THE BLOG

Make Money or Help Others? What My MBA Taught Me About Being 'Different'

03/20/2015 12:30 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

While traveling for work, I sat next to a 26-year-old woman on a plane to Austin, Texas. She helped me relive a moment from my past that continues to be a reminder of the importance of being comfortable with who you are, especially if what you believe makes you "different."

As the passengers boarded we started talking. She was on her way home after visiting some of the most prestigious MBA graduate programs in the country, places like Harvard and Duke. I asked her why she had chosen those schools and was surprised to hear that she was searching to find a program that allowed her to explore social impact organizations. Why? She shared with me stories about working in a school in the Philippines as a member of the Peace Corps. She wanted to become a social entrepreneur and start an organization that allowed her to give back and make a living at the same time.

As the plane took off, I reflected on what she had said and my own MBA journey. Sadly, social impact and social entrepreneurship programs were not popular when I was working on my MBA in 2007. In fact, where I went to school, many students, staff, and professors did not believe that nonprofit management was a field for bright, budding leaders. While I did have some professors who were supportive, there were zero courses offered in nonprofit management within the business school.

Not everyone understands giving or the skill set you build from volunteering and investing in others. When I was eleven years old, I started the organization Grandma's Gifts in memory of my Appalachian grandmother who had grown up in poverty but used her short life to give to others. As a way to remember her, my dream was to help kids in-need. We didn't have a business plan. We didn't know or understand Porter's 5 Forces, a SWOT analysis, and Balance Sheets. Now, 22 years later, we are still volunteer-run but have all of those business structures, multiple degrees, and repeat investors (donors), yet we still have the same purpose: to make a difference.

When I tried to share my feelings about nonprofits as businesses in grad school, I was often met with great negativity. The most embarrassing moment happened in class. While on a tangent, the professor asked one of my fellow male classmates why he was in the MBA program? My classmate's witty response was, "to learn how to make money!" Everyone laughed. Someone whistled in support. The professor chuckled and smiled. That was obviously a widely-held belief.

Then I was the next one called on randomly.

"Emily, why are you here in the MBA program?"

I responded, building on the previous response, "I am here to learn how to make money... so then I can then give it away!"

My professor's face went sour. A few people giggled. He was not amused with my honest response. "They're learning how to make money? [signaling to my classmates] This is a business school last time I checked... there are other colleges here at the University for those who want to make people 'feel good.'"

I felt sick. My face felt like it was on fire. My feet tingled. What does one say to something like that?

Then, in a moment of desperation I blurted out, "Well, nonprofits are businesses."

With that response, he shook his head in disappointment and looked at the floor. He was utterly disgusted. I melted into my chair in embarrassment, wishing I could disappear. This was my giving spirit's coup de grâce in the MBA program. My perspective and goals were not the same as others. I was officially different.

While I didn't stop running Grandma's Gifts after this experience, I let that incident lead me into my first job with an entity that took hospitals through bankruptcy, mergers, and acquisitions. I made great money and had a great title -- the goal of all my classmates. Yet the job made me miserable because it wasn't "me." I needed get back on my path -- to make a living while making an impact. So, I left and joined a nonprofit in the education sector. I have a professional job with professional pay and every day for the past six years I have gotten to be innovative, use my graduate degrees, work with an awesome team, and help districts across the country.

While it only took me a year to realize I was in the wrong job, what I find interesting is that the world has dramatically shifted in the six years since I graduated. Even some of the most well-known business MBA graduate schools like Stanford, Yale, Wharton, Kellogg, Sloan, and Booth have widely popular social entrepreneurship or nonprofit management programs or courses. Clearly more people looking to go to graduate school have goals like mine -- to work for or run an organization that is successful (as seen through engaged employees and loyal customers) but that also has a positive social impact. Crazy!

In the end, I graduated with a fabulous MBA knowledge base, but most importantly, I learned that while sometimes your views are unpopular, your thinking may not be wrong. I now know that my response to the question posed by my professor will never change and that if I could go back, I would push back on his thinking. I wonder what people like Warren Buffet, Pierre Omidyar, Bill Drayton, Sara Blakely, Jeff Skoll, Tony Hsieh, Steve Case, Bill or Melinda Gates, and Arianna Huffington would have thought if they were sitting in my class that day? I think they would have given me a whistle in support...