2017 Best MBAs: John Kluge, Babson College (F.W. Olin)

Meet John Kluge of Babson College F.W. Olin, “Committed optimist driven by purpose, curiosity, and service. Systems thinker. Lucky. Entrepreneur. Husband. Virginian.” 

John Kluge

F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business, Babson College

“Committed optimist driven by purpose, curiosity, and service. Systems thinker. Lucky. Entrepreneur. Husband. Virginian.” 

Age: 33

Hometown: Charlottesville, Virginia

Fun fact about yourself:  I’m a nerd! I collect comic books and enjoy suiting up for Star Wars movies on opening night.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Columbia University,’05, BS American Studies

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? I was the Co-Founder and Chief Disruption Officer for Toilet Hackers, a social enterprise using innovation, advocacy, and public-private partnerships to improve access to sanitation worldwide. The work of Toilet Hackers continues through my co-founder, though it has now folded under the umbrella of the Toilet Board Coalition. Prior to this, I co-wrote the book Charity and Philanthropy For Dummies and worked in track 1.5 diplomacy at the EastWest Institute, where I founded a program on Youth Protection & Digital Citizenship.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2016? I didn’t. Instead, I participated in the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, married my wife, Dr. Christine Mahoney, and together, we co-founded the Alight Fund.

Where will you be working after graduation? Alight Fund, Co-Founder & Managing Partner

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • Co-Founded and led the Usurpers collective 2015-2017.
  • Recipient, Lewis Institute for Social Innovation Changemaker Award 2016
  • Hult Prize Campus Director 2015-2016
  • Member, Human Rights Commission of Charlottesville, VA 2017-2019

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? When I arrived my first semester, I found the delivery of Babson’s values was not as advertised. Its two thematic pillars of education are Entrepreneurial Thought and Action (abbreviated as ET&A) and SEERS (a catch-all acronym for social, environmental, economic responsibility and sustainability). My experience was that the school delivered on ET&A but struggled to fully integrate SEERS into its curriculum. With a small group of fellow MBAs, we decided to fill in the gap ourselves. What began as an underground support group for social entrepreneurs, recovering nonprofit leaders, and wine appreciators quickly evolved into a movement for positive student influence, strategizing not only on how we could best support one another’s learning and growth in social innovation, but also on how we could best support Babson in living into its values.

I volunteered as part of a two person MCFE team (Management Consulting Field Experience) that conducted a comprehensive review of Babson’s existing ecosystem and its delivery of SEERS; we further assessed the feasibility of Babson to be a hub for entrepreneurial solutions to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We interviewed stakeholders from faculty departments, academic centers, student resources and student groups. We reviewed key partnerships, reports on SDG gaps, rankings, metrics, and expert testimonies. Our findings were presented to Babson’s Cabinet who has already started acting on them. For the first time, Babson is launching an Intensity Track for MBAs to “develop the mindset, skills and competencies around creating economic and social value simultaneously not sequentially.” They’ve introduced new courses like “Leading for Social Value Creation,” formalized their application process for student “inventureship” scholarships, and will recognize students committed to business and social impact at the commencement ceremony. Furthermore, our graduating MBA class will be the first in over half a century to revive Roger Babson’s Oath, to “render business in service of humanity.” I feel lucky to have studied at an institution that sees its students not as customers, but as partners who can help co-create its future.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I’m not sure what it says about me, but the achievement I am most proud of was a failure. In the last project for Toilet Hackers before I left for business school, my former co-founder and I were assembling a collective impact partnership between Sesame Workshop, the Worldwide Association of Girl Scouts and Girl Guides, and UBS to train 6.5 million girls in India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria in hygiene. Despite having an enthusiastic and supportive funder in place and an ambitious shared goal which could have had an enormous positive impact, the project never got off the ground. I’m proud because despite the epic failure, as two guys with a tiny budget, we were crazy enough to give this a try. It was by far the most ambitious project either of us had worked on, well beyond our comfort zones or expertise. As I think about the challenge of keeping that project together while 2/3 of the major partnering organizations were undergoing simultaneous internal restructuring with new CEOs, I can’t help but smile. It was an impossible task, but one that accelerated my understanding of management; that made real the difficulty of collective action; and that ultimately led me on a path to seeing companies and organizations as fluid, complicated systems. To change them, one needs to understand them, which is exactly what Babson allowed me to learn.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Tough question. Cheryl Kiser has, without question, been my biggest advocate and mentor at Babson. She showed me how important it is for companies to lead and manage authentically and that deep listening is truly one of the greatest management tools available (though it is seldom practiced well). How? She did it. Cheryl truly is a pathway creator. She listened to students. She sat in on our underground Usurper nights. She absorbed our feedback and then she acted on it. Several times I watched her hit roadblocks, often in the form of institutional bureaucracy, yet she overcame them through persistence, resourcefulness, and grit. When she was stuck, she called on her network for support.  Like many of Babson’s faculty, Cheryl doesn’t just teach entrepreneurship. She lives it.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? In my Babson Consulting Alliance Program (BCAP), I was part of a team conducting a feasibility assessment for a Massachusetts Department of Public Health initiative. Our objective was to determine whether a telenursing center funded by a grant from the Department of Justice could be scaled sustainably as a private business. My biggest takeaway here was seeing that while business practices can improve the public sector, business itself is not a panacea, and that solving complicated systemic problems often requires a cross-sector approach.

