Providing disabled people with affordable and high-quality prostheses in Uzbekistan. Allocating farmland to families in Kenya — a means of income and food. Crafting a business plan for a “plastic bank” to recycle ocean waste in Indonesia. These do not sound like classic business school class projects. But students on Masters in Management (MiM) programs are keen to work on initiatives in which they can have a positive impact on society or the environment.
“Many young people who graduate with a bachelor’s degree today are very interested in doing something meaningful with their lives and work. Growing up as digital natives and often having travelled extensively, they have been exposed to many cultures and to global challenges,” says Molly Ihlbrock, Head of Corporate Communications at ESMT Berlin.
All three aforementioned projects are currently underway as part of the German business school’s MiM course. Students visit the locations for a week, and there are additional and interesting “social impact” excursions, for example with the United Nations.
“Working in teams as consultants, the projects develop students’ problem-solving and project management skills,” says Ihlbrock, adding that many students go on to work for social enterprises.
Jeremy Ghez, an Affiliate Professor of Economics and International Affairs at HEC Paris, says: “The millennial generation is looking for purpose and impact because it feels victimized by the mistakes of its elders. It has the strong belief that it can, and needs to do better. In particular, it is hard to hear that the world is at an environmental breaking point.”
Many business schools have responded to the generation’s demand for more learning and career opportunities that pack a social impact punch. “We have many elements in the curriculum — a course in business and society, an online ethical dilemma game, and consultancy projects,” says Gabi Helfert, executive director of MSc programmes at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands.
Many students have put the experiences on their CVs, which has helped them secure out-of-the-ordinary jobs. Helfert says: “Students feel a drive to make a difference in the business world and to pursue their career in a responsible way.”
According to her, examples of such jobs include consultant at EY Climate Change and Sustainability, innovation planner at Unilever, risk management at the Dutch Development Bank, and research associate for sustainability investment at Robeco.
At HEC, one student co-founded an organization dedicated to social and environmental impact in India. Another broke a Guinness World Record for the longest journey on a motorized bicycle, so as to raise awareness of opportunities in solar energy and clean transportation.
But some choose traditional jobs in procurement or at consulting firms, yet still have an impact. “They are reinventing completely the way they carry out ‘traditional’ business tasks,” says Ghez.
The problem is that many of the class projects, internships with impact and sustainable career paths are done on a voluntary basis or are low paid. This makes it hard for students who are often bearing business school debt to consider them.
Helfert counters that RSM offers a number of scholarships based on merit and financial need for students from outside the European Economic Area who aren’t subsidized by the Dutch government and so are paying full tuition fees.
ESMT’s solution has been to offer students travel stipends that are made possible by private donations from the business school’s supporters. Some of the companies and NGOs with whom the students do the consulting projects for, are able to support them financially too, according to Ihlbrock.
Beyond that, students are encouraged to raise funds for class projects. “In the past, some groups have successfully crowdfunded their project capital, or have creatively raised money on campus,” says Ihlbrock. Another option, though possibly less appealing than a global jaunt, is to stay in Berlin and work with local organizations.
Another challenge for students who want to make an impact on people and the planet is the cultural adjustment associated with coming from a commercial entity to one focused purely or partly on purpose, rather than profit. For Ihlbrock, the largest adjustments come from the conditions under which many of the Social Impact Projects take place, for example in developing economies or war-torn countries.
But she adds that the projects are versatile: “Students can apply many of the lessons learned in a Social Impact Projects to commercial enterprises as well.” Indeed, a growing number of corporations are putting their purpose on a par with their profit margin. “Some of our students come from ‘doing good internships’ but are looking for adequately paid, regular jobs which suit their drive for impact,” says Helfert at RSM.
Ghez at HEC says that the millennial generation is nimble. “Its agility and ability to adapt easily, combined with the fact that the commercial world needs to increasingly account for its social and environmental impact, will mean that the boundaries between industries will gradually go away.”
Some graduates also become social entrepreneurs, says Helfert. One example is the founder of SolarOn, a company that offers project development for solar energy systems. Another example is the co-founder of SyncVR, a startup that aims to improve lives through interactive virtual reality in healthcare. The opportunities to have an impact in your career, it would seem, are extensive.