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The Best Business Schools for Social Impact

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

Best Social Impact MBAThe idea that the MBA can prepare you not only to do well, but also to do good, has taken hold around the world in a big way. Net Impact, a nonprofit membership organization formed in 1993 by a small group of socially minded MBA students in San Francisco, has ballooned into an international organization of more than 100,000 members, boasting more than 400 chapters spread across business schools, undergraduate institutions and corporations. Net Impact’s 2017-18 social and environmental guide to graduate programs found that 96 percent of MBA students surveyed cited learning about social and environmental business as a priority. Eighty-three percent agreed or strongly agreed that their MBA programs offered adequate career preparation resources for impact job seekers.

Source: Net Impact 2017-18 Guide to Business Schools for Social and Environmental Impact

Why This Increased Demand for Social Impact Among MBAs?

According to Net Impact, 68 percent of students surveyed would take a 15 percent pay cut to have a job that seeks to make a difference in the world either socially or environmentally.

social impact and the MBA
Tuck Professor Anant Sundaram

And the focus on sustainability and social impact is expected to grow more and more mainstream—not only among MBA students but also at the companies they seek to work for.

Tuck School of Business Finance Professor Anant Sundaram draws more students each year who want to take his class on business and climate change, which he says only makes sense. “At many of the companies these students are targeting for post-MBA jobs, sustainability has become very central to how they operate,” he says. “We approach it in a very hard-nosed way—if you are the CEO of a shareholder-value maximizing company, should you care about climate change and, if so, why?”

Go into any major company and you will now find a chief sustainability officer, Sundaram tells his students. “Not only is this a very senior manager in a policy-making role, but it’s also a new potential career path,” he says. “It’s exciting, and it has all happened in the last decade in a significant way.”

Schools Leading the Social Impact Charge

So, if student demand is high and the need for talent on the part of potential employers is poised for growth, which schools are best answering the call for an MBA education firmly rooted in the tenets of social impact? We don’t claim to offer a comprehensive ranking of the best MBA programs for social impact. (Net Impact devotes significant resources toward assessing the merits of different MBA programs both in terms of sustainability and social impact and tells us the next Guide To Business Schools report is due out in fall 2019.) In the meantime, we’re taking a deeper dive into some of what’s on offer at a few of the schools doing it best.

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.

SOM offers a joint MBA/Master of Environmental Management (MEM) program with the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (FES). 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 50 SOM electives, including courses in nonprofit management, corporate social responsibility, education, environment, social enterprise and more. Beyond that, SOMers can take any of 120+ courses at FES, and the greater Yale University offers more than 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.

SOM highlights include the school’s signature Global Social Entrepreneurship (GSE) class, in which students spend a semester consulting directly to social enterprises in a foreign country. In 2018, a group of students worked with i-Saksham and traveled to Bihar, India to address the city’s literacy rate and per capita income, both the lowest in all of India.  The group assessed other models of supplementary education to evaluate how i-Saksham could improve the way they provide education and skills trainings to the local citizens, and presented their research for implementation.

Some of the most well-received classes are taught by faculty members Richard Kauffman, New York State chairman of energy and finance; and Sang Kim, Professor of Operations Management. Kauffman’s course centers on financing green technologies, discussing how well the goals of venture capitalists do or don’t align with renewable energy projects. (The verdict: renewable energy projects often prove too resource intensive and cost too much up front for VCs to get excited.) Another standout course was a supply chain elective taught by Sang Kim. The course is largely case study-based and each case aims to highlight a problem in supply chain management, and many are related to sustainable supply chains.

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. Clubs—such as SOM’s Net Impact ChapterBusiness and the Environment Club or Global Social Enterprise Club—are also great resources for MBA students interested in social impact at Yale SOM.  The Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY), a research center convening resources between SOM and FES, helps students connect with industry leaders to conduct research and work together to develop solutions to ever-changing sustainability challenges.  Applied learning programs allow students hands-on experience while focusing individual areas of interest within the field.

NYU Stern School of Business: Championing Sustainability at Home and Abroad

New York University’s Stern School of Business doubled down on its commitment to social impact with the launch of a brand new Center for Sustainable Business in 2016. The Citi Foundation put $1 million of its money toward the cause, and leading environmentalist and former Rainforest Alliance President Tensie Whelan came on board to lead the center. It offers expanding sustainability courses for undergraduates and graduate students, works with companies interested in specially designed courses to help their executives learn sustainable practices and, in time, establish consulting projects with partner firms to help students take what they learn from the classroom to the boardroom.

social impact and the MBA
Center for Sustainable Business Director Tensie Whelan

At first glance, NYU Stern might seem an unusual pick to serve as a nexus of sustainable business. Historically, the school has sent massive percentages of its graduates into finance at nearby Wall Street banks or to the major consulting firms. In fact, that’s a huge plus in Whelan’s eyes. “We need more business leaders in finance who are looking to incorporate sustainability into their investment decisions,” she told us in an interview when the center first launched. “On the consulting side, I believe that more and more consulting efforts will be focused on helping companies transition to become more sustainable,” she added. “It is exciting to have students going into these sectors where they will have real impact.”

