Today’s hot recruiters on campus, according to Navalli, are the firms that promote core values involving the building of communities and sustainability.

“When GE recruited on campus 10 years ago, they found it difficult to attract people because it was considered just a very stable company,” Navalli says. Then the company announced its “Ecoimagination” initiative to promote clean energy, such as wind power. Student interest promptly grew, she says. “It’s not that all students are going to work for Ecoimagination initiatives. It’s a statement that the company has these core values, which is attractive. That’s in a sense what MBA schools are attracting in droves right now: people who care about social and environmental topics and want to apply them to a career pathway.”

Public initiatives by corporations can be tricky, of course, because they also serve the purpose of supplying good publicity. Berdish says some Green MBA programs have been criticized for corporate “greenwashing,” or supplying fig leaves to environmentally irresponsible companies.

Yet many firms are now genuinely thinking entrepreneurially about the environmental impacts of their businesses—even some that would not normally be considered socially aware. Wal-Mart, for example, has long drawn criticism for its labor practices. But when company CEO Lee Stuart unveiled a plan in 2005 to reduce packaging and introduce low-energy lightbulbs and organic milk, “the impact they had on the supply chain was huge,” Navalli says.

For Profit, or Not  
At NYU’s Stern School of Business, the Social Innovation and Impact specialization was launched three years ago, after students there requested classes in corporate social responsibility, forensic accounting, and financial statement fraud. “We never focused on green or energy, because that hasn’t been the primary interest of our students,” says vice dean Kim Corfman.

The specialization now offers 20 courses. Corfman is especially proud of new classes on international social impact strategies and entrepreneurship incubation, in which students travel to India as what she calls an “on-the-ground complement” to classroom studies. Working with both for-profit and nonprofit firms there, the students focus on two of India’s main problems: the decline of agricultural yields due to drought and a low per-capita concentration of doctors. “The whole idea was: get to know a major social problem really well, and then think entrepreneurially about it,” says Corfman. Returning students will put together business plans that can be funded and monitored. Corfman hopes similar courses will one day send students to Africa and South America.

Tsai and her project partner, Matthew Edmundson, want to build a prenatal vitamin business in India, where up to 80 percent of expectant mothers are iron-deficient. Making a profit, Tsai believes, will make their venture more sustainable. Edmundson adds that developing a business plan has “enhanced aspects of all my classes,” because he can anchor the lessons to his startup model. NYU is paying for the students’ return trip to India this summer.

Both NYU and Columbia estimate a full-time MBA student will pay about $80,000 for an academic year, including room and board. Spending that kind of money to work with the world’s poorest populations, or to study nonprofit management, might seem to reduce the economic value of an MBA to that of an MFA, but this misses the point, says Corfman. Some graduates have accepted corporate social responsibility jobs at major corporations, she says, but “we’re having more and more students go into the public sector or not-for-profits.” NYU fields a consulting corps to assist local non-profits and minority businesses, and the competition is intense among students to participate in the non-credit program.

“You’re not going to make Wall Street salaries,” acknowledges Navalli, “but there are many sectors in the economy that don’t pay Wall Street salaries.” A lot of students have returned to school after stints in finance and consulting, she says, and are looking for more rewarding work. Some refugees from the financial industry, for example, are exploring impact investing, a strategy to create financial returns while positively affecting society and the environment. This week, JPMorgan is sponsoring an impact investing competition among several MBA programs.

In the areas of impact investing and consulting, “you’re seeing some salaries that are pretty much on par with what our students are normally going into,” insists Jill Kickul, the director of NYU’s social entrepreneurship program. But students Tsai and Edmundson both say they’re taking the long view. “Among my friends and colleagues, it’s less about making the most money possible than it is about doing something that you like and you’re passionate about,” Edmundson says.

Ultimately, the realities of getting a job and paying back loans will no doubt lead many social enterprise MBAs to go down the more traditional tracks. But then, those traditional spots will be occupied by people who think differently and are open to change.

That’s a good thing, says Berdish, who believes schools like Columbia and NYU are right to push human rights training with the new environmentalism. “If I had an opportunity to hire someone who got their degree from Columbia, I’d take him or her.”

Unfortunately, he adds, Ford is not hiring.

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