Why did you choose this business school? Many schools like HBS and Darden offer the case method which may be better suited to more traditional management. I wanted to study at a business school that lived and breathed entrepreneurship, where the focus of the faculty was on teaching, not research, and where purpose was at the heart of business not a bolt-on.  After my campus visit, I read the book Creating Social Value by Cheryl Kiser, Deborah Leipziger, and J. Janelle Shubert. Their book reinforced the idea that Babson was a place that truly understood that business and social impact are inextricably intertwined, that entrepreneurial leaders can take many forms, and that change-making requires systems thinking. The last “tipping of the scale” was when I asked a former director of Intel Capital for her opinion. She said in a choice between Babson, Stanford, and HBS alums, she’d rather hire a Babson student as “they just do things differently.” Vague, I know, but it got me in the door.

What was the most surprising thing about business school for you? How much I’m already starting to miss it.

What is the biggest myth about your school? That entrepreneurship can be taught. It’s true. Entrepreneurs are not born. They are made, through experience and a mindset.

What was your biggest regret in business school? That I didn’t make more time for getting to know more of my classmates.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Flora Ekpe-Idang, no question. She’s a true servant leader. She doesn’t ask for permission or direction to solve a problem, even if it’s not her responsibility. Flora has stepped up again and again to support her classmates, to hold space for hard, sometimes even painful conversations. She has consistently been a model on how the best leaders focus on empowering and enabling those around them. She’s brought heart and hope to our class in a year filled with uncertainty, hate, and fear and I am grateful for her compassionate strength throughout. The Diversity Forum, which she co-founded, gave students and faculty alike the opportunity to engage in meaningful and at times moving dialogue around the relationship between business, equality, race, refugees, and immigration.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I realized that I needed to learn the language of business to solve wicked problems. “

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…figuring it out another way.”

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the MBA experience? You don’t need to be dean to change the MBA experience; you just have to act.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I’d like to put some our biggest problems to rest. For now, proving that an economic development approach to the global refugee crisis can successfully integrate displaced entrepreneurs into host communities would be a good start.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? My parents. Without their love and support, I literally wouldn’t be here. I am adopted.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? As a friend who they can call on anytime.

Favorite book: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

Favorite movie or television show: Currently, The Man in the High Castle.

Favorite musical performer: The Clash

Favorite vacation spot: Scotland, or home in Virginia.

Hobbies? My wife plays the fiddle in an all-women bluegrass band. I’m attempting to learn the banjo to play with her, but so far I’ve only managed to make time for one lesson!

What made John such an invaluable addition to the class of 2017?

“I am writing in support of Poets and Quants’ nomination of John Kluge to the “Class of 2017: The World’s Best and Brightest MBA’s.”  Even before day one here at Babson, John started to express his values around how he wanted to lead and influence the Babson culture and community. During his initial interview to decide on Babson as his choice, John started his curious inquiry into who Babson really was and how it delivered social value for its MBA candidates.  He came to Babson not just committing himself to performing well as a student, get an MBA and leave. He committed to leaving his community more enriched because of the programs, relationships and networks he developed within our community.

Just to set the context for my recommendation, Babson’s mission statement says that we will educate our students to be leaders that create economic and social value everywhere. In fact, we take it a bit further here at The Lewis Institute for Social Innovation and by expressing that, not only do we want our students to create economic and social value everywhere, but we want them to create economic and social value simultaneously not sequentially.  This asks our students to make very different considerations in starting, managing or leading businesses.

John was that leader who Mobilized MBA’s to help Babson live into its mission in a real and relevant way. Under John’s creativity and leadership, over 1/3 of his MBA class started a collective called the USURPERS, which has since expanded to include students from all of our graduate programs, several members of the faculty, staff, and even alumni, in the pursuit of “rendering business in service to humanity.”  They were the change leaders inside Babson who were all deeply committed to social, environmental, economic, responsibility and sustainability.

They were committed to learning about and solving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They committed to courses, internships and experiences that provided them with a mindset around Business and Social Innovation. As a skilled community organizer who knows how to influence and mobilize action around an issue better than most, John influenced Babson’s President’s Cabinet to do a better job of living into its mission.

As a result of John’s influence we now have an Intensity Track for MBA’s in Business and Social Innovation for MBAs focused on “developing the mindset, skills, and competencies needed to create economic and social value simultaneously.” Any MBAs eligible for this Track will receive a special designation at Commencement.

John, is enormously respected by his peers, Babson faculty, administrators and alumni. In 2016, we awarded him the Lewis Institute Changemaker Award.  This award is designed to recognize members of the Babson Community who have “set something in motion” in order to create positive change.  John was awarded this recognition because the entire community felt that he was a person who exemplifies the idea of creating positive change.

John has always been generous with his time and talents. He is always willing to bring people along no matter how nascent in their journey to better understand social impact and social value creation.  Before he graduates in May, John will have spoken to just about every leader and stakeholder on campus who has the ability to reframe much of our core values as a business school around social innovation and social impact.

He is already taking the principles and practices of our curriculum beyond Babson, co-founding an investment fund to support refugee entrepreneurs in post conflict zones (which will be representing Babson in the Hult Prize Regional Finals this March); helping to mobilize other businesses to speak publicly in support of refugees; and launching a program to train policymakers in his home state in entrepreneurial thinking and acting which Babson is now co-sponsoring.

John is an effective boundary spanner and social innovator. While here, John has exemplified the best of Babson and employs our methodology of Entrepreneurial Thought & Action everyday while navigating his world and the world around him.  As a faculty member and cabinet member, I can proudly say that we have learned as much from John as he has from us.  A truly co- created outcome for Babson.”

Cheryl Kiser

Executive Director

The Lewis Institute & Babson Social Innovation Lab


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