When Kelsea Ballantyne first arrived at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, she still had doubts about business school—doubts stemming from her experiences with other people who’d gone into MBA programs. “I probably assumed too much that everyone was going to be a cookie cutter of one another,” she admits.
Stereotypically speaking, MBAs want two things: money and power. Ballantyne is more interested in fair labor practices and sustainability. But she quickly found that at Ross, the stereotype simply doesn’t hold water. She estimates that 65% to 70% of her classmates are impact-minded; even students pursuing more traditional paths generally take advantage of the various sustainability and social enterprise clubs and initiatives on campus.
Net Impact, a nonprofit for students who want to make positive change through business, confirmed Ballantyne’s observations in its most recent guide to business schools. This year, Ross was the only elite school to rank among the top five in both sustainability and social impact. Since the guide is student-led, that means Ross MBAs were highly satisfied with their school’s offerings in both areas.
MORE POWER TO THE MILLENNIALS
It’s not that Ross only takes applicants with an interest in positive business. “You need a diverse class to make a good business school,” Dean Alison Davis-Blake says, adding that it’s healthy for those who want to make an impact in the business world to be challenged by their peers, not just by professors. But Davis-Blake acknowledges that even without special attention from the admissions office, Ross tends to attract a large number of impact-minded students. Ballantyne makes the same observation: Those with a do-gooding streak get more interested, and those who can’t at least coexist with do-gooders go away.
Ross wasn’t always this way, though. Senior Associate Dean Wally Hopp recalls that the school tried to launch a class on green manufacturing in the 90s, and it simply couldn’t get students to take it—or anything like it, really. But around 2005, something changed. “All of the sudden, there was interest, and we’ve been kind of building since then,” Hopp says. Each year, he’s seen an uptick. “There’s definitely something out there, and I think it’s rooted in that Millennial generation,” he explains.
The way Hopp views things, Millennials—the children of the protest-happy Baby Boomers—have been pushing against the shareholder value model, which contends that business exists solely to produce a profit for its investors. Hopp thinks Millennials see the model as narrow-minded and out-of-sync with their priorities. “My attitude is, more power to them,” he says.
A GROWING TREND—EVEN AMONG ELITES
In the past few years, the idea that business schools should help students use their skills for good has exploded. A snapshot of what’s happening in business schools this month: IESE Business School is offering a new elective on social entrepreneurship; Columbia Business School and INSEAD are launching dual-degree programs in business and education; students from business schools all over the world are competing to win $1 million from the Hult Prize Foundation for their social enterprises.
The change isn’t limited to small, niche institutions. Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton each have an entire webpage dedicated to social enterprise, social innovation, and social impact, respectively. In these pages, the schools showcase impact-related conferences, initiatives, research, and careers.
But Ross has been melding business and do-gooding since the 1980s and the 1990s, especially in terms of the environment. “We were one of the earliest big schools to establish a major center in sustainability,” Hopp says. The center he’s referring to is the Erb Institute, a partnership between Ross and Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE). It was founded in 1996, and it allows students to earn an MBA and an MS in three years. Moreover, in 2002, Ross launched the Center for Positive Organizations, and as early as 2009, the school started the very first student-led investment fund focused on social enterprise. It helps that Ross is well-integrated with the rest of the University of Michigan, which, by no coincidence, is where John F. Kennedy introduced the Peace Corps in 1960.
That spirit is alive and well at Ross. When Davis-Blake took over as dean in 2011, she spent a long time speaking with students, alumni, and other members of the community about what they’d like to see. A clear theme emerged, she says: making a positive difference.