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5 Famous MBAs Who Have Changed The World

From sustainability to promoting women in business, here are five famous MBAs who have used their degrees to make a real difference

Mon Apr 29 2019

In its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, the UN highlights the responsibility world leaders have to address the biggest global challenges.

These include gender equality, responsible consumption and production, and climate action.

Yet MBA graduates, as the business leaders of today and tomorrow, may be better positioned to use their power as a force for good.

The potential impact of, say, a CEO of one of the world’s biggest organizations, can often be greater than that of state leaders, whether this is through philanthropy, their public voice, or the global footprint of their company.

We’ve profiled five people who have used their MBAs to enact real change, taking steps towards a better future.

Here’s five famous MBAs who have changed the world:

1. Melinda Gates, Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, Class of 1987


© Russell Watkins/Department for International Development, used under this license.

One of the world’s sharpest businesswomen, and ranked Forbes’ sixth most powerful woman in the world—Melinda Gates is by no means shadowed by the success of her husband, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.

Gates’ MBA from Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, gave her the business expertise for senior roles at Microsoft, which helped pave the way for other women in a male-dominated tech industry at the time.

Subsequently, the American power couple set up the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charitable foundation. The foundation has funded projects to the sum of $36 billion since its initiation in 2000.

Gates, as co-chair, has led the foundation’s groundbreaking work—including providing effective water and sanitation technology in developing countries, spearheading AIDS and malaria research, and funding a $210 million endowment for students from across the world to study at the University of Cambridge.

2. Indra Nooyi, IIM Calcutta, Class of 1976


©World Economic Forum, used under this license

Having been brought up in India, and having studied her MBA at IIM Calcutta, Indra Nooyi wouldn’t have expected to one day be the CEO of one of the world’s biggest food and drink companies, PepsiCo.

“Growing up in India, I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to lead such an extraordinary company,” Nooyi commented in an interview in 2018.

Her expertise gained from her MBA propelled Nooyi to managerial positions at top companies such as Johnson & Johnson and BCG.

As Pepsi CEO, Nooyi pushed the company to bring healthy foods to the fore—through their ‘Good For You’ products, like Naked Juices—which now account for 50% of Pepsi’s products.

Nooyi also founded the ‘Performance With Purpose’ campaign at Pepsi, ingraining sustainability into the business model of the company, including innovating alternatives to plastics and protecting and conserving water supplies near their factories.

Other public projects have included working with the U.S. Bank Stadium after the 2018 Super Bowl, to recycle, compost, and recover 91% of the stadium’s waste.  

3. Tim Cook, Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, Class of 1988


©ACC & Apple Partnership via Flickr, used under this license

Stepping into Steve Jobs’ shoes was no mean feat—Apple’s co-founder and former CEO, before his death in 2011, left a visionary precedent which would make for a tough act to follow for any successor.

Enter Tim Cook. As a former director at IBM, Jobs asked Cook to join Apple in 1998 as senior vice president, just ten years after studying his MBA at Fuqua School of Business, Duke University—having finished in the top 10% of his class.

Under Cook, Apple has turned from being dubbed one of Greenpeace’s least environmentally-friendly companies, to an organization which is making a concerted effort towards sustainability. This has included employing Lisa Peterson, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as Apple’s top environmental advisor. They have also pledged to use 100% renewable energy resources for all of its facilities.

In his personal life, Cook was the first openly gay Fortune 500 CEO, and remains a strong advocate for LGBT rights around the world.

4. Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard Business School, Class of 1995


© World Economic Forum, Jolanda Flubacher, used under this license.

Whether it’s at senate hearings or at product launches, Mark Zuckerberg is often seen as the face of Facebook. Yet the success of the social media behemoth, it has often been said, is better attributed to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

In her ten years as COO, since Zuckerberg nabbed her from Google in 2008, Facebook has gone from making a net loss to turning a $22 billion profit. No doubt, her MBA from Harvard Business School has contributed to her outstanding business profile.

Yet it’s as a supremely respected woman in business that Sandberg has made a real stamp on society. In 2013, Sandberg penned her first book ‘Lean In’, addressing the lack of women in positions of leadership in business and politics.

She has also sponsored the ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign, an awareness campaign of the harmful effects around the word ‘bossy’ on young girls and women. The campaign worked alongside other powerful women including Beyonce and Condoleezza Rice to provide training materials and leadership tips to women.

5. Sallie Krawcheck, Columbia Business School, Class of 1992


© Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch, used under this license.

Last year, in the UK, Bank of America Merrill Lynch reported a 30.9% gender pay gap; at Goldman Sachs, this was 50.6%. In the money-driven world of Wall Street banks, women are at a severe disadvantage.

Sallie Krawcheck, co-founder and CEO of Ellevest, is trying to change this. Senior roles at Bank of America and Citigroup earned Krawcheck the reputation of 'Mrs Clean' of Wall Street, fixing and streamlining corporations who were struggling at the time. Subsequently, Krawcheck founded Ellevest to ‘redefine investing for women’, hoping to close the gender investment gap.

The organization stands in the face of the male world—and even the ‘gender-neutral’ approach—of investing, offering unique tools and services to women to help build their portfolios to offer them the same success. Despite only being founded in 2014, it already has an $83.3 million valuation, already impacting the lives of young professionals and women in business who are looking for investment opportunities that suit them.  

Krawcheck’s career began studying journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, before moving on to her MBA, which she earned at Columbia Business School in 1992. 

The main image in this article is credited to ©Crown Copyright and used under this license.