Ross: Making An Impact Before It Was Cool

Kellsea-Ballantyne

Kelsea Ballantyne

A GROWING TREND—EVEN AMONG ELITES

In the past few years, the idea that business schools should help students use their skills for good has exploded. A snapshot of what’s happening in business schools this month: IESE Business School is offering a new elective on social entrepreneurship; Columbia Business School and INSEAD are launching dual-degree programs in business and education; students from business schools all over the world are competing to win $1 million from the Hult Prize Foundation for their social enterprises.

The change isn’t limited to small, niche institutions. Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton each have an entire webpage dedicated to social enterprise, social innovation, and social impact, respectively. In these pages, the schools showcase impact-related conferences, initiatives, research, and careers.

But Ross has been melding business and do-gooding since the 1980s and the 1990s, especially in terms of the environment. “We were one of the earliest big schools to establish a major center in sustainability,” Hopp says. The center he’s referring to is the Erb Institute, a partnership between Ross and Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE). It was founded in 1996, and it allows students to earn an MBA and an MS in three years. Moreover, in 2002, Ross launched the Center for Positive Organizations, and as early as 2009, the school started the very first student-led investment fund focused on social enterprise. It helps that Ross is well-integrated with the rest of the University of Michigan, which, by no coincidence, is where John F. Kennedy introduced the Peace Corps in 1960.

That spirit is alive and well at Ross. When Davis-Blake took over as dean in 2011, she spent a long time speaking with students, alumni, and other members of the community about what they’d like to see. A clear theme emerged, she says: making a positive difference.

A LONG WAY FROM SMALL-TOWN IDAHO

What makes Ross special is the fact that it doesn’t just focus on one area of the business-for-good space. All top schools focus on at least a slice; “everybody’s talking this language,” Hopp says. “There’s kind of nobody that’s not.” But Ross has its hands in social impact, sustainability, and positive work practices—and in the spaces between all three, Hopp asserts. A big selling point for impact-minded students is the opportunity to completely change paths while still in school.

Ballantyne, an Erb Institute student, arrived at Ross with an unusual background. After graduating from Chapman University in 2007, the Idaho native became a Fulbright Scholar and moved to Kolkata, India, where she spent a year studying globalization’s effects on women in the private sector. Instead of coming back to the U.S. once her year was up, she stayed in India and helped found a social enterprise and a nonprofit. In 2011, she moved to Tunisia and worked as a senior regional advisor at Coxswain Social Investment Plus, a consulting firm that supports the development of emerging economies—her last stop before Ross.

Having been in the MBA/MS program for a year, Ballantyne has already been able to explore several corners of the impact space. In addition to being the vice president of Ross’s Net Impact chapter, she’s an officer in the Design + Business club (she explains that in the development context, failing to think about the needs and circumstances of the people you’re developing for is a big problem). Moreover, this past summer, she used design thinking to help create two different pilot programs during her internship with Focus Hope, a civil and human rights-focused nonprofit that has been in nearby Detroit since 1968.