Business schools with a conscience

Business schools with a conscience


MANAGEMENT WITH A TWIST The new programme is based on the principle that social problems can be tackled in similar ways to business problems.

Business schools can be cut throat places. After struggling to gain admission to the top schools, students compete for grades and the best work placements. Meanwhile, the schools themselves jostle for position in the various global rankings, competing in order to attract the most able students. But in the never-ending battle for dominance, one London business school has decided to appeal not to potential students’ wallets, but to their consciences.

Starting in September, the Hult International Business School will offer a Master’s degree in social entrepreneurship. The Hult president, Stephen Hodges, said that the new programme, which is “based on the principle that social problems can be tackled in similar ways to business problems,” grew out of the enormous response to the Hult Global Case Challenge, a competition that tackles social problems “through crowd-sourcing innovative ideas and solutions from the world’s best and brightest business school students.”
“One of our students, Ahmad Ashkar, organised the first competition last year,” Dr Hodges said in an interview.

“This was an entirely student-led activity. The school provided no support whatsoever. In the end there were teams from 100 different business schools who donated their time and expertise to helping One Laptop per Child — the charity that brings inexpensive computers to the third world. It made us realise that there is a tremendous appetite for this. Today’s business students are far more socially aware than their predecessors.”
Acknowledging that “a competition to address the problems of British Airways,” for example, wouldn’t generate the same level of student interest, the school decided to back the student challenge by donating $1 million to implement this year’s winning idea.

At the same time, Hult found that “an increasing portion of our applicants weren’t interested in consulting or investment banking,” Dr Hodges said. “They were aiming at careers in non-governmental organisations or hoped to start social enterprises.”
Though the one-year social entrepreneurship Masters will only be offered in London this year, the school plans to roll out the programme at all of its locations, beginning next year in San Francisco. Hult, which was founded by Arthur D Little, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1964, then taken over by the Swedish entrepreneur Bertil Hult, now has campuses in Dubai and Shanghai in addition to London, Boston and San Francisco.

Hult is hardly the first business school to try to leverage idealism. Tony Sheldon, who runs the Program on Social Enterprise at Yale’s School of Management, or SOM, points out that when it was founded in 1976, “SOM” originally stood for School of Organisation and Management. The school has long been a magnet for students seeking careers in the nonprofit sector.

“We didn’t even call our degrees MBA’s,” he said. “A lot of companies now, and a lot of business schools, have adopted the vocabulary of social enterprise. The dangers are that it becomes just a marketing ploy, rather than an expression of purpose.”

Mr Sheldon welcomed the Hult programme. “Even if most of their graduates don’t start new social enterprises, there are also ways to effect change, even inside multinational corporations, by influencing things like the supply chain or purchasing decisions on issues like child labour or the company’s human resource policy or the effects on the environment of the production process.”

An expert in microfinance who has consulted for the World Bank, the New York City Financial Services Corporation and the Ford Foundation, Mr Sheldon said that genuine social enterprise needed to “enhance the productive capacity” of its clients. “There’s a lot of hype about targeting ‘the bottom of the pyramid,” he said. “But we need to ask where the profits flow as well as who the customers are.”

“Social entrepreneurship is a little like pornography,” Mr Sheldon said. “It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”

Besides Yale’s School of Management, which now does award its graduates an M.B.A., there are social entrepreneurship programmes at a number of American universities. Duke’s Fuqua business school has the well-known Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, while the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley and Columbia University’s business school have long collaborated on the Global Social Venture Competition with the London Business School, France’s ESSEC, and partners in India, Thailand and Korea.

“Regardless of the current economic vicissitudes,” said John Danner of the Haas School’s Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, possibilities for social entrepreneurship still exist.

“The fact remains that there are more future opportunities,” he said in an e-mail, “figuring out useful and profitable (and perhaps personally fulfilling) solutions to the needs of the 4 billion people living on less than $10/day than there are tweaking the next gadget for consumers living at the tip of the world’s economic pyramid. That fact is not lost on our students.”

According to Nick Temple, director of policy at London’s School for Social Entrepreneurs, that approach brings its own difficulties. “What concerns us is that social entrepreneurship education in the US seems to be embedded in universities,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but we feel that social justice is also about addressing inequalities. If you’re limiting yourself to people who’ve passed exams or can afford the cost of private university fees you limit yourself to a relatively small pool.”

Founded by Michael Young, the serial social entrepreneur whose brainchildren also include Britain’s Open University and The Consumer Association, the School for Social Entrepreneurs offers training and support to all kinds of potential social innovators. 

“Social entrepreneurs can come from everywhere — career changers, retired doctors, long-term unemployed — as well as academia or business,” Mr Temple said in an interview. “Our role is to democratise social entrepreneurship.” Citing what he likes to call “the long tail of social entrepreneurship,” he argued that “if you add together the impact of a huge number of social entrepreneurs doing relatively small-scale activity, then that impact is potentially equivalent to — or even more than — a small number of social entrepreneurs doing large-scale projects.”

For Sandy Balfour, who fled apartheid-era South Africa for England, where he founded Divine Chocolate, Britain’s first fair-trade chocolate company, social enterprise “is simply politics that pays for itself.” Currently serving as chairman of an educational charity as well as chief executive of Liberation Foods, a “farmer-owned fair trade company selling branded nuts from India, Malawi, Mozambique and Bolivia,” he remains skeptical about what he calls “the professionalisation of human impulses.”

“Do you put the ‘social’ first or do you put ‘entrepreneurship’ first?” Mr Balfour asked. “In the end, ownership is what matters. I did a degree in accountancy, and what I learned is that the route to understanding everything is to have the money under control. After that you can do what you like.”