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More MBAs Are Going Into Politics

A group of HBS MBA graduates. Get HBS MBA student advice

Aravind Krishnan was among the MBA graduates at Harvard Business School’s commencement this year. Courtesy photo

It was 1900 when the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College began training students for the master of science in commerce degree. About a decade later, Harvard Business School awarded the first-ever Master of Business Administration. But it wasn’t until a century after that, when HBS grad George W. Bush skimmed by Al Gore — after two recounts, a Supreme Court ruling, and 537 more votes in Florida — that the United States would have a president with an MBA. Now, however, Bush has some potential copycats.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the percentage of 2017 MBA graduates from Harvard Business School entering government positions doubled from 2016. According to this year’s HBS employment report, 4% of 2017 graduates entered government or nonprofit positions. Half (2%) took government positions.

“Whether it be running for elected office, joining the government or public sector in meaningful management roles, or launching civic tech companies in the space — that little slice has increased in the past year to year-and-a-half,” says Matt Segneri, director of the Social Enterprise Initiative at Harvard Business School.

Segneri, who graduated from HBS in 2010 and was an intern for the FBI between his first and second MBA years, says he has seen the increase among Harvard MBAs first-hand. Alongside professor Mitch Weiss, Segneri teaches Leadership and Innovation in the Public Sector, a one-day session offered to MBAs during their first fall at HBS. Since the fall of 2014, class attendance has increased from around 30 of the 900 or so incoming MBAs to 95 this past fall. “That appears to be real evidence of the observation of the uptick in interest,” says Segneri, who also served as as senior adviser to then-Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

To be sure, HBS isn’t the only school pumping students into the social sector. Dartmouth’s Tuck School saw a similar increase from 2016 to 2017, from 1% to 2%; and while a full 2017 jobs report hasn’t been released by the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, MBA graduates entering government positions out of Cal climbed from 1.2% in 2015 to 2.7% in 2016 — a higher percentage than any other elite school in the past three years. According to a Haas spokeswoman, that 2.7% will likely be repeated this year.

Matt Segneri of Harvard Business School. Courtesy photo

TRUMP, INCREASED ACTIVISM, COMPLEX PROBLEM SOLVING ALL LEAD TO UPTICK

Increasing trend or not, Segneri is quick to produce a list with more than a dozen HBS grads recently elected or seeking election at the federal, state, or local level. Among the more famous: Harvard MBA Mitt Romney, who left a career at Bain to become governor of Massachusetts, and later the Republican party’s presidential nominee in 2012. Romney is likely to run for the U.S. Senate spot for Utah in 2018. Other HBS grads are running for U.S. congressional positions in Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, New Hampshire, Texas, and North Carolina this year, while MBAs from Harvard have recently been elected to mayoral positions in cities like Albuquerque, New Mexico; Newton, Massachusetts; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. “It’s far from an exhaustive list, but just an illustrative one of folks that are top of mind,” Sergneri says.

One factor in the uptick is likely President Donald Trump’s unlikely rise to the presidency. “I think it’s fair to point to it as a factor,” Segneri tells Poets&Quants on a phone call. “Some feel affinity to the current president’s points of view and others feel opposition,” he continues. “But there is a strengthening interest in civic engagement.”

More than that, Segneri says, is a “real urgency” among complex policy matters “because of everything from income inequality to climate change to housing affordability that demands problem solvers and innovation that is exciting in the early part of some MBAs’ careers.” Where prominent elected officials like Bush and Romney were mid-career when they left their business positions to enter politics, there has also been an increase in recently graduated MBAs getting involved in policy, Segneri says. The more traditional path of learning, earning, and returning might be on the way out because of that urgency.

And political activism has surged over the past year on B-school campuses. Less than two weeks after the 2016 presidential election, current Harvard MBAs wrote a scathing letter to the editor at The New York Times, condemning President Trump’s then-chief strategist Steve Bannon, who also earned an MBA from Harvard. Before Trump was elected, thousands of Wharton students and alumni signed a similar letter declaring their disapproval of Trump, who graduated with an undergraduate degree from Wharton. Across several campuses, meanwhile, MBAs showed their support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

SOCIAL SECTOR TREND LINE ‘WILL CONTINUE TO GO UP’

Besides Trump and B-school activism, Segneri says, government offers MBAs an opportunity to solve real complex problems and make a lasting impact for large swaths of people — two things that are increasingly attractive to this generation of MBAs.

“The general management skill set is important to governing in challenging contexts,” Segneri says. This past fall, in Weiss’s Public Entrepreneurship course, for example, students were tasked to solve issues like the growing opioid and crisis in the U.S.

Segneri says there are real economic and social conundrums happening now in our country: a shrinking middle class, a growing homeless population, and increasing global threats. All these are seen by an increasing number of MBAs as challenges to rise to.

“Increasingly, people are realizing the government controls the greatest amount of resources and serves the greatest number of people in localized areas,” Segneri says. “I think the trend line will continue to go up, in my point of view.”

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