During admit weekend this year, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business hosted a social impact panel, and the room was packed, current MBA student Ariana Almas says.
“It seemed like a lot more students than I remember during my admitted students weekend,” she says. But this is only one of the ways she’s noticed interest in social impact growing at the school.
This past year, Ross students collaborated with the dean to define a social impact vision for the school. Almas says she personally has taken part in a number of Ross’ social impact opportunities – like competing in the Social Impact Challenge, taking a Social Intrapreneurship class, and taking on a social impact project through Ross’ Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAP) program.
The MAP program is perhaps the clearest way to see that students are eager to learn about – and practice – social impact. MAP is a required program that MBAs complete during the last six weeks of their first year. The school partners with various organizations, which sponsor teams of students to visit and work on a project. Students bid on the projects they’re most interested in, student teams are formed, and they’re sent out to work as consultants on the chosen projects.
“We actually have more proposals than students, so the students are wooed, in a way,” says MAP Director Jeffrey Sanchez Burks. “They bid on the proposals, and teams are assembled based on what they’re interested in.”
Over the last 25 years, the percentage of projects that have a social impact mission has grown to nearly 20%, and Burks says MAP has made an effort to expand the opportunities for Ross students to gain social impact experience. “A number of projects this year had a clear social impact theme,” he says. “And based on the bidding, I can tell you they were very popular.”
‘BUSINESS IMPACTS OUR SOCIETY, WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT’
For Almas, who had worked in the nonprofit sector for five years before coming to Ross, social impact was her number one criteria when picking a MAP project. After a school year’s worth of learning the fundamentals of business in the corporate sector, she says she was eager to get back to her roots.
Almas and her team ended up working on a project for the People Improvement Organization (PIO), an NGO based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia that provides education and holistic support to Cambodian children in order to lift them out of poverty.
“We stayed in Phnom Penh for about a week. On our first day, we spent time learning about the history and people of Cambodia. We visited the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, where mass killings took place throughout the ’70s as part of the Cambodian genocide,” Almas says. “During the rest of the week, we immersed ourselves in the work of PIO by visiting all three schools that PIO currently runs.”
One of the schools was built on a former dumpsite, where children often collect recyclables in exchange for money or discarded food. Another was in one of the Phnom Penh slum areas, and one was located near a village outside the center of the city.
PIO is currently dependent on one major foundation donor, which puts the organization in a high-risk scenario, Almas says. Her team’s project was to develop a more sustainable donor and corporate engagement strategy.
Almas says the experience taught her that social impact work is both nuanced and challenging. Even so, she plans to base her career around it. “I’m committed to building a career focused on social impact. I’m currently transitioning into the corporate space, and through it may not seem like a popular route, I believe strongly that you can achieve positive social change through for-profit corporations,” Almas says.
‘I WANTED ONE THAT WOULD GET ME EXCITED ABOUT SOCIAL IMPACT’
Almas’ classmate Molly Hope was also looking for a project with a social impact mission. Her team went to Nepal to work for a organization called Better Bricks Nepal – which is trying to change labor practices in the brick industry and eliminate child labor.
Hope says they were working on how the organization could be more sustainable. At the moment, they’re funded by two international organizations, but wish to be self-sustainable.
“I come from a non-traditional background,” Hope says. “I was in the military for five and a half years, and had a great opportunity to work with the community in Afghanistan on a social impact project. So when I was picking this MAP project, I wanted one that would get me excited about social impact missions again.”
Better Bricks Nepal is trying to build a market for ethically sourced bricks. But right now, the brick industry is heavily influenced by price and quality. “We gathered a lot of information about child labor to raise awareness about the issue, and to find out if people knew their bricks were coming from an ethical source, would they be willing to pay more for them?” Hope says.
While the Ross team’s role was mostly finance-based, Hope says the organization’s mission affected her tremendously. “Especially after doing this MAP project, I’m definitely interested in eventually going into a career in social impact.”