More MBA Students Seek to Balance Business Goals and Social Ideals

More MBA Students Seek to Balance Business Goals and Social Ideals

Many of today’s MBAs are dropping their coats, ties and Wall Street aspirations in exchange for comfortable wardrobes, balanced lives, and healthier business environments. While ambitious, they are not satisfied by the traditional measures of success such as prestige, advancement, and financial security. Instead, they are passionate about using their expertise and the power of business to create a better world.

I found it a big relief to find such a group of like-minded students upon entering business school in 1995. At the time, Students for Responsible Business and was a relatively small nonprofit based in San Francisco. A lot has changed since then. The group, renamed Net Impact, is now a national network of 5,000 MBA students and alumni dedicated to encouraging the next generation of socially responsible business leaders. I now lead Net Impact’s Northwest Professional Chapter based in Portland, Ore. Yet while the business climate for sustainable-minded MBAs has certainly changed, we still have room for improvement.

“Many MBAs believe they will have to make business decisions that conflict with their values –- they know it, they are stressed by it,” says a recent MBA student attitude study released by The Initiative for Social Innovation through Business at The Aspen Institute. While a percentage of the survey’s respondents expect they would try to advocate alternative values or approaches within the company, the majority claims they would look for another job. According to the 2002 Cone Corporate Citizenship Study, 89% of Americans say it is more important than ever for companies to be socially responsible. 80% say they would refuse to work at a company with “negative corporate citizenship practices” and 91% would consider switching to another company’s products or services.

Some of these recent MBAs choose to explore cooperative alliances with nonprofits, avoiding an “us versus them” mentality and instead working together to improve the impact of business on society. But while more students focus in new areas such environmental, nonprofit, or public management in school, many of them including me accepted rather traditional jobs or companies upon graduation. Not wanting to lose our connection to social responsibility, we make it a point to bring our values to work and to make change from within. We have formed informal networks of Net Impact alumni to socialize, share ideas, and continue the inspiration that we found during school.

It seems that the MBA mentality is changing in part because of the diversity of those entering business school. In our class we had former attorneys, school teachers, homemakers, and Peace Corps volunteers. Such students increasingly want to challenge the status quo and talk about issues including corporate ethics, human rights, and environmental impact in the classroom as well as in the boardroom. They recognize the value of running a business with all the company’s stakeholders (and not just its financial shareholders) in mind. At the same time, corporate responsibility is moving up in stature as more businesses grapple with complex political, cultural, and environmental issues, according to the Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive Business School Survey. 77% of corporate recruiters said it is important to hire students with an awareness of social and environmental responsibility.

Social responsibility interests are definitely on the rise -- but this is not quite a mainstream trend in MBA programs. Most of the 100,000 MBA students earning degrees this spring have not necessarily benefited from a business school curriculum that addresses these issues of concern to the group. There is a gradual trend to incorporate more curriculum such as ethics, corporate responsibility, and sustainability into MBA programs. I hope that demand from students and employees will accelerate this trend to become truly mainstream soon.

The institution of business is now generally regarded as potentially the most powerful and influential community in our society. Many new MBAs have a strong sense of purpose and believe that business has the potential to grow our economy while helping solving the problems of social injustice, economic inequality, and environmental degradation. While doing well and doing good were once seen as conflicting objectives, today many established and emerging business leaders realize that these can be accomplished in harmony.

Mark Adams is manager of business operations and communications at Intel Corporation and leads the Net Impact Northwest Professional Chapter. He is also president of the Oregon Kayak & Canoe Club.

Net Impact, originally called Students for Responsible Business, was founded in 1993 by 17 business school students who wanted to discuss issues related to corporate responsibility and social entrepreneurship. With more than 60 chapters at business schools and cities throughout the country, Net Impact offers programs to help its members discuss business issues “beyond the bottom line,” refine their leadership skills, and pursue their career aspirations while balancing social ideals with business goals.