Who says there’s no money in nonprofits? MBA candidate Devon Sanford’s drive for social change landed her nearly $900,000 in scholarship offers from eight of the most elite business schools in the United States.
Sanford, whose passion for social innovation began early in life, got into every full-time MBA program she applied to, including Harvard Business School, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. She says she never expected to have so many schools interested in her.
Even more telling, those schools threw money at this non-traditional MBA applicant, plenty of money, $900,000 in total scholarship offers from all of the eight MBA programs eager to claim her as one of its students. While there is no way to tell for sure, it’s probable that no other MBA candidate ever has accumulated that large a stash of scholarship money.
“It still feels absurd,” she tells Poets&Quants.
This month, Sanford began her first semester at her school of choice: Harvard. Hoping to work at the intersection of philanthropy and impact investing, she is interested in how society can distribute capital to achieve the greatest amount of change.
CREATING ‘THE BIGGEST IMPACT’
Sanford began her academic journey studying English, management, and leadership as an undergrad at Boston College. At BC, she not only graduated summa cum laude; Sanford was also in the English Honors Program, assistant news editor of the student newspaper, a facilitator for the emerging leaders program, and an orientation leader for the office of the first-year experience.
In her senior year, she developed an interest in the nonprofit sector; before graduating, she was accepted to Venture for America, a two-year fellowship program founded by the recent Democratic nominee Andrew Yang. The program places recent college grads at startups and small businesses in economically developing cities.
“Venture for America pulls top talent that would usually go to New York or San Francisco, placing them in cities that graduates might not choose to go to otherwise,” she explains. “It was through Venture for America that I worked at a nonprofit called Good Company Ventures.”
By transforming innovators into entrepreneurs, Good Company Ventures helps turn social problems into opportunities that promote long-term change and accelerated impact, a vision that parallels Sanford’s.
“I’m interested in how capital is effectively allocated to early-stage social businesses in the form of VC impact investments and grant distribution,” she says. “I want to see how we as a society can create the biggest impact.”
A GROWING PASSION FOR CHANGE
During her time with Good Company Ventures, her passion and skills for social innovation grew.
“When I was there, we were running an accelerator specifically for sustainable enterprises,” she says. “I supported our pipeline development for the accelerator, helped manage our development assessment tool to measure the impact that the enterprises were creating, as well as helped entrepreneurs present to an impact investing angel group in Philadelphia that would meet monthly.”
Once the two-year fellowship program ended, Sanford transitioned into working for The Global Good Fund, a nonprofit founded by and for social entrepreneurs that identifies high-potential young leaders and accelerates their success through development tools. As a manager for the nonprofit, Sanford co-led its business development strategy with the CEO, while also steering the organization’s first-ever impact investing fund.
THE SEARCH FOR THE RIGHT SCHOOL
After three years with The Good Global Fund, Sanford began looking for MBA programs that had rigorous social impact offerings, both curricular and extracurricular. “I wanted to apply to programs that would challenge me beyond what I’ve learned through work,” she says.
She submitted first-round applications to programs through the Forté Foundation and the Consortium: Yale School of Management, UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Duke University Fuqua School of Business, and Georgetown University McDonough School of Business. After offers to interview at every single school, her confidence grew.
“I thought to myself, ‘If this is going so well, I might as well shoot my shot at the programs that are considered the best of the best.’ I then submitted applications to Wharton and HBS.” And she was offered interviews at those schools, too.
Sanford interviewed at Wharton in late February and HBS in early March, on the last day before Covid-19 closed campus. “That was lucky!” she says.
SEEKING, AND RECEIVING, GENEROUS FINANCIAL AID PACKAGES
With its impressive entrepreneurship faculty and social impact track, HBS had caught Sanford’s eye early on. But finances were a major determinant of where she would get her education. Without a company sponsoring her or enough family support to make it work — and because she plans to go into a less-lucrative field — she knew she could only attend a school that offered her a generous scholarship.
One by one, Sanford was accepted by every program she’d applied to. And one by one, each offered hefty, merit-based scholarships. But not Harvard. Since HBS offers financial aid on the basis of need, rather than merit, Sanford had to wait to see what she’d be offered, and whether it measured up to the other schools’ offers.
“If I didn’t get scholarships, I just couldn’t justify the program,” she says. “Plus, the business that I wanted to go into post-MBA is just not as lucrative as i-banking or consulting.”
Finally, HBS generously offered funding to cover most of Sanford’s costs. She was also accepted into the Goldsmith Fellowship, a scholarship program run by the school’s Social Enterprise Initiative Office that is offered to students with a background in the social sector.
That settled, Sanford officially became a Harvard MBA candidate.
“To me, the Goldsmith Fellowship was a really compelling opportunity to spend time with both like-minded individuals and those who have backgrounds and experiences that I know nothing about, but would be interested in learning from,” she says.
AN MBA DURING A PANDEMIC? NO PROBLEM
While each HBS student this year was given the option to defer because of the pandemic, Sanford chose to begin her studies this fall, as she’s been impressed with the way the school’s administration has handled COVID-19.
Although this may not be a regular year at HBS, Sanford remains hopeful.
“We’re starting in a fully virtual dynamic for the orientation to make sure that students are safe on campus before they open up a hybrid model. Plus, HBS students are getting tested regularly.”
Sanford has a clear goal for her future, driven by her passion for philanthropy and making positive social change.
“I see myself either working in an impact investment fund where I can get some experience sourcing and doing due diligence with early-stage startups, or working at a larger established foundation where they’re doing both impact investing and other forms of capital distribution,” she says.
Her drive for change coupled with a big heart may help to accelerate the shifts we wish to see in the world.
“I want to get a bit more practice under my belt first, but I think long term, the opportunity to run a fund would be incredible.”
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