USC Marshall: Building A Do-Gooder Brigade To Tackle Society’s Ills

Alexis Shah will complete USC Marshall's MSSE program later this year. Prior to enrolling in the program, Shah was a Regional Executive Director for College Summit, a southern California-based nonprofit connecting low income high school students with college and careers. Photo courtesy of USC Marshall School of Business

Alexis Shah will complete USC Marshall’s MSSE program later this year. Prior to enrolling in the program, Shah was a Regional Executive Director for College Summit, a southern California-based nonprofit connecting low income high school students with college and careers. Photo courtesy of USC Marshall School of Business

FILLING AN EDUCATIONAL NEED

The program is the evolution of a 10-page proposal Wertman wrote and pitched to three Los Angeles area B-schools nearly a decade ago. Wertman developed an MBA-specific fellowship, then an undergraduate minor and now a full-fledged graduate degree. Courses are scheduled on evenings and weekends, allowing students to hold full-time jobs. Students in the program must complete nine core courses and two electives and may complete it in one or two years. Offered at just under $50,000, Wertman, Program Director Jessica Levine and a team of faculty and staff constructed the program to serve a specific type of person.

In 2007, when Wertman, who holds an MBA from Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, began as a professor of clinical entrepreneurship at Marshall, he was looking to pluck socially-minded MBAs for social sector roles. But after a student shelled out $125,000 for an MBA, they found the six-figure job offers from consulting firms tough to turn down.

The other issue?

“In truth, many from the nonprofit area said, ‘I don’t want to hang out with MBAs for two years,’” Wertman says. “And it’s not a bad thing. It’s not a negative to MBAs. It’s a ‘I know I am a person who wants to devote my life to social change and I want to study business. MBAs don’t want to dedicate their lives to social impact. They’re not bad people. They’re just different. But I want to spend time getting a degree with like-minded people. And right now if I do that, I’m going to have to go to social work or policy school. But I want to study business.’”

THE CALL OF THE DO-GOODER

To be sure, those students exist and they’re coming in droves to the Southern California campus, albeit, on very different paths. Megan Strawther, who has spent the majority of her life, sans an East Coast stint for undergrad, in the Los Angeles area, saw a specific problem during her two years as a development and communications associate at Los Angeles area-based nonprofit, P.S. Arts.

The problem Strawther, 27, constantly wrestled was being able to raise ample funds to actually serve the community. Simply put, she didn’t see relying on hand-outs from generous donors as sustainable. “How could we make an impact in children’s lives if we’re constantly scraping by,” Strawther points out referring to the art education programs P.S. Arts provides to low income area school districts. “I never thought I’d go to business school,” she admits. “But then I heard about this program and it solved the problem that was bothering me.”

Brittany Purdom Murrey, however, did come from the business world. She had an early career rising the ranks at Wells Fargo and then CitiGroup. Murrey, who was raised by a single parent, greatly valued education and knew she wanted to earn a graduate degree. She just didn’t know which one. The MBA was the obvious choice, but Murrey wanted to help the lives of children growing up in similar situations to her.

“I felt like I was on a wild goose chase I didn’t even know I was actually on,” admits Murrey, 29, of her graduate school search. Through online surfing, she found Wertman’s MSSE. “It almost sounded too good to be true,” Murrey recalls. And then she serendipitously met a student in the inaugural cohort at a CitiGroup-sponsored event for mentoring first generation Latino college students. Things clicked.

“Education was the equalizer for me,” Murrey insists. “A person simply doesn’t have a chance at anything in this country without the appropriate type of education. And we need to figure a way to help that. It’s easy to look at someone who is poor and think, well, they didn’t work hard enough or didn’t study enough. But maybe they’re working 40 hours a week in fast food while trying to graduate high school.”