the road to maximum impact – business and social – is not the same as maximum financial profits.”

That is why it’s becoming increasingly important for MBA programs to give their students a flavour of impactful work rather than simply focusing on how to maximize shareholder return. If more business schools move in this direction, it could go a way to helping organizations sustain society and the environment as well as turn a profit.

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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