“It’s a love-fest in here,” observes Adlai Wertman from the back of a classroom filled with giddy and overly-chatty mainly 20-somethings. The remark stems from an overwhelming sense of pride, and he’s absolutely right. The students all seem to adore one another.
“This happens all the time,” continues Wertman, a professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. He sounds and looks slightly like the family patriarch watching his children and grandchildren during a holiday dinner. “The professors have to start class late because everyone is hugging each other and talking.”
It’s an early-December evening in the business school’s Popovich Hall. Professor Christine El-Haddad bounces from conversation to conversation before starting Strategic Formulation for Competitive Advantage, a strategy course she designed specifically for the recently launched Masters of Science in Social Entrepreneurship program.
A B-SCHOOL SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP UPRISING
Whether it’s the result of a generation increasingly comprised of do-gooders, a planet with developing social and environmental issues, some unseen Force of Empathy or something completely unrelated, social enterprise seems to be taking off—almost to a point of annoyance for some.
And institutions of higher education have certainly not escaped the tsunami of doing well by doing good. If anything, they’re the culprits of a social impact-obsessed workforce. Increasingly, B-schools like USC’s Marshall have been infiltrated by the do-gooder invasion.
It’s been more than two decades since Philippe Dongier and Katie Smith Milway foundedINDEVOR, INSEAD’s social enterprise club. Around the same time John Whitehead, a former managing partner at Goldman Sachs, introduced a similar idea at Harvard Business School. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business has it’s Center for Social Innovation and a six-day residential program for executives interested in social enterprise. And of course, Oxford’s Said Business School has been pumping out socially-minded MBAs through it’s Skoll Scholarship program and Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship for some time.
‘I KNEW THAT THE WORLD NEEDED BUSINESS STUDENTS TO TAKE ON SOCIAL PROBLEMS’
But Wertman and USC Marshall believe they are filling an educational gap by offering a full-fledged master’s program—the first of its kind at a U.S. business school. It was founded on Wertman’s belief that social problems such as homelessness, poverty or hunger, are business problems. “I knew that the world needed business students to take on social problems,” Wertman insists from his office, which resides in a converted men’s dormitory that once housed actor John Wayne during his time at USC. “I’ve been on the social side and I’ve seen the need. I knew that business schools had nothing for them—that’s not hard research to do. But I didn’t know if the students would be there. That was the big if.”
It’s not an if anymore. The students are there. The program, which graduated its first class of students last spring, has done nothing but increased in size and impact. In March of 2014, when the program first started receiving applications for the inaugural cohort, Wertman would have been pleased with 40 applicants. They received 110. The next year they got 150 applications. And as of December, they’ve received nearly 70 applications for this application cycle, although Wertman believes the majority of applications will come in closer to the March deadline.
FILLING AN EDUCATIONAL NEED
The program is the evolution of a 10-page proposal Wertman wrote and pitched to three Los Angeles area B-schools nearly a decade ago. Wertman developed an MBA-specific fellowship, then an undergraduate minor and now a full-fledged graduate degree. Courses are scheduled on evenings and weekends, allowing students to hold full-time jobs. Students in the program must complete nine core courses and two electives and may complete it in one or two years. Offered at just under $50,000, Wertman, Program Director Jessica Levine and a team of faculty and staff constructed the program to serve a specific type of person.
In 2007, when Wertman, who holds an MBA from Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, began as a professor of clinical entrepreneurship at Marshall, he was looking to pluck socially-minded MBAs for social sector roles. But after a student shelled out $125,000 for an MBA, they found the six-figure job offers from consulting firms tough to turn down.
The other issue?
“In truth, many from the nonprofit area said, ‘I don’t want to hang out with MBAs for two years,’” Wertman says. “And it’s not a bad thing. It’s not a negative to MBAs. It’s a ‘I know I am a person who wants to devote my life to social change and I want to study business. MBAs don’t want to dedicate their lives to social impact. They’re not bad people. They’re just different. But I want to spend time getting a degree with like-minded people. And right now if I do that, I’m going to have to go to social work or policy school. But I want to study business.’”
THE CALL OF THE DO-GOODER
To be sure, those students exist and they’re coming in droves to the Southern California campus, albeit, on very different paths. Megan Strawther, who has spent the majority of her life, sans an East Coast stint for undergrad, in the Los Angeles area, saw a specific problem during her two years as a development and communications associate at Los Angeles area-based nonprofit, P.S. Arts.
The problem Strawther, 27, constantly wrestled was being able to raise ample funds to actually serve the community. Simply put, she didn’t see relying on hand-outs from generous donors as sustainable. “How could we make an impact in children’s lives if we’re constantly scraping by,” Strawther points out referring to the art education programs P.S. Arts provides to low income area school districts. “I never thought I’d go to business school,” she admits. “But then I heard about this program and it solved the problem that was bothering me.”
Brittany Purdom Murrey, however, did come from the business world. She had an early career rising the ranks at Wells Fargo and then CitiGroup. Murrey, who was raised by a single parent, greatly valued education and knew she wanted to earn a graduate degree. She just didn’t know which one. The MBA was the obvious choice, but Murrey wanted to help the lives of children growing up in similar situations to her.
“I felt like I was on a wild goose chase I didn’t even know I was actually on,” admits Murrey, 29, of her graduate school search. Through online surfing, she found Wertman’s MSSE. “It almost sounded too good to be true,” Murrey recalls. And then she serendipitously met a student in the inaugural cohort at a CitiGroup-sponsored event for mentoring first generation Latino college students. Things clicked.
“Education was the equalizer for me,” Murrey insists. “A person simply doesn’t have a chance at anything in this country without the appropriate type of education. And we need to figure a way to help that. It’s easy to look at someone who is poor and think, well, they didn’t work hard enough or didn’t study enough. But maybe they’re working 40 hours a week in fast food while trying to graduate high school.”