The Sustainable M.B.A.

Profit is at the core of the business world, but several b-schools are emphasizing a more selfless view.


It used to be that if you studied investing at business school, the emphasis was on profit. Now, students studying the emerging field of impact investing learn about business growth opportunities that address larger social and environmental issues.

In fact, student interest in impact investing has swelled so much that next month, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University will host the 2011 International Impact Investing Challenge.

Mark Milstein, the director for Johnson's Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, said in a Kellogg press release, "This competition is exciting and unique because it challenges M.B.A.s to think about how we employ capital so that competitive investment returns flow from the value created by solving our biggest problems–poverty, climate change, ecosystem degradation—with innovation and entrepreneurship."

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Twelve teams will compete for more than $40,000 in awards on April 8 at J.P. Morgan in New York City. Along with Kellogg and Johnson, other top programs including Columbia Business School, Harvard Business School, and the Stanford Graduate School of Business have teams competing.

This focus on impact investing is part of a much larger trend sweeping business schools. Current students are concentrating not only on traditional courses such as accounting and finance, but also learning how to use their business acumen to bring about meaningful change.

One of the most popular growing fields among b-schools is social entrepreneurship, where students learn about topics ranging from non-profit management to starting businesses that serve underrepresented communities. Many programs now offer specializations in sustainability-centric M.B.A.s, often called "green M.B.A.s," that focus heavily on teaching environmentally and socially sustainable business practices.

The surge in student interest in these programs can be attributed to many factors, ranging from management opportunities in the growing clean energy sector to a shrinking number of traditional banking jobs—as well as the fact that some students have grown disillusioned with a conventional profit-first M.B.A. path.

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This is not to imply that an M.B.A. hopeful who wishes to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company needs to lie about this fact on her application. It's still called business school, not sustainability school. But with social enterprise becoming a growing focus for most programs, it is certainly a good idea for applicants to emphasize if they have interest in microfinancing or running a global fair trade business, for example.

Nor should aspiring M.B.A.s get the impression that sustainability classes or impactful investing competitions are a complete departure from the established b-school curriculum. Earlier this year, MSNBC's Roland Jones interviewed M.B.A.s interested in social enterprise, one of whom explained the connection between new-and-traditional M.B.A. coursework succinctly.

"Every class in business school is about making money, but in social entrepreneurship the end result is more meaningful," said Myles Lutheran, an M.B.A. student at Northeastern University's College of Business Administration. "You use the same skills as you would on Wall Street, but there's a different end result."

After all, the more successful the investment, the more impact it will have.