The New Breed of MBA
For a few years after college, Lauren McLaughlin threw herself into changing the world, living in a lice-infested orphanage in Ecuador, counseling runaways and teenagers in juvenile detention in San Francisco. It was nonstop, but gratifying, work. “I didn’t sleep for four years,” she says.
Then like most young people, she took a break to consider her future. Off she went to get her MBA from Babson College.
The sudden interest in commerce shocked her friends and family. What was she, of all people, doing in pursuit of a master’s degree in business administration? “All my friends said, ‘You’ve gone to the other side,’” she recalls.
They misunderstood. For many people, an MBA is still a requisite for a fast-track, high-salary career, often in finance or consulting. But young activists today recognize that cold, gritty business expertise – knowledge of profit-and-loss statements, balance sheets and financing strategies – can give their efforts greater impact. McLaughlin and others view an MBA as a powerful tool to ratchet up the power and finesse behind their social activism. “I knew things could be done differently, but I wasn’t sure how,” says McLaughlin. “I needed to gain more skills.”
Schools are responding in droves: More of the top-ranked MBA programs in the country are offering special classes, programs and business plan competitions for students who plan to launch socially responsible businesses. Yale School of Management, Stanford University Graduate School of Business, Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School and Babson College Graduate School of Business are among a growing group of top tier schools that have a focus for the socially conscious student.
Indeed the business plan competitions for socially conscious ventures have become a showcase for the universities that host them. One of the first was the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, which has now joined with Columbia, London Business School and Goldman Sachs Foundation for a Social Venture Competition. Last year’s finalists include a venture that leases alternativefuel delivery trucks, a charter school that combines education with community cultural needs and a start-up that specializes in bringing wind and solar power to developing countries.
“There’s been a change from the dot-com days when they were more interested in becoming millionaires overnight,” says Andrew Zacharakis, acting director of the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson. “Now there are some who see there is more to life than a boatload of money by the time they are 35.”
Some of this shift reflects changes in business schools themselves. In the last 20 years or so, women have represented a growing percentage of MBA students, bringing a world view that may emphasize family and community concerns. Also, the imposition of outside rankings – as subjective as they are –by US News and World Report and other publications has made business schools more sensitive to meeting what the students want. Moreover, many business schools have added classes and an emphasis on entrepreneurship, as more students look for alternatives to Wall Street and consulting.
Of course, in most business schools, students with noble ambitions still stick out as oddballs. The stratospheric cost of an advanced degree drives many students to view their MBA as a big financial investment – and they expect a big return. Mildred Myers, professor of management communication, sees it in her classes at Carnegie Mellon University’s business school, a school heavily weighted toward the “quantitative,” numbers-crunching approach. Many of her students were skeptical when their fellow MBA classmates began mentoring school kids in one of Pittsburgh’s rougher neighborhoods.
“They said, ‘Why are you doing that? That won’t help you get a job,’” she recalls.
But a new breed is forging its own way, and others are following them down a different “success” path. Leila Berkeley, who studied political science at Georgetown University, attended a business program at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business with the aim of working for nonprofits. “I wanted to learn how to harness business power and incentive systems and put them to use for social causes,” she says.
She now works for the Pittsburgh Social Venture Accelerator, which is funded by several foundations to help nonprofits work more efficiently. She was surprised and delighted to receive a half-dozen applications from Harvard MBA students to intern at her small operation, and took it as a sign that other MBA students harbor motivations beyond greed. “My sense is that people want to feel good about the work they are doing,” she says.
What does an MBA do for someone such as McLaughlin, armed with her experiences in Ecuador and on the West Coast? She was motivated to study business after a government program was cut in San Francisco. The program – one of several that employed her – provided AIDS education. “It was the only one in the county,” she said. “I thought, ‘There has to be a better way to do this.’”
Now she’s in New York translating her ideas on children and family into a business that, she hopes, will one day be profitable.
It hasn’t been easy. Striking the right business model has been a huge challenge. She raised $75,000 from investors and started Night Light Works Inc., first to sell plush toys aimed at kids in families who’d been through a traumatic experience. But she found a lot of parents weren’t comfortable playing with kids while a traumatic event – a death, divorce, illness – was gripping the family.
Since then, she’s forged ties with a toy manufacturing association, and uses certain toys in teacher training and curriculum consulting. She works with the toy makers to develop “play recipes” using their products, and hold “playshops” in toy stores, where they give parents ideas how to engage with their children using unusual playthings.
For instance, in one recent New York playshop, the parents and kids each grasped an end of a colorful silk scarf, nine feet long. Ms. McLaughlin watched as they transformed the scarf to illustrate different emotions that she called out. The parents and children stretched the scarves tight to reflect “jealousy,” or swung it up high to show “powerful.” These freewheeling activities particularly engage younger children, or kids with autism or attention deficit disorders. Parents can buy a monthly subscription to get a few creative toys and a DVD that expounds upon creative ways to use them, as well.
She credits her MBA work with helping her find a way to build a business about more than making money. “My professors at Babson kept me grounded,” she says. “We may have a slower growth ath, but we are bringing the community with us.”