AACSB Business School Alumni Talk Challenges, Triumphs in Leading Social Change

AACSB Business School Alumni Talk Challenges, Triumphs in Leading Social Change

Six of the 2016 Influential Leaders served on a panel at the Annual Accreditation Conference to share what inspired their social change initiatives.

What does business education seek to do? What is its “mission,” we might ask—and in fact many people did ask this question last week during AACSB’s Annual Accreditation Conference in Minneapolis. Missions can vary greatly across schools, but the broad, overarching purpose of business education, I think all would agree, is to produce the world’s next business leaders. When schools send their graduates off into the world, determining whether they met their mission can be difficult. But one way to measure success is to follow the progress of their alumni.

Last year AACSB launched its inaugural Influential Leaders Challenge, which recognizes alumni from AACSB-accredited business schools who have positively influenced society through their leadership in business. In its second year running, the challenge has once again brought to light successful and impactful leaders in 11 countries, contributing to industries including corporate social responsibility, diversity and inclusion, education and entrepreneurship, innovation and technology, and public health. Six of the 30 spotlighted leaders from these industry areas served on a panel session at the Annual Accreditation Conference, addressing questions about what inspired them to pursue their businesses—all of which are changing society for the better—and how their business education prepared them for success.

Sheri Governo, who has an MBA from the I. H. Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba, was climbing the corporate ladder in a large healthcare organization when she decided leave that environment to co-found Exigence, a startup based on a technology that aims to address the global problem of antimicrobial resistance and healthcare-associated infection. When asked about what inspired her change from a corporate mindset to entrepreneurial one, Governo replied, “The idea of pioneering something new truly captivated me.” She says there are fewer limitations to decision-making and innovation in small entrepreneur-run businesses versus larger corporations. Governo met her current business partner during her MBA program at Manitoba and stressed the important role that connection played in altering her career path.

Social entrepreneur Zenetta Drew, an alumna of the Texas A&M University-Commerce College of Business, spent 12 years in the corporate accounting field before leading the vision and growth of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Asked about some of the stumbling blocks she encountered on her way to success and how business schools can prevent similar barriers in the paths of students, Drew, an African-American woman, remarked, “Race was my number-one barrier over my gender.” She further noted that “no” is just another word for a new opportunity. As for business schools, Drew said that they need to work to address implicit bias; if no implicit bias exists, schools can better serve all students and help them become successful.

“It’s amazing how much power women have, but lack of opportunity.”

Another leader whose work explicitly aims to increase opportunities for the disenfranchised is Savitha Sridharan. Sridharan, who graduated from the Olin Graduate School at Babson College, founded Orora Global, a for-profit social enterprise that provides access to energy for people in rural and urban communities globally. Sridharan said that the coolest part of her company is that it has a mission to empower more women to enter the business space, through a training program targeted at women in rural villages to sell Orora’s products for a commission. “It’s amazing how much power women have, but lack of opportunity,” she said.

Rahul Pushp is also in the solar products business, as co-founder of i-Solarite, a company that aims to replace traditional, dangerous methods of lighting, such as candles or kerosene lanterns, with eco-friendly solar lamps. When asked how technological solutions to problems can be complemented by business skills, Pushp recalled an experience from his MBA at the University of Liverpool Management School. He had the opportunity to visit villages in remote regions of India to find out what daily living was like. From that experience, he and his partner spent 14 months developing their product; when times were very difficult, he said, they just needed to push through and survive. “It’s the struggle that makes everything worthwhile,” he added. “Most of what I am doing right now I owe to my alma mater.”

No stranger to perseverance herself, Nashwa Taher has paved an arduous path to becoming not only a successful businesswoman in Saudi Arabia, where the majority of business is male-dominated, but one of the first Saudi women to win elected office. Commenting on her struggles and achievements in what she acknowledged is a “challenging country for women,” Taher said that it was critical for men to support new opportunities for women in business sectors traditionally off limits to them. A graduate of the King Abdulaziz University Faculty of Economics and Administration, Nashwa offered this advice to women aspiring to enter business in cultures with similarly restrictive traditions: “Don’t be scared to ask questions, to be among men. You can [gain their] respect with the knowledge you have.”

“ I am here to advocate for economic freedom.”

Zibu Mthiyane also had to work against traditional gender norms—as well as the disparaging system of apartheid—to succeed in her home of South Africa. In response to the question, “How has business education helped you?” Mthiyane first noted that her peers had only a 4 percent chance of being admitted to college, even though they comprised 65 percent of the demographic in her country. Mthiyane prevailed despite these challenges, eventually earning an MBA from the University of Stellenbosch Business School and founded two businesses that empower women to join the workforce. She asserted, “I am here to advocate for economic freedom.” Speaking directly to African business schools, Mthiyane urged them to acknowledge African women’s humanity and capabilities in education and beyond.

The session concluded after an audience member asked one final question of the panel—“What is one course that has had the most impact on you?” The honorees gave a lightning round of responses: Mythiyane—business and society; Pushp—guest speaker sessions; Taher—decision planning; Sridharan—financial sustainability and environmental impact; Governo—business venture analysis; and Drew—data analytics.

One clear outcome of the contributions made by both these business leaders and the schools that educated and inspired them is that global society is better today because of their successes. Mission met.

View a full listing of the class of 2016 class of Influential Leaders to learn more.