All Hail, Do-Gooding MBAs!

What's being redefined by this new breed of MBA is the definition of success, with an edict as old as planting Johnny-Appleseed trees.
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Don't look now, but it seems that some MBA students are increasingly interested in doing good as well as making money, and more business schools are happy to accommodate them. This is all to the, ahem, good, because we need all the smart, talented MBAs we can get to attack our biggest social, ethical and environmental problems.

While the vast majority of jobs for MBAs are still the traditional ones, I'm seeing evidence of a nascent shift. Indeed, no less a prophet than Michael Porter sees the same thing, and believes that there are opportunities a-plenty for companies that focus on solving there world's most urgent social environmental problems. "If we can get business seeing itself differently and others to see businesses differently," Porter said in a recent TED talk, "we can change the world. My students are getting [the fact that [sic] we can break down this divide, this tension and finally have solutions." As Porter (and C.K. Prahalad before him) suggest, there is plenty of money to be made in doing so.

Meanwhile, since the 2008 debacle on Wall Street and the ensuing global economic recession, traditional MBA curricula have lost some of their luster, noted Christopher Schuetze in the New York Times. More and more business schools, most recently Berkeley's Haas School of Business, now offer dedicated curricula that appeal to students who want to make the world a better place.

So who is this nascent MBA? He or she is a well-rounded, empathetic human being who can understand the mindset of the people whose problems are being solved. The MBA curriculum at the University of Michigan's Ross Business School, for example, is designed to build this kind of understanding. Students learn by doing, and they empathize with their customers -- like the needy Detroit families who come to a school fair where the MBAs put up booths. (Some favorite projects have included "Towering Toothpicks" -- a learning activity where kids were taught basic engineering concepts as they competed to build the tallest tower out of toothpicks and gum drop candies; "Brain Food" -- a learning station where students learned about healthy snack options while completing a guided food preparation lesson using trail mix; and "Clockwatchers" -- a smart phone video game concept designed to motivate kids to get to school early.)

"Business leaders need to understand consumers, markets, customers, employees, colleagues in and outside the organization," says Scott de Rue, who runs this program at Ross. "This is a great way for our students to get there."

This all sounds new, but it has surprisingly old roots. It's just a new way of expressing a sense of corporate responsibility that existed ages ago in a few old-fashioned leaders. 'Way back in the 1950s and 1960s, the "organization man" -- a conservative capitalist, but someone who would be considered moderate Republican or even a liberal by today's insane political standards -- was often highly conscious of his social role and felt duty-bound to uphold civil society. Back then, a few (male, white) leaders understood that supporting downtrodden communities was probably in their companies' best interests.

Consider this nugget from no less a profiteering hard-ass than Alcoa's one-time CEO: "It makes sense to participate -- with corporate money, talent and energy -- in a community project to improve conditions in the slums," John D. Harper told the Dallas Management Association in the mid-1960s. "In the long run, such participation will prove to be beneficial to your own business. Because if you reduce delinquency, crime and illiteracy, you reduce your own corporate tax load, and you convert welfare cases into productive workers."

Harper sounds a bit retrograde to our ears now, but he was on to something: if you support communities (and the people who buy your products and services who live in them), those communities will support you. It's a far cry from the greedy, I've-got-mine money mantra that led to the 2008 financial meltdown. (And yes, some of the blame for which was laid at the feet of business schools that produced too many selfish leaders. Sadly, that culture is still too deeply pervasive, as the unforgivingly critical movie (and the frightening book on which it's based) The Wolf of Wall Street attests.

Ultimately, what's being redefined by this new breed of MBA is the definition of success, with an edict as old as planting Johnny-Appleseed trees. "We're planting seeds," says de Rue, "so that when they get to upper echelons tomorrow's leaders think of themselves as a positive force for change." For my part, I'm hoping and praying that the these do-gooding MBAs and their cohorts are wildly successful.

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