MBAs with a conscience – why social innovation is a growing passion for business school students

4 February 2016

The article at a glance

The choice used to be simple: make a profit or save the world – but not both. At Cambridge Judge Business School, …

The choice used to be simple: make a profit or save the world – but not both. At Cambridge Judge Business School, a new breed of MBA student is putting social contribution at the top of their agenda, in a sustainable and profitable way.


“There are a number of factors to explain the change in focus,” says Dr Neil Stott, Executive Director of the School’s Centre for Social Innovation. “It’s partly generational – millennials want to work in places that treat people or the planet differently. They expect more from business, are fed up with corporate greed, and are frustrated at how slow businesses are to change.”

“Big corporates have a huge impact on the world we live in and many students want to become social intrepreneurs, gaining an understanding of corporate responsibility that they can take back into their companies.”

Which is why more than a quarter of CJBS’s recent MBA graduates expressed an interest in studying social innovation – four times as many as a year ago. And the Centre has proved attractive not only for students from traditional profit-led organisations, but for many who already work for social enterprises and want to develop and take back hard business skills.

“I’ve always worked in the environment sector,” says Zoe Cullen, who has just completed her Cambridge MBA. “My route to the MBA was through my interest in corporate responsibility and managing a company’s impact on the environment – I wanted to learn how to finance impact and mission-driven organisations.”

Zoe, 34, who is currently on a sabbatical from Flora and Fauna International, spent her MBA summer internship in Indonesia working for ecology economists Althelia Ecosphere, looking at incentives for the sustained management of forests. “I came to Cambridge already committed to learning more about sustainability and was so fortunate that this was the year Cambridge launched the Centre for Social Innovation. I did projects on strategies for financing affordable housing and environmental policies of a private equity company. We had brilliant speakers, such as the Head of the Social Stock Exchange and the former Director General of the National Trust; it was excellent.”

“But what also struck me was that so many of the students interested in social innovation weren’t, like me, from a predictable third sector background – there were hedge fund managers, investment bankers, lots of people from profit-led corporate organisations. Our millennial generation want to see impact and meaning and value in what we do. This is a conscious generation because it has to be.”

Rena Zuabi, now working in California as a co-ordinator for boutique consulting firm Lean Start-Up Machine, admits she wasn’t sure if her background in social enterprise would fit at a business school. “However, I soon realised the perspective I brought was heard and appreciated as much as anyone else’s. I felt I made a contribution to other people’s studies as they had done to mine.”

“How do you make the case for, say, social enterprise – whether it’s worker rights or gender issues – while proving to a company that, apart from being a good and moral thing to do, it’s also good for their bottom line? Socially innovative people are getting better at it but there’s still a way to go. It’s up to us to show from a business point of view how effective social innovation is.”

Rena also believes business schools can do even more to spread the word. “Whether it’s pushing multinationals into more corporate responsibility or helping developing countries to grow market, business schools are embracing social enterprise and Cambridge Judge is certainly at the forefront of that,” she says. “But business schools can do more. They have a lot of resources around it, but that’s just it – around it. Great though many of these MBA projects are, social innovation sometimes still feels like an optional extra and core studies take up so much time that many students may not have time to explore them. Business schools need to shift their mindset to integrate social innovation right into the heart of the curriculum.”

The figures show there is a hunger among MBA students to learn even more about social enterprise and the Centre for Social Innovation does reflect that, says Stott. “A lot of organisations realise they have a moral responsibility to the planet and the people,” he says. “And since the credit crunch every organisation wants to be seen as virtuous – even if some are still not quite there yet. They know they will be caught out very quickly if they are not seen to be taking social responsibility.”

Zoe Cullen agrees. “The world we live in is a complex place. Business needs to recognise its social impact on our environment and to take responsibility for that. It is fundamental that MBAs move in this direction.”