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Business & Society: It's Complicated

As an MBA candidate who was also considering a master’s in social work or public policy in 2012, I was drawn early on to Yale’s mission of “educating leaders for business and society,” which implied that neither business nor society stood—or could stand—alone. Founded as a degree program for a master’s in public and private management, Yale SOM first appealed to me because of its rich history of and focus on cross-sector engagement, and upon matriculation, I loved that the mission rang true not only in our recruiting materials but actually in our conversations, coursework and professional opportunities.

Yet, as is the case for companies seeking a double bottom line, business and society don’t always coexist without tension. In a world where resources—finances, time and talent, among others—are finite, the application of the mission is more complicated than it sounds. This reality certainly came to the fore at school last month when several students—including yours truly—commented on a classmate’s post in our Facebook community group of the Forbes article, “The Ivy League Has Perfected the Investment Banker and Management Consultant Replicator.”

Business Versus Society?
These comments on careers in banking and management consulting, in turn, triggered a fierce debate in our community. Topics ranged from the macro—such as the causes of the Great Recession and the role of private equity in fueling economic growth and entrepreneurship—to the personal, including motivations for coming to Yale and the difference between short- and long-term career aspirations. The opinions on the thread eventually became quite heated such that a classmate finally proposed cooling down with a school-wide snowball fight. (Incidentally, we were in the middle of yet another—our umpteenth—snowstorm.)  

Recognizing that the Facebook thread reflected deeper tensions among the student community, our student government leaders organized a lunch discussion on the topic of business and society earlier this month. Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, who teaches our Careers course, moderated the conversation as we discussed subjects like the meaning of our school’s mission, its incorporation in our classroom, its implications for career choice and the inevitable opportunity cost of choosing any one sector, even in the short term.

When Complications Are Good
As one may expect, our conversation that day could have far exceeded the hour’s worth of time dedicated to the lunch. There is still a lot left to discuss—possibly via a second student government-sponsored lunch to be held after spring break. And no, no consensus emerged in a mere 60 minutes’ time on what that mission looks like.

That said, what emerged from that conversation—at least, for me—was a feeling of tremendous pride in this community and my peers, who were candid yet respectful in the way they challenged one another’s views, acknowledged their biases and even issued apologies. It reminded me that I have so, so much to learn from them than what we simply cover in the classroom. Their collective thoughtfulness, willingness to listen and passion for impact in all that they do were both humbling and moving. Furthermore, as a friend pointed out later, how awesome is it that we belong to a community whose members care so much about changing the world and fulfilling the school’s mission that we even have these passionate debates in the first place?

In what perhaps is an appropriate nod to the Facebook origin of our recent debate, the relationship between business and society may best be captured by a common Facebook status: It’s complicated, indeed.   

But it’s also what makes Yale SOM awesome.