Purpose, money and the convergence of business ideologies


This is the fourth in a series of blogs featuring the Venture Club, written by Evening MBA student Vicky Bender.

As an MBA student, I have discussed at length the importance of profitability -- a vital component to success in business. However, neither business school nor corporations spend much time discussing any other measure of success. Non-profit organizations, on the other hand, often measure success through the good work they do and frequently neglect the importance of financial viability.

This was the most captivating aspect of a panel discussion on January 12, 2017 when members of the Venture Club of Indiana gathered for a monthly lunch at the Columbia Club to tackle the topic “The Entrepreneurship of Activism.”

The panel included Matt McIntyre, CEO of Brackets for Good; Leonard Hoops, CEO of VisitIndy and Jeb Banner, CEO of Smallbox and co-founder of the SpeakEasy and Boardable, a new software-as-a-service company.

As non-profit leaders, panel members discussed everything from the value of relationship-building to managing the conflicting needs of donors, customers and board members.

During a discussion about the benefits of corporate philanthropy, Banner said, “Non-profits should think a little more like for-profits, and for-profits should think a little more like non-profits.”

Because I've worked in both arenas, this struck a chord with me. I began to consider how we can talk and teach about this convergence of ideology and the importance of valuing more than money.

Achieving profitability is an essential goal for new ventures and young companies, and it is a critical measure of success for every organization. However, once profitable, company executives have responsibilities beyond those to their shareholders. Other stakeholders, such as community members, employees, customers and suppliers, have a vested interest in corporate decisions and outcomes. This is not an original thought; corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a burgeoning field of interest among business leaders.

Panel discussion during the Venture Club of Indiana's January meeting.

Business schools are beginning to take note of this trend. Some are addressing the interest by including a CSR course into elective options; others infuse the concept throughout the curriculum. I would suggest that neither approach truly does the topic justice.

Infusing CSR throughout the curriculum does not offer the spotlight into all the issues that the topic deserves. It is easily lost among competing needs of accounting, finance, marketing and operations classes. Professors inevitably spend more time teaching foundational topics in each of the subject areas. The more nuanced aspects of corporate philanthropy and stewardship rarely rise to the top.

Offering CSR as an elective option also doesn’t do enough. With only a few electives, MBA students who are predisposed to the concept enroll while those who would not consider it are the ones who arguably need it the most.

The Kelley Evening MBA Program offers a certificate program in social entrepreneurship, a collaborative program between the Kelley School of Business, the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI. This is an excellent option for students looking to focus in this area, though it adds a meaningful number of credit hour requirements to an already packed MBA program.

I would love to see social entrepreneurship or corporate responsibility as its own MBA core course, a requirement for all MBA students, as well as an opportunity to focus in this area through the certificate program or through a major. This core course would allow students to discuss the vital importance for-profit and non-profit corporations play in the community and reflect on how business decisions impact stakeholders in addition to shareholders.

In addition, I think it is appropriate for CSR to be further infused throughout an MBA curriculum. What are the tax implications of corporate charitable donations? How does that play out on the income statement? How can brand equity change as a result of sponsorship and how do you measure it? What impact does a commitment to community service have on employee morale? These are important topics to study alongside return on investment, lifetime customer value and net income.

Meanwhile, MBA students often talk about career development and management, but these discussions are too frequently centered around promotions and progressions toward an executive-level position. As a young professional, I focused on this as well, and because the average age of an MBA student is 28, perhaps the focus on promotion is well-placed.

As an older MBA student, I have served in an executive role for the last three years, and I know that a failure to consider personal needs outside the work environment will only create a really bad executive. What kind of travel schedule aligns with your family life? How do you handle stress, and does this align with the stress of the promotion you want?

This is another opportunity for business schools to expand their programming to educate the next generation of leaders. As much as career management is about moving up the corporate ladder, it can also be about finding worthwhile work that supports a meaningful personal life.

Banner substantiated this notion in his comments at the Venture Club luncheon. “I have sacrificed money for meaning,” he said, adding that young people see the value in a balanced approach to their work. In fact, according to The Futures Company, the newest generation of young people (those born after 1995, also known as Centennials or Generation Z) seeks brands with transparent values, and they are likely to seek the same in their employers.

Communicating and living an organizational passion might be what the for-profit world can learn from the non-profit, and business schools can help speed this transition along. At the same time, non-profits could use a dose of financial focus found in the for-profit world, and business school curricula could help provide it.

As for me, I will continue to advocate for a more expansive view of success both professionally and personally. Just as the non-profit and for-profit mindsets may converge to produce more socially-minded organizations, I support a convergence of ideology for individuals as well. I want to do meaningful work, with or without a fancy title, while maintaining the other titles in my life: mom, wife, sister, daughter, student, assistant scoutmaster, jelly-maker and so much more. For the sake of our future leaders, I hope business schools can support that.