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Social Impact and the MBA: Business Schools Where the Two Are Synonymous

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Yale School of Management: A Legacy of Social Impact
Welcoming its first class in 1976, the then Yale School of Organization and Management conferred upon its graduates a master’s degree in public and private management (MPPM). From its founding, the school set out to train managers who could move seamlessly between the business, government and nonprofit sectors. “Business and government are growing more interrelated, requiring effective managers in each sector, public and private, to understand in depth the goals and operations of the other,” read an early admissions catalog.

The school changed its name to the Yale School of Management (SOM) in 1994 and began offering an MBA in 1999, but its mission—educating leaders for business and society—has remain steadfast throughout.

“The school frames from day one that no matter what you are doing you should be thinking about the intersection of business activities and positive societal impact,” says Susannah Harris, a student in the joint MBA/Master of Environmental Management (MEM) program that SOM offers with the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (FES).

Harris did not originally enroll at SOM and was not completely sold on an MBA from the start. “I knew I wanted to be on a campus that had a strong business school option, but I wasn’t ready to commit the time and money until I knew I needed both the MBA and the MEM to get where I wanted to go professionally,” she says. “But I definitely had SOM on my mind from day one.”

Susannah Harris, Yale MBA/MEM Candidate 2016
Susannah Harris, Yale MBA/MEM Candidate 2016

Much of her coursework at FES has had a strong content focus—on water, food systems, energy—but less on skill building. “People kept telling me that the Yale SOM core curriculum was going to be invaluable to me in terms of finance knowledge, decision-making tools, and spreadsheet modeling,” she says. So over the winter break of her first year at FES, she applied to take part in the joint MBA/MEM program. She counts approximately eight students who made the transition from FES to SOM in their first year with her and another handful who did the reverse. “The community—it’s about a 60-person group now—is just a powerhouse network, support system, idea generator,” Harris says. “The joint degree is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.”

That said, there’s a strong contingent of what Harris calls “pure SOMers” who enter focused on building a social impact brand for themselves in just the two years of business school. “If someone is coming in with either a really strong base of business skills or a previous background in some sort of social impact area, it’s totally manageable to build out the other half in two years,” she says.

After completing the SOM core—which itself is steeped in corporate social and environmental themes through case studies, readings and guest lecturers—MBAs can choose from more than 30 SOM electives, including courses in nonprofit management, corporate social responsibility, education, environment, social enterprise and more. Beyond that, SOMers can take any of 188 courses at FES, and the greater Yale University offers another 100 relevant courses. The ease with which graduate students can take classes at Yale’s other schools is one of the university’s unsung benefits, Harris says. She took a class at the law school on chemical controls because of its relationship to the environment. “People really bounce around and cherry pick what they need as a second-year business school student.”

SOM highlights for Harris included the school’s signature Global Social Enterprise (GSE) class, in which students spend a semester consulting directly to social enterprises in a foreign country. Harris worked with a healthcare startup in Sao Paolo, Brazil, consulting for a full semester on a social impact challenge it faced and traveling there for 10 days over a school break for an in-person session. “It’s great to have that travel element—to interact in person and make sure you are on the same page,” she says. For Harris, whose previous work experience involved consulting to the Environmental Protection Agency on how to make the most of a set budget for a range of national partnership programs—the chance to work on a social issue outside of the environment and to advise someone on how to actually have a social impact and make money doing it were also pluses.

social impact and the MBA
Harris, fifth from left, at dr.consulta offices in Sao Paulo as part of GSE visit to Brazil

Harris also sang the praises of a class taught by visiting professor Richard Kauffman, New York State chairman of energy and finance. “The class was on financing green technologies, digging into how well the goals of venture capitalists (VCs) do or don’t align with renewable energy projects,” she says. (The verdict: renewable energy projects often prove too resource intensive and cost too much up front for VCs to get excited.) “It was really fun to learn from such a cutting-edge practitioner.” Another standout course was a supply chain elective taught by Sang Kim. “It was great because it was made up of cases that each highlighted a major faux pas in supply chain management, and many were related to sustainable supply chains. His key takeaways really stuck with me.”

Outside of the classroom, SOM students can also take advantage of the Social Impact Lab—a Wednesday lunch session in which alumni, experts in the field and current students who have previously held social impact roles talk about what they learned, challenges they faced, new frameworks they developed. “I presented one of my own,” Harris says. “It’s a great place to incubate ideas.”

Clubs—such as SOM’s Net Impact Chapter, Business and the Environment Club or Global Social Enterprise Club—are also great resources for MBA students interested in social impact at Yale SOM, though less so for Harris. “I am less included to join clubs and more inclined to start new things,” she says, noting that she helped write two online courses for social impact at Yale. The Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY), a research center convening resources between SOM and FES, helped her facilitate and fund one of the classes she wrote on corporate water risk and strategy.

When pressed, Harris conceded that part of the reason she didn’t apply from the beginning to both SOM and FES may have had to do with her image of who a business school student was. “I was really pleasantly surprised when I walked into my cohort the first week and found that there were all sorts of people you can interact with and explore with and learn from,” she says. “I didn’t really realize how many environmentalists and other social change makers would be pure SOMers. That was a really big and positive experience.”

Even so, she knows that building a business and protecting the environment can still often be at odds. “For me, there continues to be a tension between my interest in protecting the environment and some of the tenets that you learn in business school. The way I think about it, I now have the language and the skills to engage with businesses on these issues without being an outsider,” she says. “I hope there will be people coming out of all of these programs who go deep enough both in science and business courses to weigh those tradeoffs productively in the real world. I do think people are becoming more creative and open minded about how to put business and social impact together.”

The 29-year-old Harris, for her part, will take what she’s learned at Yale SOM and put it into practice as a consultant in Washington, DC, working for Deloitte Consulting’s social impact service line.