Mendoza School of Business

B-school students with a cause

Published: January 6, 2005 / Author: Francesca Online

A growing emphasis on social responsibility and ethics among MBAs is having a positive impact in the classroom and the real world

Back in 1999, a serious cycling accident left Jeffrey Bayard, now a first-year student at Boston University School of Management, partially paralyzed. Bayard rethought his life during the rounds of physical therapy that helped him walk and cycle again despite permanent paralysis of his legs from the knee down. He ultimately left his job as a project manager for the Wal-Mart account at Brunswick Bicycles in Fayetteville, Ark., and joined the nonprofit organization Bikes Not Bombs, a Roxbury (Mass.) group that sends renovated bicycles to developing countries and teaches American inner-city youth how to ride and repair bikes.

Even now that he’s pursuing a full-time MBA, Bayard remains a board member for Bikes Not Bombs and lends a helping hand when he can. The work is satisfying because it involves “teaching young people to embrace learning,” he says.

MORE THAN MONEY.  The beginning of the new year is a good time to reflect on one of the more encouraging trends in business education: The growing numbers of MBA students who are embracing a socially responsible philosophy similar to Bayard’s. Taking their cue from the September 11 terrorist attacks and the corporate scandals of recent years, many MBAs are looking to do more than just make money in the business world. They’re working or volunteering for nonprofit organizatons, or seeking jobs at companies with a social mission — such as Patagonia , a maker of outdoor gear and a supporter of environmental causes, or Target, which sponsors affiliated charities.

“Students are saying, ‘Life is short. How can I make a difference?'” says Kristen McCormack, director of Boston University ‘s Public & Nonprofit Management program. “They’re increasingly skeptical of traditional companies and are looking for employers who have real values.”

At top-ranked schools, the trend is particularly strong. For instance, Net Impact, an international organization for those who want to use their business skills to make a positive influence on society, has seen the number of chapters almost double to 94 since 2000. Twenty-nine of the 30 schools on BusinessWeek’s ranking of top B-schools have a chapter on campus. Net Impact Executive Director Liz Maw says the group also is encouraging professors to add case studies that address ethics and issues, such as the environment, to their curriculum.

CHARITY COUNTS.  The shift in attitudes is having a big affect in the classroom. The nonprofit sector, once seen as a backwater by many MBA students, is enjoying soaring new interest. In the last five years, applications to BU’s Public & Nonprofit Management program have doubled, McCormack says.

At other schools, students are pushing for a new emphasis on social responsibility and ethics. The Net Impact chapter at the University of Pennsylvania ‘s Wharton School was vital to getting faculty approval for the spring 2005 course, Entrepreneurship and Social Wealth Generation, where students will help develop businesses plans that address a social problem. And around 45% of U.S. B-schools, up from 34% in 2001, require students to take one or more courses in ethics, corporate social responsibility, sustainability, or business and society, says advocacy group Beyond Grey Pinstripes.

MBA students are also doing more charitable work. At the Yale School of Management, second-year student Colleen Curry, who oversees the pro-bono consulting program, says her classmates are seeking the “double bottom line” — making both a difference and a profit. Students at other MBA programs, including the University of Michigan ‘s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, are providing similar pro-bono consulting or other free services to those who need them.

WINDOW DRESSING?  A few B-schools are emerging as leaders in integrating social responsibility into their programs. Beyond Grey Pinstripes analyzed MBA curriculum in a 2003 study and found that 6 of 100 B-schools surveyed — George Washington University, Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Yale, and York University’sSchulich School of Business in Canada — are tops at integrating social issues into courses, offering relevant extracurricular activities and supporting faculty research on relevant subjects.

Still, social responsibility and ethics classes are limited on most campuses, according to Beyond Grey Pinstripes. Many schools may just be putting up window dressing to impress corporate recruiters while helping their MBAs polish their résumés. But that’s not always the case, says Paul Danos, dean of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “Business leaders today must be sensitive to their communities, and a student who demonstrates that he or she helps community organizations may be considered more promising as a future leader,” Danos says.

Whatever the motivation, a lot of good works are being done because of the trend. At Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, every first-year student is required to perform community service during orientation. Thanks to the school’s three-year-old Allwin Initiative for Corporate Citizenship, a center that promotes giving back to the community, more than 40 students offer pro-bono consulting to nonprofits, 11 students sit on the boards of nonprofits, and others volunteer to do things like read to children.

“More students are interested in balancing the need corporations have to make money with the expectation that they’ll do something for the greater good,” says Allwin Initiative Director Pat Palmiotto.

HAVING IT ALL.  Tuck second-year student Prasad Narasimhan became interested in the Allwin Initiative after performing a day of community service during orientation week. He spent most of his first year consulting for Bonnie Clac, a nonprofit that helps low-income families purchase cars by offering them financial counseling. “It’s a win-win situation because the nonprofit values your input, and you’re able to put your education into action,” he says.

B-school students these days often want to have it all — a substantial salary and bonuses, plus the chance to do some good in the world. Bayard says he cherishes the memory of having helped Carlos Ortiz, a shy 19-year-old, gain the knowledge and confidence to teach bicycle mechanics to at-risk high school students in Charlestown, Mass. As he rides onto the next path in his life, Bayard says doing good with his MBA — and doing it well — will be a top priority.


Topics: Mendoza