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Tony Senanayake Yale SOM Class of 2020

How an MBA Helped Me Launch My Career in the Social Sector

Tony Senanayake ’20 pursued a career in international development while a student in the Yale SOM MBA program. He interned and ultimately began a full-time position at the global development advisory firm IDinsight, which uses data and evidence to help leaders alleviate poverty worldwide.

If you, like me, are interested in pursuing a career in the social sector, then attaining an MBA can be a great way to launch your career and provide you with the opportunity to amplify your social impact. As a recent graduate of the Yale School of Management MBA program who now works full-time for a global development advisory firm, I’ve observed that there is an increased appetite across social-sector employers to tap into the business-driven, efficiency led thinking within operational and project management activities.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in the social sector after graduation, I would advise you to take advantage of the many opportunities that Yale SOM has to offer to MBA students, including:

  • Real-world projects: During my time at Yale School of Management, I was able to take advantage of research opportunities with preeminent professors and consulting projects with actual clients and consequences in multiple countries, including Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and India. These projects both opened my eyes to the practical realities of a career in the space and also differentiated me from other candidates when it came time to apply for roles after graduation.
  • Networks: The alumni network of the school helped me build relationships with mentors who have been able to guide me and introduce me to what a career in the global development space actually looks like. This is even more powerful in the development space, which is characterized not by six, but rather two or three, degrees of separation.

I do not want to paint the picture, however, that an MBA is the right route for all individuals interested in a career in the social sector. I recommend that prospective students think long and hard about whether an MBA is right for them. The following are six practical tips that I would give to applicants considering an MBA with the goal of entering the social sector after graduation:

  • Have a clear personal theory of change. A theory of change is a model that clearly depicts how an input combined with certain activities will hypothetically lead to certain outcomes and outputs and finally make an impact. I have provided a high-level example of my own model (pictured below). The process of developing, iterating, and testing this

    infographic of a model featuring "Inputs," "Activities," "Outputs," "Outcomes," and "Impact"

    model can be highly self-revelatory. It requires clarity on what your comparative advantages and skills are and what activities you are best placed to perform in order to pursue the impact you believe is most effective or important. 
  • Be able to clearly articulate how an MBA from the school you are applying to will help you achieve that theory of change. Once you have designed your theory of change, consider whether an MBA is necessary or even appropriate for you. For me, I realized that I needed on-the-ground experience and a deep network. A graduate degree provided me with the personal time, space, and opportunities to gain these experiences and connections. Business school can also provide a candidate with access to certain skills and knowledge, internship opportunities, or global mobility.
  • Generate a list of potential employers and understand what types of experiences will set you up for success. Once you have a clearer picture of your personal theory of change, create a list of potential employers and roles that would align with your goals in the short and medium terms. Review job descriptions and try to organize coffee chats to better understand what skills, experience, and personality traits these employers are looking for. This process will help you determine whether an MBA will provide you the necessary opportunities to catalyze the social impact you want to pursue.
  • Envision what your LinkedIn page will look like when you graduate. I would recommend not to think of your two years at business school as a “career break,” but rather an opportunity to actively experiment and build skills that you can use to differentiate yourself. The greatest challenge I found with business schools was not what to say “Yes” to, but rather what to say “No” to. The framework of thinking through how opportunities would be able to build skills or act as powerful experiments on the path to a goal helped me to filter the plethora of available opportunities.
  • Do not expect there to be time to “explore.” Many applicants I have spoken to plan to use business school as a time to explore the social sector and find out what they are passionate about. While I would actively encourage experimentation, I warn against the pre-conception of the two years as a time that is well-suited to exploration. Management consulting, investment banking, and technology-related internship cycles start within weeks of class starting. Therefore, if an applicant does not have a clear idea of how they plan to pursue employment opportunities, it can be all too easy to get sucked into “traditional” recruitment cycles. Clear goals and strategy are needed to effectively pursue a social-sector career while at business school.
  • Be aware of the financial and logistical challenges of a career in the social sector. Finally, there is no hiding the fact that careers in the social sector generally do not pay at the same rate as more traditional, private sector post-MBA jobs. Many schools have very generous internship funds and loan forgiveness programs (especially Yale SOM); however, I would encourage all applicants to create a budget and proactively have the difficult conversations around what the financial implications will look like for them. Admissions teams and finance teams at business schools are able to provide transparent details on these aspects. The financial challenges do exist, but they are definitely surmountable with forward planning and prudence.