Michigan’s Big Bet On Social Impact

'More socially aware' MBAs drive new center

“It’s a great advantage for us to be in the middle of so many high-performing graduate programs with great faculty and students,” says Rishi Moudgil. “To make any real change, you need different perspectives. Having a different lens for looking at each problem is valuable. Engaging multidisciplinary and cross-sector teams is the best practice for social impact.”

Soon after graduating with a degree in political science, Dante Vasquez found himself chest-deep in rural ponds, measuring water levels and removing guinea worms from people in Savelugu, Ghana. The guinea worm is a parasite that enters the body from a water source and can grow up to three feet in the body within a year before it is even detected. As a regional deputy technical advisor for The Carter Center in Ghana and then Southern Sudan, it was Vazquez’s job to figure out how to eradicate the pest.

When Catherine (Cat) Johnson was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, she traveled to Ecuador for an internship in community economic development and to study abroad. She worked with the families of former child laborers, assisting children in getting back to school and families develop entrepreneurial skills. The experience revealed to her that a lot of child laborers are not orphans—they are children of parents who just need a little more support in skill sets and work force development.

Rishi Moudgil has spent the majority of his professional career marrying his passions for education and social enterprise. In 2007, he was a financial strategy fellow for the Chicago Public Education Fund where he focused on using venture philanthropy for leadership transformation within the Chicago Public School system. He has spent the past few years heading up the Nonprofit and Public Management Center at the University of Michigan—a school he loves so much, he used to be the anointed biggest fan of their marching band.

All three of these individuals share a few things. They all hold MBAs from Michigan’s Ross School of Business. They all grew up in Michigan and want to see Detroit thrive again. And they all work within the Center for Social Impact (CSI)—Ross’ newest commitment to social enterprise. The center celebrated its first year with an official launch event on Wednesday, April 22.


With its new center, Ross is taking the next step in the social impact evolution by serving as an umbrella and inviting other schools to join. “It’s a great advantage for us to be in the middle of so many high-performing graduate programs with great faculty and students,” says Moudgil, managing director for the center. “To make any real change, you need different perspectives. Having a different lens for looking at each problem is valuable. Engaging multidisciplinary and cross-sector teams is the best practice for social impact.”

And the center does just that. Faculty and students from schools such as kinesiology, education, public policy, natural resources, literature, engineering, public health, and social work are all involved. There is even faculty representation from the school of music, theatre, and dance as well as the school of art and design.


Vasquez, who is serving in an advisory role, first realized the value of cross-sector collaboration while competing in Ross’s Social Impact Challenge. Vazquez’s project focused on bringing together Detroit’s farmer’s markets into one new brand called Detroit Community Market.

“When you have a project like that, the quality of the final product is enhanced with multiple perspectives,” explains Vasquez. “Some problems are too complex for business to solve alone. We worked with students from public policy, law, and architecture to create the Detroit Community Market.”

The Social Impact Challenge is probably the largest piece to the center and is the epitome of what the center sets out to do—solve real world social problems in Detroit with a cross-disciplinary approach. Each year, student teams form to address and tackle a real-life social issue in Detroit. The teams are presented with a challenge statement, investigate the social issues, and present to a panel of judges.


Noelle Polaski is a public policy student set to graduate this year. Not only is she a vice president on the center’s student advisory board, she was a member of last year’s winning team at the Social Impact Challenge, which was focused on improving transportation needs and access for all Detroit neighborhoods.

“Sometimes it’s easy to work in silos of your own school and think about things from just the social work perspective or policy perspective or business perspective,” Polaski explains. “The Center gives real life experiences working with people from different expertise that help you grow as a person and work with different leadership styles.”

Polaski’s team was made up of a social work student, and urban planning student, and an MBA. This year’s winning team was comprised of two natural resources students, one urban planning student, and a dual MBA and school of education student. The challenge was to redevelop the Fisher Body Plant 21 in Detroit’s North End.


Second-year MBA student Neil Tambe was on a finalist team in this year’s challenge. “I think the best part is the approach from both sides is authentic and sincere,” says Tambe, who describes himself as a “life-long Michigander.”

“It is kind of a big deal of institutions from the outside coming in and rubbing people in Detroit the wrong way. But this program has deep relationships from the university and Detroit sides.”

Tambe left a career in consulting at Deloitte to attend Ross and interned in the Detroit mayor’s office this past summer. He worked with business licensing and the water and sewage department for the City of Detroit. Not exactly glitz and glam.

“When I entered business school, I didn’t have to think deeply about recruiting because I had the option to return if I wanted,” Tambe explains. “But when I started working with the Center, I felt the support and had the courage to take a nontraditional internship. It was a lesson in it’s OK to be different and do something different.”

