MBAs and Social Enterprise

The Financial Times posted a new story today about MBAs turning to social enterprise.  It’s always reassuring to see news stories  about this stuff — it makes me hope that the idea of social businesses is more than just a trend and really the future of philanthropy.

The article cites an Acumen Fund investee healthcare chain, LifeSpring Hospitals, and it’s ability deliver services to some of the world’s poorest communities.  Finally, these are the organizations that will be featured in the Harvard Business School case studies!

Such stories reflect the extent to which the boundaries between the private sector and civil society are eroding. “Business and the citizen sector are two operating sectors and they really need to come together,” says Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, the social entrepreneurship organisation. “Business schools should be at the centre of this merging of the sectors.”

Exactly.  Current MBA curriculum, without question, can offer enormous insight for those trying to address global issues of today.  But the standard business school framework–teaching future entreprenuers and managers how to maximize financial returns–won’t cut it when the business model changes from monetary profits to social profits.

Schools are using various parts of the curriculum to expose their students to the principles of social entrepreneurship. Electives remain one of the most common means of doing so, with case studies that highlight pioneering leaders.

Electives are great, but even better is changing the culture of business school to acknowledge the desire of young professionals to use business skills to provide clean water, deliver medications, or increasing access to education.  In my experience, Yale’s School of Management (currently ranked 10th in the 2010 US News Graduate Business School Rankings and 1st in the specialty ranking in Nonprofit) has done so much more than just offer extra courses.

In addition to elective options, Yale offers enormous extracurricular resources: a Program on Social Enterprise and Nonprofit Organizations,  active student organizations like NetImpact, and almost weekly lunches or talks from speakers involved in private foundations, corporate social responsibility, and microfinance.  Furthermore, Yale seems to draw students that have a passion for social enterprise; class conversations have an affinity for social responsibility and corporations that have double or triple bottom lines.

Yale’s great rival, Harvard University, has gained some good press for its initiative to get MBA students to sign an oath on responsible value creation. The line that sums it up for me:  ” I will strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide.”

The oath is a great start to shift the focus of MBA students, but it’s still just an oath.  (In every public health course I have ever taken, a student always cites the Hippocratic Oath and is always shut down by the professor’s response of “eh.. that doesn’t really have any real power to do anything.”)

The double bottom-line is this:

  • The power of an MBA education offers a lot of potential to solve global issues of poverty, hunger, education, and health.  Creating a culture in graduate school that acknowledges social benefits of business skills can go a long way to contributing to major world problems.  The oath is a good start, but only a start.
  • Not only should MBA students be aware of social problems, but individuals that  dedicate their careers to social problems should be cognizant of the practical skills that business school can offer.  Ultimately, social business could be the future of foreign aid and poverty alleviation — let’s just hope people keep jumping on the bandwagon.
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