As I stood in front of my booth at the Net Impact Conference Expo, I watched eager MBA students stride between tables. These aren’t your typical MBA students. They’re not interested in climbing the corporate ladder or the highest-paying careers. These MBAs want to use their degrees to create a better world.
The exhibit floor was buzzing with excitement. For once, almost every booth was pitching products, services and careers that appealed to MBAs interested in corporate sustainability, social enterprise, impact investing and nonprofit management.
When they approached my booth, I asked them why they decided to attend Net Impact. Many lit up with excitement. They believed business could be done better. They wanted a career that contributed to the world in meaningful ways. They were committed to having a positive impact with their careers.
When I asked the same students if they had a staff member in their career services department dedicated to social impact careers, the answer was always, “no.” This is a failing among most higher education institutions, especially those with social impact programming.
The Net Impact Conference is proof that social impact offerings are proliferating among MBA programs. Thousands of students from all over the world came to Seattle because of their common commitment to leverage business as a force for good in the world.
A few still feel marginalized, but many MBAs are now exposed to (and encouraged to take) courses that explore corporate sustainability, social enterprise or impact investing. Unfortunately this exposure doesn’t extend to career services that can help students build careers in these spaces. From my anecdotal assessment at The Net Impact Conference and past experience with higher education, I believe that most career services departments are not equipped to help students pursue social impact careers.
I see two primary reasons why even MBA programs with dedicated social impact programming fail to build similar capacity within career services departments. They suffer from a misalignment of incentives and an inability to specialize.
Misalignment of Incentives
Like most departments in a university, the Career Services department is focused on rankings, but few departments feel the pressure of rankings as much as they do. Percentage of students hired after (and even during) a program, average starting salary, and pedigree of employer are all factored into school rankings. These rankings are the benchmark numbers that prospective students use to decide which programs they will pursue.
Careers in social impact hurt these rankings because these careers often take longer to find and are typically with smaller, younger organizations that pay less. Alternative rankings such as Net Impact’s Business as Unusual report are designed to help prospective students interested in social impact, but career services departments are generally not held accountable to these alternative rankings.
Inability to Specialize
The other challenge of career services departments is how best to specialize to meet the demands of their students. Many departments specialize functionally (e.g. marketing, accounting, finance, etc.) Other specialize by sector (e.g. consumer goods, manufacturing, technology, etc.). These specializations are designed to help career services departments cover the greatest percentage of students’ interests.
And, as most MBAs at Net Impact would tell you, they do not represent the majority in their program. These students are the few in each MBA program committed to pursuing career in social impact. This small group of students does not merit a dedicated, full-time career services staff member.
There are notable exceptions among MBA programs that specialize exclusively in social enterprise or sustainability. But for most programs trying to attract and serve a variety of student interests, it doesn’t make financial sense to have a staff member focused to social impact careers.
It’s important to note that this widespread lack of career services support for social impact careers is not the fault of individual MBA programs. Rather, MBA programs are constrained by their environment.
So what can an MBA student do to find guidance and support for their goal to work in the social sector? One solution is to explore third-party social impact career services organizations that are emerging all over the country.
Organizations such as Impact Business Leaders, Inspiring Capital and Education Pioneers help business professionals advance their careers in social enterprise, nonprofit management and impact investing. These organizations are not tied to the same rankings-based incentive structure of universities and are able to achieve the scale necessary to make their programs sustainable by working with students from different programs.
I’m excited to see these kinds of organizations present at the Net Impact conference and believe there is huge potential for collaboration with MBA programs. A few opportunities that were discussed during the conference include:
Impact career programming hosted by third-party organizations and supported by universities. These programs become sustainable (not to mention more interesting) when several universities participate in each program.
Coordinated efforts among third-party programs to provide end-to-end pipeline solutions for students interested in impact careers. These solutions could be pitched as packages to universities.
Continuing education opportunities for alumni. Many universities are considering how to keep their alumni engaged. Partnerships with third-party programs that offer professional development opportunities for experienced professionals could be a great fit.
These opportunities won’t make sense for every third-party organization (including Impact Business Leaders), but they were all interesting to discuss with our peers in the space.
It’s exciting to see these opportunities beginning to develop at events such as the Net Impact Conference. This is what happens when you bring so many amazing actors in this space together, and push them to think bigger. I can’t wait to see how the discussions materialize and help some of the brightest, most talented professionals to pursue careers that create a better world for all of us.