Brain Drain of MBA Students to Social Enterprise?

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July 15, 2011; Source: New York Times | According to the author of this New York Times article, “Every now and then, a new career path seizes the imagination of the global elite. Today it is social enterprise, in which earnest, problem-solving elites devote themselves to social causes, using the ethos and methods of business.”

Is there a downside?  Apparently, the concern is that there is something of a brain drain emerging as social enterprise pursuits such as Teach for America are attracting the best and the brightest from B-schools. The article’s author explains that, “These organizations fulfill bright people because their missions reflect the average human being’s complex blend of altruism and selfishness. We want to save the world, profit from it and feel smart, all at once.”

She also hints at a shortcoming in the social entrepreneurs’ education and skill set: “What earnest social enterprise can sometimes ignore is power, predation and good old-fashioned politics. Social entrepreneurs see problems much as economists see them: as simple inefficiencies . . . But in many other situations, the problem is politics, which is to say the clashing interests of people.”

She cites the former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, as an example. Her involvement in D.C. politics “arguably cost the mayor an election,” the Times author contends. The implication is that social entrepreneurs aren’t well versed in understanding power and politics, seeing their technical skills and eleemonsynary commitments as overcoming the obstacle course of power politics.

Maybe the issue isn’t one of political obtuseness, but an overly large dollop of arrogance that their solutions will somehow leap over the political (read: democratic) process and convince all possible adversaries of their correctness and necessity.  In the wake of the Enron scandal, many B-schools have increased coursework on business ethics. Perhaps for the new social entrepreneurs, the B-schools might want to teach something about politics and the small “d” democratic process, in recognition that social engineering by the best and brightest of the social entrepreneurship crowd may not always be right.—Rick Cohen

  • Jennifer Chesworth

    First, a correction: respectfully, the author of the NYTimes article is a man.

    Second. Although the “elite” do like to take credit for everything, social entrepreneurship is first and foremost, an international initiative for poverty alleviation — people raising themselves out of poverty via sustainable business. I believe Mr. Giridharadas allowed a Times deadline to stunt his research into social entrepreneurship. There is no basis for saying the “elite” and best IQs lead this field in any way. In fact, it is the poor who give most and who dedicate their life most to social causes. Additionally, the brightest stars of the “social entrepreneur” set come straight out of the Fair Trade movement — of which the cornerstone is democratic process and decision making. So called B-schools and “elites” may not need to teach something about politics and democracy but rather, learn from their less-than wealthy historical roots.

  • Ole Koissabas

    Good take by the author but i wish to make a few clarifications to my understanding of social entrepreneurship in the current trend of things. One i do not believe it is an MBA brain drain, i look at it as complimenting traditional knowledge in BM that is adding value to the understanding of social problems and linking business to social needs of people. Social entrepreneurship in my and a graduate student of the same brings in the human face face to business as well as social responsibility instead of what has always been conceived that business is not sensitive to human needs and is only out to make maximum gains at the expense of human social needs

  • Geri Stengel


  • rick cohen

    Thanks for the author correction on the newswire and for your thoughts about learning from the people who have historically dedicated their lives to social causes.

  • rick cohen

    I was surprised to see the article presented as a “brain drain” piece when it was really more about the political knowledge/skill base of some people in the social enterprise movement.