"Compared to my other offers, this position captured my heart and imagination in a completely different way." That was the answer from a recent Harvard Business School MBA graduate when asked why he decided to participate in the School's Leadership Fellows program -- a one-year management fellowship in nonprofit and public-sector organizations.
The Leadership Fellows is part of a portfolio of career-support programs that has evolved over the past two decades within the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI). The statistics behind these programs indicate promise that graduate schools and other intermediary organizations can make a meaningful difference in not only attracting MBA talent to social sector jobs, but also supporting long-term careers focused on social change. For example, nearly five times as many HBS students pursue social impact summer positions today than was the case in the early 1990s when SEI was founded. Over the ten-year history of the Leadership Fellows program, approximately two-thirds of the 100+ Fellows remain in social impact roles.
We've noticed that MBA students looking for ways to combine their pursuits with purpose are less interested in which sector to engage and more interested in finding ways to leverage their skills to affect meaningful change -- change that moves the needle on solving complicated societal issues rather than simply ameliorating the problems.
But the barriers that prevent students from making social impact career choices are real: positions that do not effectively leverage the MBA skill set, careers that lack investment in professional development and growth potential, and pathways that require vows of poverty. By understanding and addressing the barriers, we have the ability to develop on-ramps and pathways to engage MBA talent at varying stages of their careers.
So what does it take to attract these students to pursue careers with a focus on social impact? And what does it take to keep them on this path? We believe there are three things that academic institutions and social sector organizations can do.
Provide initial exposure to draw students in. By giving students field-based learning opportunities, academic institutions can broaden their horizons and transform academic and career trajectories. Take for example, Scott Benson, MBA '08. As a first-year HBS student, he took part in a travel immersion program in which he and a group of students pursued a short-term consulting project with a school reform organization in post-Katrina New Orleans. This experience catalyzed his interest in education reform. From there, he went on to take a summer position in education, undertook an academic research project on a related topic, and following graduation, took a role within a large, urban public school system. Today, he is a program officer for Next Generation Learning Models at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Create robust experiences. Our research with past fellows indicates that the top two reasons graduates decide to stay with an organization beyond their fellowship experience are career growth and ability to make an impact. Hiring organizations can work with career and social impact offices on campuses to design positions that allow students to apply their MBA skills to further the organization's mission and strategy. But doing so requires carefully considering the following: the nature and definition of the project(s), the level of access to senior leadership within and beyond the organization, and the ways in which the organization can support the learning and development goals of the hire. Jennifer Houston, MBA '05, looks back on her summer and post-graduate experiences at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts as unique preparation for her current role as director of strategic initiatives at Dallas's Museum of Nature & Science. "I gained experience in everything from labor union negotiations to analyzing attendance data to developing new media initiatives," she says.
Invest in leadership development. As Linda Rottenberg, CEO and Co-Founder of Endeavor Global told us, "Finding candidates whose passion for development rivals their intellect and experience is never an easy task, but the Leadership Fellows program certainly makes this possible." Academic institutions and hiring organizations each have a role to play in developing an MBA talent pipeline. Programs such as the HBS Leadership Fellows, as well as Endeavor's own eMBA program, which recruits students to spend 10 weeks during the summer working on-site with Endeavor entrepreneurs, are just two examples in a growing field. Students report that participation in such structured career support programs often helps them in subsequent positions -- from mastering transferable skills, to gaining credible experience, to building a network that supports their future career.
There is a common misperception that the students who are most likely to pursue these paths are those who enter an MBA program with a social sector background. Our data suggests otherwise. When positions are structured to leverage an MBA skill set and to provide leadership development growth opportunities, we see a diverse range of students applying for and ultimately pursuing these positions: each year, more than half of the students who end up pursuing these prestigious fellowship positions have had no pre-MBA nonprofit experience. Instead, they're finding ways to apply their experiences from consulting, investment banking, and venture capital.
As we look around the social sector today, we see an increasing number of established and emerging organizations that are led by MBAs. While each individual leader brings his or her unique style of leadership, they share a common thread of applying an entrepreneurial and analytical mindset to field-based expertise to ask new questions and imagine new possibilities. If we truly hope to find solutions to the complex problems we face, it is in our best interests to continue to bring MBAs into the equation.