Mendoza School of Business

Ask more of you

Author: Jake Bebar (BBA '15)

“…I guess lawyers don’t make it to heaven!”

The punchline to Fr. John’s weekly pre-homily joke triggered roars of laughter from everyone in the parish — all but my eight-year-old-aspiring-lawyer self. Granted, I didn’t exactly know what lawyers did, but each time I argued with my mother about my chores, she informed me I’d be a great one. She had failed to mention, however, that lawyers go to hell. I sat wide-eyed in the pews…shocked.

As a closeted gay kid in the Church, I had learned that the only way to live a full and virtuous life was to ignore my inner voice and look to others for guidance instead. Now, I’d let others define my vocation as well. I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore.

In my first year at Notre Dame, I switched my major several times: from Finance to Psychology, Entrepreneurship to Sociology…Poverty Studies and Peace Studies to Theology…I arrived with my heart set on business, but my participation in service clubs and non-profits made me question if it was the right fit.

My poor family couldn’t keep up with their first-generation college student’s academic changes. “You’re attending a prestigious university to study…peace?”

Given I was at the peak of my teenage rebellion, my parents’ hesitance only fueled my drive away from business. In the middle of my sophomore year, I had decided that, as a discipline focused on profits and little else, those in business likely didn’t make it to heaven either. I “took a stand” and transferred out of Mendoza and into Arts & Letters.

That summer, I signed up to volunteer at an orphanage and teach English in El Crucero, Nicaragua. While I expected to arrive and volunteer my heart, I found myself instead volunteering my mind with a focus on classroom logistics and online fundraising for the larger organization. I was using business as a force for good. Business itself was just a tool — its use and application were what mattered.

Shortly after arriving back to the U.S., I drove to South Bend and transferred back into Mendoza.

With a renewed love for my business courses paired with real world scenarios to draw upon, I became a Management Consulting major in my junior year. The field asked big questions, brainstormed ridiculous ideas, and constantly embraced innovation and improvement. It didn’t pretend to have all the answers. It sought to teach tools and principles that made finding the answers easier.

I witnessed professors apply such principles to their own teaching. They prioritized practical application, treated their students as humans, focused on identifying root problems, and were more interested in our long-term growth than a simple grade at the end of the semester.

In Professor Wendy Angst’s Innovation and Design, I learned about the power of human-centered design, storytelling, and the skill of creativity, but with class trips to Whirlpool’s headquarters, Deloitte’s innovation lab in Chicago, and homes in South Bend to practice ethnographic interviewing, I applied those principles in the real world.

Professor Timothy Judge’s Management Competencies featured personality tests, delegation exercises, and role-playing work scenarios. All reading assignments required an application of the material to one’s daily life. Just as Judge challenged us to think critically on our assignments and not just “check the box”, he strived to offer us more than a grade. With almost every assignment we turned in, Judge returned paragraphs of personal feedback. I still remember turning in a reflection paper that referenced being in the closet throughout my childhood, the first time I remember coming out as gay to a professor. Judge asked pointed questions in his feedback that showed he truly cared about me working through unanswered questions I had at the time.

In Professor Corey Angst’s Business Problem Solving, we learned how identifying the root cause of an issue was the key to figuring out how to solve it. Despite Corey’s constant warnings, we frequently found ourselves immediately jumping to solutions, a habit all too common in industries today. I learned the discipline and patience required to track down root causes, and how quickly those values can be forgotten when working in a group under tight timelines.

Professor Robert Bretz’s Values-Based Leadership had students present on their upbringings, views of the world, and aspirations. We were encouraged to not only find our values and beliefs, but stand by them. My final essays prompted several tearful nights, as Bretz warned they might, and I realized how important personal values and a grounded morality are to decision-making. In my work as a healthcare IT consultant, I’ve realized time and time again how solidifying my values has allowed me to make the right decisions quickly in stressful and urgent scenarios.

As I continued to try and figure out who I wanted to be, Mendoza helped me figure out something better: who I was. I learned to trust my inner voice.

As Mendoza celebrates its 100th anniversary and I remember the “Ask More of Business” that was continually ingrained in me, I wonder how we can follow the example of our professors and apply these same principles to our work.

With employee burnout becoming more common, can we honestly say that we’ve applied human-centered design principles to how we treat our employees just as our professors applied them to help better teach us as students?

With growing inequality (particularly through the pandemic), can we honestly say that we are finding the root cause of these problems instead of finding band-aid solutions?

With many in America still living paycheck to paycheck, can we honestly say that our businesses are focused on the long-term growth of our employees and customers? Or are we simply focusing on profits just as some simply focus on grades?

One silver lining of the pandemic may be the opportunity to truly question how we do business. This is the time to actually ask more. This is the time to dream big instead of listening to the same old voices for guidance. When we stop looking at the status quo and start looking within, can we honestly say that our inner voices are okay with our business practices today?

Is donating a percentage of revenue really the best “corporate social responsibility” we can do?

Are we honestly only interested in fighting for a living wage that simply allows employees to survive? Is that asking more of business? What about a flourishing wage that allows people to thrive?

Why has asking more of business so often resulted in limiting the role of business? Shouldn’t we be striving for community transformations? Employee well-being? Customer attention spans? Having a seat at the table to advocate for non-shareholder stakeholders?

I flourished at Notre Dame not only because my professors asked more of business, but because they asked more of me. They recognized the potential of students and provided environments that allowed them to flourish. If we’re truly focused on changing the status quo of business, maybe it’s time to stop asking more of business and time to start asking more of ourselves.

When our business practices align with what our inner being knows to be true, there shouldn’t be any question about whether business is used for the greater good. And while I can’t quite speak to the salvation of those practicing law, maybe we can convince Fr. John that there’s a spot in heaven for those of us in business.

Topics: BBA