Social Enterprise, the MBA Way

The Aspen Institute’s recently updated Beyond Grey Pinstripes, the list of top 100 top socially- and environmentally- conscious MBA programs, has generated a lot of interest in how business schools are (or are not) developing curriculum that will foster socially sustainable thinking. Fast Company recently interviewed Judy Samuelson, Aspen’s director of business and society, who said that, while b-schools are providing a more ethical and socially-conscious framework for students, in general, they’re still not leading. That may be true, but if anything, Beyond Grey Pinstripes shows that many business schools are starting to take the ideas of corporate social responsibility (CSR) seriously, and that many students are being exposed to this thinking throughout their MBA programs.

So, is this kind of thinking rubbing off on students?

A glance at some recent projects and startups created by MBA students and recent graduates shows that this new type of thinking is indeed having a positive effect, and may be influencing a new breed of businesses that are, through innovation and the adoption of traditional business principles, tackling social and environmental problems.

Take Sameer Hajee, for example. After getting his MBA at INSEAD in 2005, Hajee went on to develop a company called Nuru Lights, that has helped to invent and is starting to mobilize a clean off-grid lighting system for India’s poor. Using a hyper-local micro entrepreneurship model (similar to models of other startups like Netflix,) Hajee is finding ways to provide electric light, inexpensively, for people who have never had access to it. With Nuru Lights, Hajee has identified a social problem, and has used his business school experience to identify a solution that is potentially profitable.

Social enterprises can come in different forms. For Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, graduates of UC Berkeley Haas Business School, in founding a business called Back to the Roots, they wanted to help minimize the waste stream in their community. With their venture, which helps turn coffee grounds into gourmet mushrooms, they are aiming to help solve a waste problem (coffee grounds usually end up in landfills,) and help people sustainably produce food locally. Back to the Roots was seeded by a $5,000 innovation grant from UC Berkeley in 2009, and now sells do-it-yourself mushroom kits at national chains like Whole Foods.

This kind of social thinking is also being fostered currently in today’s business schools. At William and Mary’s Mason School of Business, MBA students this semester are working with the Foodbank of the Virginia Peninsula, learning how traditional business subjects like marketing and logistics can apply to, and help, not-for-profit organizations.

And other business schools are beginning to create fertile ecosystems to foster social enterprises. Hult International Business School, for example, has partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative to offer an annual $1 million prize for student projects that will help solve global problems, like poverty. This year, the prize was awarded to a group of University of Cambridge students who developed a business plan that would improve access to sanitation and clean water for people in developing countries.

For more on the developing business school role in fostering social enterprise, see this video from Columbia Business School:

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