Today however, MBAs appear to put higher value on fulfilment, entrepreneurialism and a good work-life balance than cash and career.
“I turned down a six-figure job,” says Elsa Sze, a Harvard Business School graduate who founded Agora, a tech start-up that empowers citizens to have a political voice.
She has worked at UBS, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman and McKinsey. “In the past I’ve lived in luxury condos,” says Elsa, 29. “Now I live in a tiny, tiny studio.”
Elsa’s generation — the millennials — those born between the early 1980s and late 1990s — are no longer content just to climb the greasy pole. They have grown up in an age of austerity and social media that has made them more aware of the good and bad in business.
Now aged between 18 and 33 years, in the early stages of their careers, they want to make a difference to their organizations, communities and the world.
“There is a lot of evidence that suggests millennials do have a different mind-set towards work, satisfaction, and work-life balance,” says Radhika Chadwick, a partner lead at EY. “They tend to want autonomy [and] to work on very exciting projects all the time,” she says.
Development and work-life balance are more important than financial reward, according to a recent survey of this age group by professional services firm PwC — although MBAs of top schools like Pennsylvania’s Wharton are still earning $150,000 fresh out the blocks.
For the triple bottom line enthusiasts, jobs abound. “Career opportunities for MBAs that want to make a positive impact on society are nearly limitless,” says Erin Worsham, director of social entrepreneurship at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
“Non-profit jobs can be an excellent way to have a direct impact and MBAs often get to take on roles that are multi-functional,” she says. “And opportunities in the for-profit sector are growing as well.”
But we are not about to see the business school elite quit top jobs to live in communes, says INSEAD professor Subi Rangan, whose research explores how enterprises are reconciling performance with social goals.
“It’s not like more people are going to join NGOs,” he says incongruously. “They still have to pay off their student loans.”
The implications for companies who neglect their social and environmental responsibilities and who are trying to hire and retain business school talent are serious.
“The biggest investment banks used to have lines around the block from the most ambitious students. That is no longer the case,” says Daniela Papi-Thornton, deputy director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford Saïd. “Businesses which have broken trust in society need to re-establish their social credentials or they will miss out on top talent.”
Yet companies must go further than developing sidelined CSR initiatives and must embed social and environmental responsibility at the heart of their organizations.
“It’s not enough to have a volunteer day where people go and pick up trash,” says Ben Mangan, executive director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
Deloitte surveyed this year 7,800 of tomorrow’s business leaders, from 29 countries, and found that 75% believe businesses are focused on their own agendas rather than helping to improve society.
It is this belief that led Klarissa Chow to quit a cushy job at a top Singaporean software group for a government sector role with an NGO that advocates lifelong learning.
“I am fortunate enough to lead a comfortable life. I had shelter, an abundance of food, and access to education. But we know that today’s society has many problems,” says the student at UBC’s Sauder School of Business.
“I believe that business leaders will have a positive impact on the world,” says Klarissa, who runs two tech start-ups alongside her MBA.
The vast majority of impact-obsessive students, however, do not take careers in non-profits, argues Wally Hopp, professor and senior associate dean for faculty and research at Michigan’s Ross School of Business. They go to companies making money, but into positions where they have responsibility for social impact — such as at boutique consultancies advising firms on their sustainability initiatives.
“You can make profit and do socially good things at the same time,” he says. “[Private] companies are seeking people that have that perspective,” he adds.
Some of the biggest global banks including UBS and BlackRock, the world’s largest fund house, are increasingly adopting “impact investing” and “green bonds”, which were created to fund projects that have positive environmental benefits.
“Our investing clients are interested in deploying their assets in a way that amplifies their broader values while generating investment returns,” says Hugh Lawson at Goldman Sachs, which recently acquired impact investing firm Imprint Capital.
Duke Fuqua’s Erin says there are growing opportunities for MBAs in impact investing intermediary groups such as the Global Impact Investing Network, or advisory firms like Enclude. “The supply of jobs is starting to pick up,” she says.
Postgraduate job applications to the International Finance Corporation, an investment arm of the World Bank, doubled last year to 2,600. “The World Bank recruits the brightest MBA students,” says Ratul Banerjee, an ESADE Business School student who worked there and as a project manager at the IMF.
At Stanford GSB, 7% of MBA students are working in the non-profit and government sectors, says Maeve Richard, the school’s careers director. Five years ago, just 1% did.
“There is growth in social impact practices at places like McKinsey,” says UC Berkeley’s Ben. “And you have big firms like Deloitte and others that give full credit to young consultants who work on pro bono projects.”
Meanwhile, graduates are keen to kick-start social enterprises, says Oxford Saïd’s Daniela. “We need new businesses with an explicit goal of positively impacting society.”
She says every commodity trading company is involved in CSR, but projects are often managed as separate entities. “Aspuna Group will not have a social responsibility department because it is embedded in our DNA.”
The biggest barrier to companies adopting more responsibility is balancing short-term financial returns with long-term social goals. INSEAD’s Subi says measurement of societal impact is also a challenge. “We don’t yet have models, methods, and measures of progress.”
For Ahmad Ashkar, an MBA who founded Hult Prize, the world’s largest social entrepreneurship competition for business students, impact is not so black and white.
“We’re not saying, ‘I’ll give up a career in consulting and finance and money and work in a non-profit’,” he says. “That’s not what’s motivating these students — it’s the ability to do business for good.”
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