The MBA graduates taking the moral high ground

A new breed of MBA graduate wants to do good while earning their crust

Sarah Barrell
Tuesday 19 January 2010 01:00
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The path from Kent to Kenya may not be a traditional one for an MBA, but last summer two students from the University of Kent business school travelled to East Africa to provide free consultation for small rural businesses, as part of the global initiative Team MBA. Miriam Demirates and Reabetswe Kgoroeadira, students at Kent, helped Kenyan youth groups find economic sustainability through training in entrepreneurship and small business management. Once the pair graduate, the initiative will pass to the next class, creating an ongoing international venture.

One regional business school, one very big idea, but of the kind that's springing up in MBA programmes worldwide. A culture of social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility is reshaping MBA programmes and it stretches far beyond volunteer work and pure philanthropy. A socially responsible army of professionals is peopled by the growing breed of MBAs who want to make a buck while also making the world a better place. Some believe they are changing not only the culture of business schools, but that of business too.

A timely development, maybe, in an economic climate where big banks have cut recruitment rounds, and training programmes are extinct. But is this more than students looking for the best way out of a bad situation? It seems so. "Rather than separating where they make their money from where they do good, they are convinced that it is possible to live comfortably and dedicate their careers to pursuits that are fundamentally innovative, philosophically positive and morally compelling," says Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

The Skoll Centre's partnership with Oxford University's Saïd Business School has brought the comparatively young MBA programme a worldwide reputation for attracting and churning out students who make heavy-hitting contributions to society. Since 2003, the centre has added pioneering programmes to the Saïd curriculum, as well as five full scholarships.

More notable is that interest in pursuing jobs in social entrepreneurship now extends far beyond the likes of Oxford's Skoll scholars - half of the ventures presented for Saïd's 2009 entrepreneurial project were of a social nature. Further afield, at this year's MBA Student of the Year competition, sponsored by The Independent, which recognises exceptional students with a talent for leadership, three of four finalists were involved with philanthropic work including the winner Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke, a director at the humanitarian organisation Enfants d'Asie. Business schools are now introducing consulting projects to their curriculums that encourage students to focus on work led by social values. For example, at Ashridge in Hertfordshire, 2008 alumni Mark Gleeson is one of myriad students who opted for placement at a non-profit organisation. This led to permanent employment as membership director of Abbeyfield, which provides housing for the elderly. Like an ever-growing number of British business schools, Ashridge has launched a course with social values at its core: a Masters in sustainability and responsibility.

Humanitarian work, climate change, sustainable business investment in emerging markets and clean technology are all areas attracting this new breed of MBA, but traditional graduate industries, such as finance and banking, are not off limits. "Often, as much impact is being made in helping to shape an organisation's strategies and move a company in the right direction," says Emily Stewart, marketing co-ordinator of Glasgow Business School. Beyond Grey Pinstripes, a biennial survey and ranking of business schools, recognises Glasgow among a growing number of schools with corporate social responsibility hardwired into its approach.

At Bradford University, this ethos extends to the building itself. It was recently named the top green UK university, and its new School of Management building won an "excellent" accreditation for sustainable construction from BRE Environmental Assessment Method.

"The school plays a key role in shaping and implementing the university's sustainability strategy," says Professor Arthur Francis, dean of the School of Management. "We see one of our roles as educating students about corporate social responsibility, sustainability and social entrepreneurship. One part of the remit of the school's Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management is to promote and support social enterprises. Our part-time MBA is attracting students who are interested in social enterprise - a handful are social entrepreneurs themselves."

Business schools are no longer just looking for typical graduates to fill their courses, accepting entrepreneurs with little academic background but proven professional track records. With unemployment for both school and university leavers sky high, graduates are snapping up school leavers' jobs. Without a traditional job market, entrepreneurship is an increasingly attractive alternative. A booming number of initiatives across the UK and US encourage the spirit of entrepreneurship and provide not only youth employment opportunities but also often the chance to put something back into the community.

Will this feed back into the business school system, creating more rounded MBAs? It seems likely. Rory Clarke, a director at J R Rix & Sons, a shipping business in Hull, is studying for a part-time executive MBA at Hull University Business School, one of the first UK institutions to sign up to the Principles for Responsible Management initiative, which champions responsible business education. "For me, the MBA programme is about auditing my knowledge, reinforcing what I already know and discovering where my skills gaps are. Corporate social responsibility is no longer just nice to have, but a requirement for managers today if our businesses are to remain sustainable," he says.

Today's MBAs are not just putting ethics before profits, but are quickly working out that, in the long run, ethics equals profits.

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