Brunches are truly peculiar. Logic eludes me when I meditate about them. This could have been the reason we stumbled in late (even though I am not French) at 10:35 am. We were five minutes late and the second last attendees to troop into the Leadership Fellows Brunch at Spangler Hall (famous on campus for its gourmet canteen, they serve future world leaders...)
Washing down the previous nights festivities with coffee, I decided to get chatty with a few students who are helping reinvent what's possible with a Harvard MBA. The Leadership Fellows programme is an initiative that lets lose a few lucky graduates into the world of non-profits or public sector organizations on a salary that is paid for by both the organization and a scholarship from HBS.
Once we were all seated, the Fellows were individually invited up to a podium to speak about their placements and handed a T-shirt (that was yes, rolled up like a diploma) with the words "One Year, Once In A Lifetime." Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School and the Chair of the MBA Programme, gave a short speech about how this year, unlike any other, there was a real need for commitment to social enterprise and for graduates to use their MBA skills to tackle projects with far-reaching and measurable outcomes (its not just about the money anymore). And the monotonous speeches year on year finally made its impact. The placements at non profits tripled in 2009. The diversity of projects HBS has managed to tie up with is staggering.
When HBS wants it, HBS gets it.
So we heard from a soon-to be Senior Program Manager for the HIV/AIDS Initiative at the Clinton Foundation, the special assistant to the President at the Lincoln Arts Center in New York, another student was off to set up the Business school for Dillard University. Somebody else was going to be in charge of entrepreneur services for Endeavor, the social VC Fund; another was onwards to New York to head up Business Management for a not-for-profit hospital specializing in orthopedic surgery. In fact, I had a rather frank chat with the latter, who tossed out probably the most over used line in history- "to make a difference in the world." Many of his friends (by his own admission) had opted for tangents rather than the regular old boring finance. But accompanying the admission was a coy and a stiff laugh.
"Maybe that's just the people I hang out with," he says.
So I was curious, after this inspiring brunch, how many were really into social enterprise and "serving humanity" because they had a drive to initiate and trigger change. How many have signed up for public service because the current economic downturn has left them without little choice? As I was leaving Spangler, I walked through a common room exhibiting the Portrait Project for the Class of 2009. A unique documentary of the graduates, a series of photographs of classmates accompanied by their 200 word responses to a behemoth of a question: "What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" The last line of a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning Mary Oliver, the question appears to have evoked an almost universal response from the students - each one was vying to be a do-gooder. The society was on the top of the list. Some of course were rather cheesy if not outright strange, "I want to be the gratitude rock for humanity." But there were many which left me with the feeling the MBA programme is undergoing a sea change, and perhaps its endemic to the times we live in - the age of globalization - but there does seem to be an understanding of human linkages and how we need to impact each other positively. And of course, the Indian contingent were not to be left behind - majority dove into the realms of self discovery and majority of these briefs thanked (blamed?) the encounters with street children, and India's immense poverty, and the need for upliftment of the true Indian (Be original fellows!)
But HBS is still HBS, sob tales aside.
"Are you kidding? There were so many disappointments this year - people whose dreams were crushed because Wall Street just can't afford them anymore. Many kids came into this school, paid $150,000 and thought they'd make it back with amazing placements once they finished up. That's gone now," revealed one of the Fellows placed in one of the most war-torn regions of Africa (maybe Forbes India run a story, ask the disappointed graduate at HBS?)
"Don't get fooled by all these portraits up here. Except mine, of course."
A wide smile.