But to think that Stern’s focus on social impact is new or that it’s an attempt to woo would-be bankers and consultants away from more traditional paths would be folly. There is a strong contingent of Sternies who come in deeply passionate about social impact and look to get involved in many ways. Some choose a specialization in Sustainable Business and Innovation, taking courses on topics ranging from impact investing and microfinance to energy and the environment and global poverty alleviation. Others take part in numerous clubs on campus related to sustainability and the environment or social impact.

As part of the course called “Doing Business in (DBi),” students travel for one to two weeks during traditional break periods to gain international experience in a rapidly changing global economy. In January 2017, students traveled to Costa Rica, where they interacted with students and professors from Incae Business School, experience the country’s culture, and gained a better understanding of the opportunities for sustainable development and responsible labor practices.

Beyond the classroom, the Social Impact and Sustainability Association (SISA) MBA club organizes events centered on their namesake—social impact and sustainability.  Annually, they bring together professionals from across industries for Executives-in-Residence Speaker Series, skills-based workshops, industry and student/alumni speaker panels.  Members are also encouraged to partake in case competitions, including The Aspen Institute Business & Society International MBA Case Competition and the Patagonia Case Competition. The club also offers support for recruiting and career efforts, including resources for the interview stage of the career search process.  Each year, MBA students in this club team up with others from NYU’s policy and law schools to host the Social Innovation Symposium.  Past keynote speakers included: Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer and VP of Innovation Accelerator, and Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of Public Engagement at Patagonia and founding chairman of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.  Last year, the theme of the conference was Social Intrapreneurship: Transforming Business from Within and the next symposium is slated for the Spring of 2020.

Stern also offers a wealth of support to students pursuing jobs in the social impact space. One example is the Social Impact Internship Fund (SIIF), which supports MBA students who choose to pursue summer internships with a social impact focus between their first and second years. Through the recently founded CSB, Whelan co-hosted a job fair with Collectively and VICE Media and slated for March 30th, to showcase social impact job opportunities.

Haas a Heavy Hitter in Social Impact Arena

The list of social impact initiatives at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business is long. The school’s Institute for Business & Social Impact (IBSI), led by Laura D’Andrea Tyson, serves as an overarching hub for an array of programs and centers focused on finding creative solutions to some of the most challenging issues facing society and the environment.

One, the Center for Social Sector Leadership (CSSL), provides a wealth of resources for MBA students looking to become leaders in nonprofit and public institutions. On campus, CSSL initiatives include Social Sector Solutions (S3), which lets Haas MBA students hone their skills while providing valuable assistance as consultants to organizations in the nonprofit, public and social enterprise sectors, and Berkeley Board Fellows, which gives students the valuable experience of serving on nonprofit boards.

In an effort to provide social impact practitioners in the field with access to the same high-quality leadership training afforded to Haas MBAs, CSSL launched a first-of-its-kind global initiative providing free online courses covering the foundations of what it takes to make a significant social impact. Called Philanthropy University, it features a unique curriculum developed and taught by Haas faculty as well as industry leaders from McKinsey, Hewlett, Kiva and others. Its six foundational courses—which cover topics including nonprofit strategy, fundraising tactics, global social enterprise and how to scale social impact, among others—are available, for free, to individuals working in the very organizations where those skills are most crucial.

The Institute for Business & Social Impact is also home to the Center for Responsible Business (CRB). Calling itself an “action-tank,” the CRB is designed to unite students, faculty and the heads of companies to redefine business in ways that ensure a sustainable future. One of its most recent developments: the launch of a Sustainable Food Initiative combining coursework and outreach designed to help educate the next generation of business leaders on how to best address the global food challenge.

The Haas Social Impact Fellows Program, brings leading experts in the field to campus to mentor students, serve on panels and share their expertise with the school’s programs, centers and faculty. Among this year’s three fellows are Tracy Gray, the founder and managing partner of The 22 Fund, dedicated to increase the exports of women- and minority-owned Southern Californian manufacturing companies; and Lynelle Cameron, Vice President of Sustainability at Autodesk, whose company aims to develop innovative designs and manufacturing techniques in a low-carbon economy.

