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Why More Harvard MBAs Are Choosing Careers in Politics Straight Out of School

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There’s no doubt that politics and public service have been hot topics since the November 2016 election. These subjects have dominated news stories and talk shows across the country. And, according to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, politics and public service are also moving up as career choices for graduates from Harvard Business School (HBS).

Around 40 Class of ’17 HBS MBA graduates launched careers in government and nonprofits—twice as many as the previous year. Even though this represents just 4 percent of the program’s 900 graduates, it still suggests a growing interest in policy-making for business students.

Of course, business and government have always been closely connected, and it’s common for MBA students to aspire to public service and nonprofit involvement as part of their long-term career plans. The difference is that MBA graduates are starting to head into public service careers immediately after graduation. At least that’s what Matthew M. Segneri, an HBS MBA Class of 2004 alumnus, has witnessed.

Segneri, the director of the Social Enterprise Initiative at HBS, has noticed that graduates are increasingly considering careers in politics. In an article in the Harvard Crimson, he said: “Over the last 12 to 18 months, I’ve had a number of conversations with folks and seen a real uptick in the number of people who are thinking about local, state, and federal office.”

He went on to observe a change in the timing of these plans. “When you look at the prior generations of alumni there is more the tradition of learn, earn, and return—folks would go to school, have a successful traditional business career, and then later in life they would pursue public office or get deeply engaged in nonprofits and their communities,” Segneri said. “Today, there’s both an urgency and an understanding that it doesn’t have to be that way.”

There are many factors driving the surge in interest in politics. One is the simple fact that the United States elected a prominent businessman as president in the last election. Another is a trend of prominent business leaders being very vocal about politics in recent months, reinforcing the connection between the business and political realms.

For example, during the 2016 November election, Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co., threw her support behind the Democratic candidate in New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District race. And Carlos Diaz, a French entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, told the Financial Times that the tech industry has some responsibility for the 2016 election outcome.

“The America that voted for Trump does not own a Tesla, nor an iPhone, and when it needs money, it does not ask business angels for help: it relies on bad credit,” Diaz said. “It is time to recognize that we need to develop technologies and businesses that will benefit the widest range of people possible, algorithms that do not divide but that bring together.”

So, it’s not a surprise that MBA graduates are heading into politics. In fact, more than a dozen Harvard MBA graduates have recently announced campaigns to run for local, state, or federal government.

Democrat Tim Keller, HBS MBA ’05, was elected mayor of Albuquerque, NM, last month while Republican Margaret Busse, HBS MBA ’01, recently announced her candidacy for the Massachusetts state senate. In addition, HBS MBA ’03 Sarah Amico is expected to announce her run for lieutenant governor in Georgia.

While Keller didn’t enter politics straight out of graduate business school, he understands why new MBA graduates are doing so. “In business school, what a lot of people do is say, ‘Oh, my second career is gonna be in public service. I’m gonna go into business, be successful, and then do public service,’” he told the Crimson. “What’s different all of a sudden is that people are opting out early, and they’re like ‘I’m gonna do this right now’ because they’re upset about something or fired up and want to make a difference.”

Adem T. Bunkeddeko, MBA Class of ’17, is currently running for Congress in New York’s Ninth Congressional District in Brooklyn—making him a perfect example of this phenomenon. Throughout his career at Harvard, Bunkeddeko maintained his connection to his local community and decided to use his business skills to better serve through politics. “At HBS we’re trained as general managers,” he said. “Understanding aspects of an organization, whether it be from the finance front or human capital, are important and useful skills that are actually quite lacking in public service today.”

And many other MBA graduates feel the same way. For Busse, who is running for the Massachusetts State Senate, the many case studies she read during her HBS coursework informed her desire to go into politics. “It’s really that ability to solve real-world problems that is needed in government today, that is needed in nonprofits today, and anywhere where people are trying to make a difference,” she said.

In addition, Busse sees widespread dissatisfaction with the current political climate as another reason MBA graduates are entering this arena. “I’m guessing a lot of people are feeling like me, frustrated with the current situation we have in politics today and feeling their skillset gives them a unique ability to help solve the problems we have right now,” Busse said.

In fact, that dissatisfaction led HBS MBA ’01 Daniella Ballou-Aares to recruit more HBS graduates into politics by forming the nonprofit Leadership Now with some of her fellow alumni. Developed after the 2016 election, Leadership Now recruits Harvard alumni and business leaders to run for office and helps to raise funds for their campaigns. After just a few months, the nonprofit already has the support of about 300 high-level business leaders.

Another example of HBS graduates encouraging public service is With Honor, which was developed by ’09 MBA Rye Barcott to support veterans running for office. In 2018, the organization plans to spend $30 million supporting campaigns for 25 to 35 congressional candidates.

In the end, Keller notes that the biggest motivation for MBAs to get into politics may be President Donald Trump. “Whether you like him or not, he is motivating. You’re either motivated against him or you’re motivated for him,” Keller said. “I also do think there’s just something about the millennial group that they’re not going to wait around.”

To learn more about how Harvard Business School facilitates students’ careers in politics, visit the school website.

Kelly Vo
Kelly Vo is a writer who specializes in covering MBA programs, digital marketing, and topics related to personal development. She has been working in the MBA space for the past four years in research, interview, and writing roles.