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four adults

Business Schools Must Do Better

Business schools must commit to using their vast pools of resources to enable their students to rethink the notion of equity and what it means to listen, to be inclusive, to create value, to work effectively across disciplines, and to be impactful leaders for businesses and society, four recent Yale SOM graduates argue.

Much has been written in recent years about the value of an MBA education. With declining enrollment across top programs, many prospective students are asking whether the degree is worth the cost given the payoff uncertainty. As recent graduates of the Yale School of Management, during what became an atypical year, we have had ample time to reflect on the experiences that have shaped our understanding of the world we are inheriting and the preparation we have received to be effective leaders.

One of the most profound experiences we have had during our time in the MBA program has been a year-long study we conducted on the shortcomings of traditional approaches to funding the social sector. As research assistants, we were given the unique opportunity to work with Andrea Levere, president emerita of Prosperity Now, on her initiative, Charting the Next Wave of Equitable Finance. A graduate of the Yale SOM Class of 1983, Andrea returned to SOM as a 2019-2020 executive fellow at the International Center for Finance. In partnership with the Program on Social Enterprise, Innovation, and Impact, Andrea undertook a project to explore ways to scale the delivery of enterprise capital to nonprofits and social enterprises. The project was designed to leverage the lessons and practices of the private, public, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors with the goal of understanding how financial tools and practices must be adapted to serve people and places overlooked by mainstream markets.

Our work with Andrea (which took place entirely outside of the classroom) exemplified the possibilities of working across silos. While our professional backgrounds and career goals were different, our understanding of the key issues Andrea was seeking to address were aligned. Through this project, we explored a breadth of topics, including the impact of government policies and the tax code on finance, systemic inequities in the social sector, and the internal operations and public perceptions of the organizations that would be strengthened through enterprise capital. We learned that the philanthropic sector is complex and requires a structural evolution. Our studies and research have allowed us to consider how a business school education can prepare future leaders to address these issues.

Enduring racism and COVID-19 have underscored the need for educating intentional leaders who can work with humility across communities and silos for the benefit of multiple stakeholders. In addition to re-envisioning best practices for philanthropy, Andrea’s fellowship underscored the importance of a business school education in educating leaders to serve both business and society. As institutions tasked with educating future business leaders, it is incumbent on business schools to reflect on program offerings, including curriculum design, stakeholder engagement, and opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. Now is the time to emphasize the unique qualities of a business education and reimagine how business schools can better prepare future leaders for a post-pandemic world to advance social equity and combat injustice.

One of the main features of a business school education is the core curriculum, which is designed to provide a comprehensive, multi-perspective approach to understanding an organization’s challenges and opportunities. Case studies often serve as a basis for discussion, allowing students to think critically and debate ideas with one another in class, nearly all with an eye toward increasing profitability. While the overwhelming majority of cases focus on business as the main subject, the enduring legacy and consequences of racism on the lives of black people and communities of color, coupled with the current public health crisis, have revealed that business solutions alone cannot solve the systemic inequities and social ills that plague our communities.

If we want to distinguish the business degree as one that equips students to work inclusively within and across teams, then business schools must appreciate the importance of diversity in case study protagonists both in terms of demographic characteristics and career paths. While the current pandemic has revealed the need for collaboration across diverse stakeholders, it has also highlighted stark disparities in how different individuals and communities are affected. These variances also inform how different groups view the underlying problems and conceive solutions. When academic program designers emphasize their selection of the best case studies available based on what the business landscape looks like across time, we should reflect on the definition of “best” and ask ourselves whether it is more beneficial to look at business as it is or how it should be. In that reflection, we should ask ourselves how the exclusion of diverse protagonists perpetuates the racial injustice we are witnessing today and how the unwillingness of curriculum designers to implement changes signals our own biases. Going forward, we call on business schools to emphasize diverse case protagonists that are more representative of the diversity we see in the world (e.g., in race, nationality, sector), not of the business sector as it was 50, or even 10, years ago.

We must also offer a curriculum that reflects the complexity of the problems we aspire to tackle. This would include case studies that exhibit the potential of public-private partnerships, the role of the public sector in implementing policies that drive systemic change, the ingenuity of nonprofit actors in addressing complex problems with limited resources, the implications of philanthropy as a capital provider where public and private sector participation are insufficient or absent, and the importance of facilitating diverse stakeholder coalitions to both prevent and respond to societal, economic, and public health crises. To do this effectively, we cannot relegate social impact case studies to a one-off class session or reserve these cases for electives. Cross-sectoral collaboration should be evident throughout core and elective curricula.   