Haas also hosts an annual Global Social Ventures Competition (GSVC). Taking place this year in Berkeley on April 3-5, GSVC is a unique competition founded by Haas MBA students in 1999 that brings together teams from around the globe to learn how to scale their ideas for addressing some of the greatest social impact challenges of our day. Twenty-one participating teams from the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa and South America take part, and last year the competition drew 692 entries from 67 countries. Successful social ventures such as Kiva, Revolution Foods and Ethos Water got their start as part of the GSVC. This year’s finalists range from U.S.-based startup Key2 Enable, focused on developing digital technologies to improve the autonomy of people with disabilities to rePurpose Global, a sustainable company that aims to counteract individual consumer’s plastic footprint by empowering workers worldwide to protect the planet from waste.

Social Impact Starts at Home at HBS

Harvard Business School (HBS) claims to have pioneered the concept of social enterprise with the launch of its Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI) in 1993. Indeed, its nearly 50 faculty members engaged in social enterprise and teaching have created more than 200 case studies on social enterprise that have been used to teach HBS MBA students as well as MBA students at other business schools around the globe. The SEI’s courses, cases and research center around two main pillars: nonprofit strategy and government and business for social impact. HBS students can choose from electives such as “Public Entrepreneurship” or “Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation” as well as several relevant field courses.  Students lead the annual Social Enterprise Conference (SECON), which has grown since its launch in 2000 to be one of the most popular conferences on campus, drawing hundreds of students, alumni and experts from the field. The school’s New Venture Competition (NVC) also features a Social Entrepreneurship track, and teams in this track have made up a third or more of all entrants in recent years, the school reports.

In addition to the ever-growing offerings within the SEI, the school is also taking significant strides to ensure that it is incorporating sustainability into its own operations. By operating healthier, more energy-efficient buildings, the business school has cut emissions on its campus by 45 percent and energy use by 21 percent. It has also implemented single-stream recycling, composting in dining halls, reuse collection stations during move out and donation of leftover food to local shelters and food banks. As part of an MBA Student Sustainability Associates (SSA) Program, 10 first-year HBS students contribute to ongoing initiatives and help educate their fellow classmates on the work being done and the ways they can play a role.

Social Impact’s Global Reach

Growing interest in social impact extends well beyond the business schools of the United States. The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Saïd provides a range of innovative social entrepreneurship programs designed to foster whole new approaches to social impact—ones that extend well beyond any current regulatory requirements. Leadership development programs, global competitions centered around societal and environmental change, and specialized fields labs all allow students hands-on experience in social entrepreneurship. best business schools for social impact

Saïd MBA students can also take part in unique social impact projects. Students can choose between the Entrepreneurship Project or the Strategic Consulting Project. In the first, they are challenged to develop a business plan for a new venture providing a practical approach to addressing a real social issue. As part of the second, students work in teams of four as part of an eight-week consultancy project over the summer, working with a range of organizations around the globe that the Skoll Centre identifies as worthwhile enterprises to benefit from the help provided by the MBA student consultants.

The school also provides valuable resources to students looking to pursue social impact careers beyond graduation. In May 2018, the Skoll Centre and the Saïd Careers Centre teamed up to put on the sixth annual Social Impact Careers ConferenceThirty high-impact speakers—including Penny Fowler, head of the private sector team for Oxfam; Simon Abrams, EY senior manager for climate change and sustainability services; and Baljeet Sandhu, founding director of Migrant and Refugee Children’s Legal Unit—shared the varied paths they took to enter the social impact sector. The conference also included panels, workshops and career discussions designed to help interested students understand the less conventional recruiting processes used by some social impact organizations, as well as ways to make an impact in more traditional organizations, including multinational companies, government organizations and financial service providers.

The Wave of the Future: To Save the Future

To be sure, the programs highlighted here are by no means a complete list of MBA programs infusing social impact and sustainability into their graduate management education. UNC’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business features a well-regarded sustainability concentration, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business offers students the opportunity to concentrate in social entrepreneurship and take part in multiple programs through its Center for Social Entrepreneurship (CASE), and Stanford Graduate School of Business is home to the Center for Social Innovation, which brings together more than 60 faculty members who teach a wide-ranging social innovation curriculum.

Student entrepreneurs, too, are increasingly focused on social impact. At Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business, the Zell Fellows Program—which provides support to MBA students who are trying to get ventures off the ground by graduation—this year features multiple businesses with strong social missions,. Professor David Schonthal, who heads the Zell Fellows Program, also teaches the “Discover” portion of the school’s new venture creation track, a course in which students bring problems into the classroom that they are passionate about solving.

For as long as social issues challenge our countries and our planet, we trust and expect that business schools and the MBA students they teach will continue to rise to the challenge, responding with new and ever more innovative ways to confront and solve them.