What Can I do with … an MBA?
January 16, 2013 1 Comment
I’m the kind of person that kids these days call a “hater.” Apparently, I’m also the kind of person that uses phrases like “kids these days.”
Despite my friendly outward demeanor, there are a lot of things, I just don’t like, and several that I affirmatively can’t stand –skinny jeans, people who wear non-corrective eye-glasses, vegan baked goods, and Syracuse basketball (Go Hoyas!) are just a few of the things that come to mind.
I think business school kids are something else I think I want to add to that list. Now while most of the things I hate on, are based on some heartfelt animus or antipathy, my potential disdain for business school kids is a bit more complicated.
First, and I know people use this excuse a lot, but some of my best friends went or have gone to business school. In fact, a good number of my close friends from high-school, college, and my working life are recent MBA grads (more on this later).
Second, I know the reason why I hate on these people is because I not so secretly want to be one of them. I can only assume it’s against the hater credo to admit one’s jealousy, but I really can’t help it.
Business school sounds less like an advanced educational experience and more like a scene from The Great Gatsby –lavish parties where guests mingle with current and future titans of industry while they trade notes on their next exotic vacation.
Law school, by contrast, was like running intervals on a sadistic treadmill. It’s bad enough that each week you have to slog through dense 18th century case law just to keep up, but then, every few weeks you have to climb a hill to get prepared for being on call in front of the entire class.
The reward for all that hard work is that at the end of the semester, you move up from climbing hills to scaling a full-blown mountain because your final exam is the only grade you’ll get for the class.
Meanwhile, my counterparts are learning how to “think outside the box” and work together by actually travelling to Tanzania and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Couple that dichotomy with the fact that business school is a full year shorter than law school, and you have a recipe for haterade.
Until recently, I comforted myself with the assumption that business school didn’t have much to offer government and non-profit types such as myself. In fact, I had a very reassuring conversation with Aileen Hefferren, Executive Director of New York based leadership development and educational academy, Prep for Prep.
Aileen always knew that she was destined for a career in the non-profit sector, so when it came time to consider whether to pursue a graduate degree, she engaged in a simple calculus. She says, “I was totally committed to the non-profit sector so I was thinking, ‘What would help me do my job better?’ and ‘What would help me advance my career?’”
After reflecting on those questions, Aileen came to the conclusion that “I really didn’t feel that there was a lot I would learn by getting an MBA. I would maybe have a better understanding of marketing or finance, but I didn’t think it was directly applicable to the work that I would be doing. So it didn’t make sense to spend the money, the time or the energy.”
And obviously things have worked out just fine for Aileen. She started at Prep for Prep roughly 20 years ago and after a brief hiatus, worked her way up to succeed Founder Gary Simons as Executive Director, serving thousands of high-achieving minority students in New York City and overseeing an annual budget in the millions.
As much as Aileen’s decision was right for her at the time, so too has business school become the right choice for many aspiring non-profit managers today. As Jennifer McEachern, a former Prep for Prep student and employee notes, the non-profit sector has changed quite a bit in the intervening years, and with that, so have the skills necessary for professionals trying to enter the non-profit marketplace.
According to Jennifer, a second year student at Yale University’s MBA program, the number of students with a non-profit background has “increased significantly” over the past 5-10 years because in an economy with increasingly limited funding, “having a deep understanding of strategy is important to having a sustainable and impactful non-profit organization. Some of this is influenced by organizations like Teach for America, which has grown to scale relatively rapidly over the past 20 years.”
Non-profit funding is also taking new forms with the advent of institutions like Social Finance and the New School Venture Fund which are applying investment bank type models to philanthropy. As the New Schools Venture Fund explains, the goal is “to build entrepreneurial organizations that will work in concert to close the achievement gap by preparing underserved student populations for success in college and life.”
If funders want to run their non-profits more like businesses, then it stands to reason that non-profit managers need to spend more time in the training ground of future business leaders.
In addition to the changes occurring in the non-profit sector, many MBA programs have also gone to great lengths to recruit students who come from fields other than finance and banking. Jennifer says that Yale, for example, has a “strong social impact curriculum, whether its non-profit strategy courses, or philanthropy built into their course offerings. A lot of schools are making non-profit strategy a more prominent part of their portfolio.”
And that portfolio will have tangible effects for the increasing number of non-profit organizations hiring MBA graduates. Jennifer and her classmates build experience by reviewing case studies on how to use emerging market data in the developing world to market products as well as non-profit services.
She says, “It is the same, but different, in that strategy is strategy and marketing is marketing. A lot of the concepts that you learn for marketing for-profit businesses are concepts that are similarly applicable to non-profit organizations. There is an undercurrent, but it’s also more complex because there is a different set of constraints and circumstances for non-profits organizations. You have to have an understanding of strategy and marketing in both business and non-profits to make them successful.”
Like many aspiring do-gooders, Jennifer considered both law school and public policy programs for graduate study, but believed that an MBA program was the best fit because of the exposure to both the non-profit and private sectors.
She explains that after college, “I thought that if I want to do work that has social impact, I’ve got to be a lawyer. But as I did more research, I was happy to come along an MBA program that has offered a more broad experience, and probably has opened more opportunities than a JD or an MPA would in the long run. I think law school wasn’t the right choice for me.”
And ultimately it is about choice. For Aileen Hefferren, pursuing law school or an MBA would have been more about chasing a credential than building skills to further her career. As the executive director of a thriving non-profit, I doubt she looks back with any regret.
Despite my own wandering eye, I know that my legal education has afforded me a tremendous opportunity to promote social justice in my community, and hopefully beyond.
Likewise, Jennifer is confident and optimistic about her future. Studying at Yale’s School of Management she says, “I am building a lot of skills that would be useful in the non-profit sector. In the short term I may or not be doing non-profit work but in the long-term I will come back to social impact work. I think it is invaluable to have some experience in the for-profit sector to get a broader perspective for whatever social impact work I end up doing.”
I definitely can’t hate on that.