Ross: Making An Impact Before It Was Cool

Erb Class of 2016 at Michigan's Ross School of Business

Erb Class of 2017 at Michigan’s Ross School of Business

When Kelsea Ballantyne first arrived at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, she still had doubts about business school—doubts stemming from her experiences with other people who’d gone into MBA programs. “I probably assumed too much that everyone was going to be a cookie cutter of one another,” she admits.

Stereotypically speaking, MBAs want two things: money and power. Ballantyne is more interested in fair labor practices and sustainability. But she quickly found that at Ross, the stereotype simply doesn’t hold water. She estimates that 65% to 70% of her classmates are impact-minded; even students pursuing more traditional paths generally take advantage of the various sustainability and social enterprise clubs and initiatives on campus.

Net Impact, a nonprofit for students who want to make positive change through business, confirmed Ballantyne’s observations in its most recent guide to business schools. This year, Ross was the only elite school to rank among the top five in both sustainability and social impact. Since the guide is student-led, that means Ross MBAs were highly satisfied with their school’s offerings in both areas.


It’s not that Ross only takes applicants with an interest in positive business. “You need a diverse class to make a good business school,” Dean Alison Davis-Blake says, adding that it’s healthy for those who want to make an impact in the business world to be challenged by their peers, not just by professors. But Davis-Blake acknowledges that even without special attention from the admissions office, Ross tends to attract a large number of impact-minded students. Ballantyne makes the same observation: Those with a do-gooding streak get more interested, and those who can’t at least coexist with do-gooders go away.

Ross wasn’t always this way, though. Senior Associate Dean Wally Hopp recalls that the school tried to launch a class on green manufacturing in the 90s, and it simply couldn’t get students to take it—or anything like it, really. But around 2005, something changed. “All of the sudden, there was interest, and we’ve been kind of building since then,” Hopp says. Each year, he’s seen an uptick. “There’s definitely something out there, and I think it’s rooted in that Millennial generation,” he explains.

The way Hopp views things, Millennials—the children of the protest-happy Baby Boomers—have been pushing against the shareholder value model, which contends that business exists solely to produce a profit for its investors. Hopp thinks Millennials see the model as narrow-minded and out-of-sync with their priorities. “My attitude is, more power to them,” he says.

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