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What Business Means to Me: Reflections from a Newly-Minted MBA

By Anna Derby

A few weeks ago, I graduated from Bentley University with an MBA. I began the program with a laser-focus: I was going to get a dual MBA and MS in Accounting to start a career as a forensic accountant. I wanted to nail the crooks that were causing the chaos in our financial system. I scoffed at the numerous personality profiles and “Focus Your Career” drills in the early part of the program, repeatedly telling myself, “I know who I am. I know what I want to do with my life.” I didn’t see it coming, but the 20 months since orientation have been transformative in ways I never imagined. I am just starting to put together what it all means.

Financial fraud investigation appealed to me initially because I didn’t trust business. To me, business was Walmart and Goldman Sachs. It was bulking up the bottom line at the expense of suppliers and employees. Business was predatory. It was bad.

Then I took marketing with Raj Sisodia, the co-founder of the Conscious Capitalism Institute and author of Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose. His simple thesis is that even public companies can be more profitable in the long run if they treat people well. He prompted us to remember that in its pure form, business exists to serve the needs of a community.

In this class, I worked with a team on an extensive research project exploring the practices of the Tata Group, one of India’s largest conglomerates. This group of businesses includes some immensely profitable companies, and has pushed much of the wealth back into development and education projects throughout India and increasingly, Africa. When you move away from the Western model of a multi-national corporation, these huge companies have the potential to do enormously good work. While the model to which I was accustomed when I entered school emphasizes short-term profits and return to shareholders before all else, the new model I see in Tata takes a long-term view of creating value. By investing in the health of the whole community, Tata companies create entirely new markets for their products and services.

I also joined the board of Bentley’s chapter of Net Impact, a global network with the mission to “inspire, educate, and equip individuals to use the power of business to create a more socially and environmentally sustainable world.” Through Net Impact, I met Siiri Morley of Prosperity Candle, a for-profit social enterprise based out of Northampton, Massachusetts. Prosperity Candle empowers women in places of conflict by helping them start their own candle-making enterprises and buying their products. After working in nonprofits whose constraints force them to waste so much time writing grants and fundraising, I immediately recognized the advantage of a self-sustaining model like Prosperity Candle. The women suppliers are paid a living wage for their product, and they are free to sell in local markets. The company spends its time selling candles, and it will succeed because it sells a great product at a fair price.

When I took a course in the Economics of Globalization that focused mostly on developing economies, the word “sustainable” in Net Impact’s mission began to resonate in a new way. In the context of development, giving low-income individuals access to the resources necessary to run a business helps them create wealth in their communities, weaning them from dependence on aid. I also spent a month in Rio de Janeiro, interning for an NGO where I saw this theory put into practice. The Incubadora Afro Brasileira helps entrepreneurs from under-served populations write business plans and works with them to develop the skills they need for their enterprises to grow and thrive. The founder of the organization, Giovanni Harvey, realized that this has a two-fold benefit. First, these entrepreneurs will become sources of employment within their community, directly improving the quality of life for many. The second effect was less direct; these entrepreneurs serve as role models, changing the very way that Afro Brazilians, single mothers and other marginalized people are viewed within the culture.

As one of my last experiences at Bentley, just before graduation, I was able to participate in the Conscious Capitalism Institute’s annual research conference. There, Seventh Generation founder Jeffrey Hollender spoke of his ambition as a business owner to “crowd out the bad with good.” While I entered my MBA wanting to punish the folks who let short-term rewards guide decisions with long-term consequences, I’m leaving with the desire to build better alternatives. I have had the pleasure of working with the founders of Swellr who are creating an e-commerce marketplace where education needs are funded seamlessly through donations triggered by the purchase of gift certificates to local businesses. In this model, a serious social problem (underfunded schools) is being addressed by a market-based solution, and one in which everyone’s goals are aligned.

Through lessons learned in the classroom, conversations with professors and classmates, and involvement with entrepreneurs in my own community and abroad, I am leaving school with an entirely different view of business than when I entered. Business, when handled responsibly, can mean self-sufficiency. Business can mean independence and empowerment. Entrepreneurship can mean respect for people who have been historically marginalized. I have come to see business not as good or bad, but as a force that reflects the values of those who wield it. I am honored to have met so many people who value more than profit for its own sake, but see themselves and their businesses as change-agents and sources of strength for their communities. While social business and Conscious Capitalism are still the exception instead of the rule, the change has begun. I am excited to be a part.

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