Beyond the curriculum, business schools benefit from the rich pool of human capital attracted to and nurtured by the institution. For example, faculty members, many of whom are leaders in their respective fields, produce valuable research. While professors are often awarded and celebrated for their work within academia, schools should work to elevate key insights from faculty research and projects both within and beyond the world of academia. This means that the standard criteria for rewards such as tenure should not penalize those whose contributions are more practical than theoretical. It also means catalyzing conversations with faculty members across academic disciplines, facilitating discussions between students and their instructors, and developing mechanisms to exchange ideas and share insights with external stakeholders.

Alumni are another important source of human capital associated with business programs. The names attached to our facilities, academic chairs, and scholarships often indicate those who have made meaningful monetary contributions to our schools. Their gifts and ongoing support for our institutions should be celebrated, as they help lay the foundation for future leaders to embark on careers of significance. We should also acknowledge and pay tribute to those whose careers embody the mission of their respective institutions and their achievements beyond for-profit ventures. This means celebrating alumni working in all sectors and exploring ways to feature their work and integrate their experiences into the curriculum. Examples include fellowships like Andrea’s and alumni-in-residence programs focused on social impact that allow for ongoing engagement with students and faculty. During this period, content and ideas can be exchanged through interactive class sessions, open community discussion series, and small group meetings.

Current and prospective members of a business program also matter. While we celebrate those who serve as positive ambassadors for our schools post-graduation, a concerted effort is needed to preserve and strengthen the manifestation of the program’s mission from within. This begins with intentionally seeking out, hiring, and admitting administrators, faculty members, and students from diverse backgrounds, including diverse sectoral experience. It is unacceptable for business schools to parade their diversity through promotional outlets while simultaneously claiming their lack of diversity is a pipeline issue.

Beyond improving numbers, business schools must create space for lived experiences and disparate viewpoints to intersect in ways that produce robust collaborations, open dialogue across silos, and innovative solutions to our most urgent problems. Yale SOM has specific forums, including discussion series, panels, and one-off events, where these conversations take place. While these forums can be constructive, administrations should be intentional about who designs and facilitates these forums so as not to inadvertently assume that constituents (student, faculty, staff, etc.) desire them in precisely the way they have been curated. If business schools truly wish to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion, then they must be willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations about their own role in perpetuating systemic inequities on the terms that diverse constituents determine are most appropriate.

Business schools must also be mindful of who and what they promote and recognize through conferences and events held throughout the year. These occasions, often in the form of conferences, help supplement the material taught inside the classroom and forge relationships with external partners. Each year, professional clubs conduct extensive planning to host sector-specific events, bringing in leading practitioners and researchers to speak about topics in their fields. For example, the Yale Philanthropy Conference convenes philanthropists, program officers, nonprofit executives, impact investors, and thought leaders to network and advance the conversation on a range of topics related to philanthropy each year. The content with which participants engage and the ideas born out of a single day are equivalent to an entire academic course. Another example is the Yale Economic Development Symposium, the content of which is tied to certain electives. This not only enhances the student experience but also creates opportunities for the types of cross-sector collaboration that are warranted in the professional world. Going forward, we should invest in more opportunities to bring together leaders across disciplines and sectors and find ways to connect them to academic courses in mutually beneficial ways.

Finally, business schools should find ways to leverage fellowships like Andrea’s, where students, faculty, and external participants from different backgrounds and areas of expertise are assembled to develop complex solutions to complex problems. The output of Andrea’s fellowship, as well as the ongoing engagement from those she has connected, demonstrates the possibilities of comprehensive collaborations, and these efforts should be celebrated as opportunities to broaden the education of both students and alumni. Importantly, Andrea’s career demonstrates what a career at the intersection of business and society looks like. As future leaders, this is a path to which we can all aspire.

If business schools wish to live up to their promise and their ideals—educating leaders who make world-changing contributions to addressing society’s most pressing problems—they must use all the tools at their disposal to prepare their graduates for a complex, interconnected world. This begins with enriching the curriculum, community engagement, and opportunities for collaboration.      To motivate this effort, we call on business school constituents (including faculty, alumni, and students), MBA associations, and, importantly, university administrators to thoughtfully evaluate the ways in which their programming and structures advance or fall short of their ideals and develop systemic reforms accordingly. Now is not the time to be complacent.

While the United States’ moral unraveling and the devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the need for immediate action to address both longstanding and newly emerging challenges in the United States and beyond, the next generation of leaders must be equipped to deal with their ramifications for decades to come. Business schools must commit to using their vast pools of resources to enable their students to rethink the notion of equity and what it means to listen, to be inclusive, to create value, to work effectively across disciplines, and to be impactful leaders for businesses and society.