‘Business As A Force For Good’: Carlson Dean Talks Healthcare, Data Analytics, Social Responsibility

Sri Zaheer, of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, says social responsibility is a top priority

An interest in social impact is on the rise among MBAs. A survey conducted by Bain & Company in 2015, found that over half of MBA students planned to prioritize impact over other career goals, and that similar numbers wanted to work directly in social impact at some point in their career.

Unsurprisingly, many business schools are responding to this shift in focus from applicants, but it is at schools like the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management that this attitude is really thriving.

At Carlson, doing well in one’s career and doing good with it are not seen as mutually exclusive.

On the contrary, when I sit down with Sri Zaheer, dean of Carlson School of Management since March 2012, at the BusinessBecause office in London, she tells me that it’s partly the school’s close attention to ethics and impact in their courses that allows them to attract big-name recruiters like Bain, McKinsey, and Google.

Carlson offers a variety of courses, from the more traditional two-year full-time MBA and part-time MBA options, to their innovative MBA with Business Analytics and a variety of specialized master’s courses.

Across all of these programs, teaching students social responsibility is a priority.

 “We try to embed ethics in every aspect of our programming,” Sri explains. “We have a required ethics course in our MBA program, so we encourage [the students] to think about how business can be a force for good.

“In our Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA), right at orientation we spend two days talking to students about data privacy and the ethics of collecting big data—what are the responsibilities you have as a result of that?”

From the very start of their training then, students at Carlson are taught to think like a big business with big responsibilities to its customers, and this training is furthered outside of the classroom.

On the full-time MBA at Carlson, “experiential learning” is a core tenet of the curriculum, with hands-on enterprise programs stretching across both years of the degree, which see MBAs work on real projects for real businesses.


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The aim of these experiences is to prepare students for internships and jobs, and they aren’t the only experience of their kind on offer at Carlson.

Every year, the school runs Analytics Labs in partnerships with big corporates who hire groups of graduate students from a variety of programs to sift through their big data—real work, on real projects, for real clients.

Past employers have included massive outfits like the Mall of America, who tasked students with deciphering data from the information kiosks in their malls to enhance visitor experiences.

“Often, students have to do an evaluation of the impact of whatever it is that they’re suggesting and look at the consequences of the recommendations that they make,” Sri says. “Having the ability to question the recommendations you’re making makes a big difference.”

Cutting-edge topics like data analytics combine directly with Carlson’s impactful ethos in the healthcare analytics elective on the MBA, which they offered for the first time last year.

Thanks to a gift from United Healthcare’s pharmacy benefits division, Optum, the healthcare analytics program at Carlson is one of the fastest-growing aspects of their curriculum, with 25% of MBAs being placed in healthcare in the US after graduation.

Evidently, making a difference to people’s lives is not at odds with innovation or profit. Sri understands this better than most—she also holds the Elmer L. Andersen Chair in Global Corporate Social Responsibility, with a particular focus on international business.

“I think a lot of millennials are very interested in impact and the mission of the organizations that they want to join,” Sri continues. “Many of our MBAs are really looking for careers in non-traditional areas, for example social enterprise.”

Even the more corporate-minded among Carlson’s MBA cohort, Sri says, have found their way to make an impact—many MBAs have even negotiated social enterprise projects into their contracts with big businesses. “It’s a way of combining the big priorities of providing for families and having a monthly paycheck with your passions.”

Besides, she goes on, mission-driven companies attract the best grads. MBAs benefit from going into socially-impactful companies, and vice versa.

As Sri explains, MBAs are valuable whatever your career path—not only if you want to work for a large consultancy or bank.

“Whether you’re working for a hospital or doing housing for the homeless, you still have to manage that process. You still have to run it to budget, you still have to market it, you still have to be able to make sure that the customers are well-served,” she says.

“You should be coming to a business school no matter what you want to do because it really sets you up with the skills needed to manage any kind of project or organization.”

This, for Sri, speaks to the continuing relevance of the MBA degree as well as the progress Carlson has made in attracting applicants to its various programs.

“It’s not easy now,” Sri pauses. “You actually need serious critical thinking abilities to go through any kind of strategy class. I think the business curriculum has changed quite substantially in the last twenty or thirty years and what we expect from our students is much more demanding," she continues.

“Business itself can be a force for good—if you want to change the world, business is a great place to start.”

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