On Campus

Good for business

A new generation of M.B.A. graduates sets out to better the world. Honestly.

As the dusty red pickup truck bounced across Botswana’s rural outback, business graduate student Malaz Sebai nervously anticipated his first encounter with the country’s marginalized and indigenous San people. It was a steamy two-hour drive, and for Sebai, who had spent most of the summer in a small office coordinating the sale of handmade arts and crafts from the region, it was the culmination of an unusual career decision.

In the summer of 2008, while other M.B.A. students and graduates were working their way up through soon-to-be suffering banks and blue-chip corporations, Sebai volunteered as assistant manager with San Arts and Crafts, a non-profit wholesaler of handicrafts made by the impoverished tribe. At the time, he was halfway through earning his M.B.A. degree at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business in Montreal. He concedes that working in Africa, and at such a small organization, was an unconventional choice, particularly considering the high-powered jobs for which business school grads traditionally aim. But he doesn’t regret it.

“When we arrived at the village, we met these poor women we were helping, and there were children everywhere, and all these women were all kneeling on the floor selling their goods,” Sebai recalls. “Without us, these people would never have had access to that opportunity. I think that volunteer work is something that’s very valuable. Especially in this climate, when you go and apply for three positions and there are 150 candidates, this is really the type of thing that will set you apart.”

Sebai, 30, is just one example of the way many M.B.A. grads in Canada are changing their views—both of how to apply their degrees and of how their ethical impulses can merge with their careers. For Sebai, the working trip to Africa wasn’t only about touchy-feely volunteerism; it was also a calculated effort to put his professional acumen to work for a good cause.

Business grads all across the country are making similar choices, and in increasing numbers. And that’s occurring not just because the recent recession has made traditional M.B.A. jobs harder to find. According to Tima Bansal, who teaches strategic management at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in London, incoming M.B.A. grads are displaying unprecedented levels of social understanding of issues like climate change, poverty, literacy, women’s rights and international politics. “They have a greater awareness of people, and their position within society,” she says. “They care more about their social presence.”

M.B.A.s are giving the ethics of potential employers a much harder look now than they were 10 years ago, agrees Sharon Irwin Foulon, Ivey’s director of career management. She deals with students in both the admission process and in career placement. “I’ve been hearing from my colleagues that many of their students are refusing the few six-figure jobs that there are if they don’t like the values of the organization,” says Foulon. “People have been talking about this shift for a long time, but from my perspective business students seem to be increasingly giving their opportunities a genuine and thoughtful look.”

Now graduated from his M.B.A., Sebai is trying to persuade Concordia to take over their currently student-run International Community Outreach Program (iCOP) to ensure its survival. He says aspiring businesspeople still want to be successful, but as their definitions of success start to change, demand for philanthropic exchange programs like iCOP is only going to increase. “Through the course of their careers, they’re probably going to go through many jobs, in many different industries, and people are beginning to set different benchmarks for what they consider being successful,” he explains. “Not everyone wants to work 60 hours a week making a six-figure salary. For me, that’s not what I necessarily measure as success.”

The shift seen at Ivey—a high-powered, high-priced business program—is similar, according to Bansal. She thinks it’s a generational thing. “Wealth is increasing in our society, so we have choices that we never had before. This means that students don’t feel locked into the same careers as historically they have been,” she says. “If you know that you’re going to live well enough to be able to have the house and the car, you won’t have to worry about food and providing for kids, you start to ask yourself what you’d get real personal satisfaction from. These students want a job that connects with their own identity.”

Of course, the changing perspectives might not just be about finding yourself, says Sebai. The economic meltdown—blamed by many on greedy or incompetent business school grads—has sparked a major rethink among students. “Unfortunately, it’s always catastrophes and tragedies that make us realize that change is necessary,” Sebai says. “With all the recent corporate scandals, I think people are starting to expect more from their business schools.”

The soul-searching isn’t limited to students, either. “All of us involved in business education need to ask what our role has been in fostering a culture that allows executives to walk off with millions of dollars while their firms lay in tatters and society is left with the bill,” wrote Harvard Business School professors Jay Lorsch and Rakesh Khurana for BusinessWeek last November. Griped Slate’s Matthew Stewart in a March column titled “RIP, M.B.A.”: “The reality is that business school . . . brings together people who share certain career aspirations—for the most part, to make big bucks—and occupies their time teaching them a few technical things that they don’t need to know, along with a code of conduct that says, in essence, whatever is legal is ethical; and if it makes money, it’s a positive duty.”

For Daniel Muzyka, dean of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, the situation isn’t that simple. He points out that students now earning their M.B.A. degrees are generally in their late 20s to early 30s, which means that most have been in the business world for only a short period of time. “I don’t think it’s related to culpability as much as a feeling that they want to help build and live in a new model,” he says.

But Muzyka concedes that it’s been an “interesting year.” New M.B.A. grads, he says, are increasingly lured not to high finance and big bucks, but to working on the big socio-economic issues of sustainability and globalization. This year, Sauder had 24 sustainability-related M.B.A. internships compared with last year’s 14. At the same time, the percentage of Sauder students who chose to work abroad jumped from 14 per cent in 2008 to 19 per cent in 2009. That’s indicative, Muzyka says, of the fact that grads are being more creative and flexible out of necessity, are considering alternative paths, and are willing to work for governments, not-for-profits and social enterprises if it helps them eventually land their ideal job. “The fact that they’re integrating their social needs and their work needs is something that’s reflected in a similar shift in business, as the realities of problems like climate change are really sinking in,” he adds.

For Sebai, whose fledgling program at Concordia sent one M.B.A. student to Uganda this summer, the shifting concept of what a business degree is for—and of how a business education can help others—is a welcome and necessary development. “Students and corporations are starting to look for extra value from the organizations they do business with, buy products from, work for,” he says. “They want to see proactive change. That’s one of the reasons why a program like ours can now exist compared to 20 years ago. I certainly hope that’s a trend.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.