The ability for Tambe to spend the summer working for a very minimal amount came from another component of the center. The Give-A-Day Fund gives second-year MBA students the opportunity to donate a day of their salaries from their summer internship to support rising first-years’ pursuing public interest internships. Each year tens of thousands of dollars are donated. In a few weeks, Tambe will begin his new position, director of transformational projects for Mayor Mike Duggan.


After earning a degree in marketing from the University of Maryland, Simon Chafetz spent a few years working in strategy and operations at Deloitte. He decided to get an MBA for the same reason many do—to deepen his general management skills. But coming from parents who are “serial board members,” Chafetz, originally from Texas, looked specifically at Ross.

And what he found was the Board Fellowship Program. It is basically a board member breeding program for graduate students from the schools of business, social work, and public policy.

“It tipped the balance for me in my decision,” Chafetz says. “Other schools had similar programs but were not as robust and formal as the Board Fellowship Program.”

Chafetz, a first-year, has also spent a lot of time working with Detroit’s Eight Mile Boulevard Association, an organization formed in 1993 to combine local governments, social groups, and businesses to revitalize southeast Michigan’s Eight Mile Boulevard. The introduction was also made possible by the center.


This is another example of investments flowing from business schools into social impact and social enterprise organizations. The Center’s leadership and students alike believe it is simply a sign of the times.

“The center is a response to students and what they want,” Vasquez explains. “There is an increasing interest in using business skills to solve social problems. Social impact is what the students are most excited about.”

Vasquez, who returned to Michigan to help Detroit, where his father’s family is from, says one issue he saw while in the field is what led him to pursing an MBA with an emphasis on social impact.

“When I was in the field and working with big organizations like Red Cross and World Vision, I was surprised by how they fundraise,” Vasquez says. “They have to go out every year to donors asking for money but they are never showing how they are solving the problem. The didn’t measure their impact enough. They weren’t good at calculating a ROI. They didn’t say, for every dollar you put in, every village gets this much water. They weren’t making a business case for their social mission—that they were efficient and effective and having a great impact.”


Moudgil says interest in social impact has to do with the Millennial generation. “There are a couple macro factors that play out as folks are choosing a school and path,” explains Moudgil. “First, there is no longer as much of an institutional lens. There used to be corporate America or nonprofit or government and politics. But students are not thinking within those structures and institutions. So instead of trying to find an institution they can fit into, they are looking for where they can work that reflects their values and who they are.”

According to Moudgil, it is that desire to work outside of set institutions, but across institutions, that inspired the push for the center and potentially a mutually beneficial relationship across campus. “We want to be attractive to talented students across schools,” Moudgil says. “Business leaders need to understand community interest and policy and the whole spectrum of community impact. It’s more than just bottom line. At the same time, some of the students outside of business can benefit from measuring financial return as well as social return.”

Chafetz believes it’s time for all business schools to take notice of the influx of socially minded business leaders.

“I think that folks that are getting their MBAs are more socially aware than people previously earning MBAs,” Chafetz says. “It’s a generational mindset that people demand this opportunity in business school.”


Cat Johnson believes many students she sees coming through the program share certain characteristics.

“There’s a set of students who are really focused on wanting their career from top to bottom to be dedicated to a broad social sector,” Johnson explains. “They are looking for social outcomes. Overall, we are seeing more and more of those kinds of people. It is folks who are strongly dedicated to positive business and social and environment impact.”

According to Johnson, these students are also flexible and keen to tackle the ambiguous.

“They can truly wear many hats,” Johnson explains. “They are adaptable and able to deal with the really challenging messiness of big social issues.”


Above all, Johnson sees the center as a step in the right direction toward solving a broad social conundrum – and something close to her heart.

“What I learned speaking with the families of child laborers in Ecuador as an undergrad is at the end of the day, there are so many social challenges, but if you can help people get a job, you can help them get a step on many fronts,” Johnson explains. “We are seeing so much energy and excitement around Michigan and the City of Detroit. A lot of people who left for the coasts, like myself, are coming back. I came back for the opportunity to develop the ecosystem of social impact in Michigan and help accelerate the impact through all of the hands involved in the Center. My role is to accelerate success for the individual students and their organizations.”

Moudgil believes the space will continue to develop.

“Figuring out how to measure the success of an enterprise based on social and financial return is an emerging space,” Moudgil says. “Students want to roll up their sleeves and think about those questions and how to answer them. Regardless of running a for-profit venture or nonprofit, how do you have a stable enterprise while contributing to society and the planet? We roll up our sleeves and understand and work through that.”