Can an MBA boost your impact and career?

In October, Curtis Chang at the Stanford Social Innovation Review shared a few management tips for nonprofit leaders based on lessons taught in MBA programs. While he notes the challenges in pursuing an MBA – including cost and time – we know that many people are considering graduate school to help them develop these skills and we are excited to see that MBA programs are expanding their offerings to include a greater focus on social impact. To explore this topic more, we’ve invited Net Impact — a nonprofit that helps business school students and professionals leverage their talent for social change — to share more about the growth of these programs and how we might use them to increase our impact.

By Kyle Skahill

Net Impact, Business as UNusual

If you’ve never really thought an MBA could help you amplify your impact, consider this: more and more business schools are restructuring their programs and incorporating sustainability and social impact issues into their curriculum. In fact, the number of programs featured in Business as UNusual, our guide to impact MBA programs, has grown 170% since we first started publishing it in 2006. That means the tools, opportunities, and connections you gain from today’s impact MBA programs offer newfound potential to create the change you want to see.

Here are a few other ways an MBA might help you advance your career and ability to make a difference:

1)     Expand your impact opportunities

Innovative cross-sector collaborations are opening new avenues for change, so a working understanding of other sectors may be an eye-opener. Business models are changing rapidly, from the rise of B-corporations to unconventional start-ups to cross-sector partnerships – so options abound post-graduation for nontraditional integration of business skills into your career for good.

Who knows, you might even discover opportunities you never considered. Kirsten Tobey was a teacher focusing on experiential education when she realized her interests were increasingly drawn to the bigger-picture issues around food accessibility. So she enrolled in business school, attended a cross-disciplinary product design class, and graduated with the idea for Revolution Foods, which has now served more than 50 million healthy meals to school children nationwide.

This year’s Business as UNusual suggests Kirsten isn’t alone: while entering MBA students came largely from traditional corporations and nonprofits, students’ aspirations post-MBA shifted markedly to include start-ups, social enterprise, and other mission-driven companies (see graphic). It’s clear that the MBA experience opened students’ eyes to a wider set of paths toward making change.

2)     Build your impact-making skills

Nonprofits demand leadership, innovative thinking, and responsive problem solving skills if they expect to make progress on the world’s most serious issues. And they need hard skills like project management, finance, and strategy to galvanize that progress. MBA programs incorporating social and environmental issues give students the chance to develop those skills, while applying them to the issues they care about most.

As one Business as UNusual student respondent wrote about his program, “a deep dive into sustainability through all sectors of the curricula, as well as leadership development, prepares one to implement social and environmental policy in business, one’s community, and our planet’s future.”

But in addition to your own skill building, an understanding of the models and language fundamental to the business sector will be an asset in conversations with partners, sponsors, and stakeholders. Dan Winterson, program director at the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, describes his work on initiatives like the foundation’s Forever Costa Rica effort involving multiple funders and NGOs. “We talk about applying Wall Street principles to conservation because it’s a big project to finance,” he explains. “It’s a big ‘deal,’ essentially, where there are number of conditions that need to be in place before the deal can close. That’s an example where a business background and financial skills are crucial. And I think you see more and more of that in the environmental conservation field.”

3)     Build a network for lifelong impact

The fact remains that a large part of business school’s clout rests on the students and alumni you meet and the doors that this cadre of professionals can open for you. And if you’re an aspiring impact-maker, you’ll find more like-minded students in your MBA cohort than ever before. In this year’s guide, 77% of business students reported that their peers are also prioritizing impact careers in their post-graduation job search. These contacts often translate into future volunteers, partners, employees, and donors instrumental to your organization’s continued viability.

On the first day of that cross-disciplinary product design class, Kirsten Tobey had already started thinking about how to get students eating healthier. So when a classmate – who would become her future business partner – held up a less-than-nutritious lunch she’d just purchased and wondered if there was a better alternative, it was kismet. “We looked at each other across the room,” says Kirsten, “and that was the beginning of a great friendship and partnership.”

With so many MBA programs addressing social and sustainability issues (Business as UNusual 2012 features more than one hundred) to choose from, it’s safe to say that business school is no longer the exclusive domain of the corporate world. The b-school now offers social sector professionals a way to build valuable networks, hone critical skills, and discover new opportunities for impact – and that is a change for the best.

Kyle Skahill is the Community Program Fellow at Net Impact, a leading nonprofit empowering a new generation of leaders to work for a sustainable future. Business as UNusual, the organization’s annual guide to impact MBA programs, can be downloaded free at: netimpact.org/bizschoolguide

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