When American social entrepreneur Elsa Sze checks her Facebook wall, pictures of her Harvard classmates who got “normal jobs” vacationing in the Hamptons, an exclusive retreat for the wealthy, tend to scroll down her computer’s screen.
The former McKinsey consultant has had to settle for a tiny studio flat in Boston. “I turned down a six-figure job,” says Elsa, a graduate of Harvard’s joint MBA/MPP program.
It is a stark reminder of the sacrifices she has made to create a social impact in her Cambridge community. She used to work for the International Monetary Fund but now she is a social entrepreneur. Her start-up business, Agora, is on a mission to empower US citizens to have a political voice and to hold politicians to account.
A for-profit social enterprise, Agora is the product of a business school market which has adapted to cater for students who want to “have an impact” on society and drive transformational change.
“This is our goal for the business school – to tackle world-scale problems,” says Peter Tufano, dean of Oxford’s Saïd Business School in the UK.
MBAs are now flocking to careers in corporates and start-up ventures which seek to do social good – from developing healthcare in the Middle East to solving nutrition challenges in Africa’s developing economies.
A recent event at Oxford marked this growing global trend. Emerge, a conference which brings together MBA students and businesspeople who want to drive social change, had more than 350 attendees, according to Pamela Hartigan, a director at Oxford Saïd.
Now in its sixth year, Emerge started out as a gathering for just a handful of students. But it has been growing and will keep expanding until it becomes the “Davos for entrepreneurial endeavours”, says Pamela, half-joking.
She runs the business school’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, an initiative which seeks to accelerate the impact of entrepreneurial activity by cultivating and supporting social entrepreneurs.
“Emerge is a platform for showcasing the ways we all want to see business in the future: fundamentally innovative, philosophically positive and morally compelling,” Pamela says.
Her efforts mirror a changing attitude in the corporate world. Business schools are helping to drive a shift in mentality that many large companies now demand of their employees.
US and UK companies in the Fortune Global 500 spend about $15 billion a year on corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, according to economic consulting firm EPG. Life assurance group Prudential helps to deliver an education program in an impoverished community in Indonesia, while other companies such as Pearson, the education giant, have launched social impact venture capital funds, Pearson’s fund dishing out up to $15 million to social entrepreneurs.
But it is not just Oxford that is helping to drive social change in business. Business schools including ESADE and IE of Spain run large social impact events on their campuses.
ESADE launched its first Social Impact Investment Forum in December last year, which allows social entrepreneurs and investors to connect. It is a product of the school’s Institute for Social Innovation, which seeks to strengthen businesses’ activities and contributions to social impact.
The Social Responsibility Forum at IE drew more than 300 students last year, connecting MBAs interested in sustainability and social entrepreneurship. Gwendoline de Ganay, an IE MBA graduate who helped launch the event, said it helped her to start a career in social entrepreneurship. She is the founder of Sustainable Brasil Consulting, a Brazil-based consultancy which helps large companies with social responsibility initiatives.
“I knew it was what I wanted to do after my MBA, and it [the forum] helped me identify key players in Latin America,” says Gwendoline.
She says that the MBA helped her develop the confidence to launch her own social business. “I didn’t have much business knowledge in terms of basic finance, marketing and building a business model,” she adds.
The Net Impact Club at London Business School is one of the fastest-growing on campus. The LBS chapter of the non-profit organisation that supports social and environmental causes has nearly 2,000 members, a 77% rise from 2010.
Jason Visscher, a member of the Net Impact chapter at Rotman School of Management in Canada, works for the NeXus Consulting Group, a Rotman-affiliated consultancy for non-profits and social enterprises that is run by the school’s MBA students.
The charitable trust’s primary aim is to ensure that all individuals of South Africa have equal access to the ocean. Hanli believes that the preservation of oceans is important to help mend the country’s cultural divide.
She helps disadvantaged individuals develop “significant spiritual and practical meaning” within their lives through experiencing association with oceans.
“I believe to protect something we [need to] share it,” says Hanli. She began her love affair with the ocean while growing up on a farm outside of Pretoria, and has since become an accomplished free-diver – she claims she can hold her breath for up to six minutes.
“I wanted to reassess how I could be a voice,” Hanli says. “[It is] the meaning that I feel drives my life,” she adds.
Social entrepreneurs like Hanli are motivated not by profit – although many say they need a sustainable business model to achieve impact – but by their effect on communities.
“When something you love is deeply threatened, it galvanizes you to a new level of activity,” she says.
But it is not just entrepreneurship that drives MBAs to create social impact. Many business school students seek to work in corporate roles, to drive change from within.
The Cranfield Trust attracts MBA students from some of the best business schools each year. The organization, which provides charities with skilled business volunteers to help them grow, has about 700 volunteer consultants in the UK.
“There is an awful lot of demand out there for more support,” says Amanda Tincknell, chief executive. “This is a fantastic opportunity for people who want board-level opportunities, and a great opportunity to develop skills as a manager,” she adds.
The Cranfield School of Management, a UK-based business school, offers scholarships for Cranfield Trust members each year to study on its MBA program.
There has also been an increase in students seeking summer internships that make an impact. The World Bank’s private sector investment arm saw postgraduate job applications more than double to 2,600 this year, up from 1,200 in 2013.
“Students today are demanding new solutions. They want to understand how to use markets to create value,” says Pamela from the Skoll Centre.
Each year, the centre dishes out scholarships to a select group of MBA candidates – Skoll Skollars – who plan to pursue entrepreneurial solutions for urgent social and environmental challenges.
Other schools, such as NYU Stern in the US, offer social impact funds that provide financial support for students who want to intern at social enterprises.
That helps to combat a common roadblock for MBAs – finances. Many of these internships are on a voluntary basis, which makes them less attractive to business school students who may be paying tuition and other educational fees.
Elsa is based at Harvard’s i-Lab, an incubator for students from across the university who are interested in entrepreneurship and innovation.
She may admit to forfeiting a lucrative career at a leading consulting firm, but is has not slowed her social mission.
“In the past when I’ve worked in consulting, living in luxury condos, I would wake up and be stressed out,” Elsa says. “[But now] every day my worries are: will I make a difference? Will I help somebody to have a voice? It’s not easy – but it’s meaningful.”