The Role of Business Schools in Preparing Students to Tackle Social Challenges

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Wednesday, December 22, 2021
By Xavier Ferràs, Mònica Casabayó
Photo by iStock/Strelciuc Dumitru
Students are more prepared to take on societal issues when they partner their university education with real-world experiences.

Greta Thunberg has done more in her young life to promote climate change mitigation strategies than most anyone in our lifetime. The 18-year-old will soon be in the position to think about higher education. Should she attend a university? Would experience at a business school help Greta in being a more impactful activist? More broadly, should any young person passionate about social impact, sustainability, and environmental issues pursue educational opportunities at a business school?

Our answer is a resounding yes, if, of course, the business school can offer new hybrid contents (going beyond business) by means of innovative and pioneering methodologies.

The recently released UN Framework Convention on Climate Change report highlighted the catastrophic risks that are at stake if emissions aren’t sufficiently reduced. There is demand for a new business world with a strong commitment to sustainability and the environment and to the well-being of people and society.

In response to these realities, and to the new volatile and uncertain world, it is imperative that business school social impact programs provide opportunities for students to “learn to innovate,” “learn to think,” and “learn to learn.” As a result, students will have the needed knowledge, soft skills, and experiences to be successful agents of change.

We need to help students create and transform existing business models with a triple bottom line: people, planet, and profits. This requires helping students to develop a new entrepreneurial mindset.

To create such outcomes, a business school social impact program needs to incorporate the most innovative learning techniques and methodologies.

Learn By Doing

Sustainability cannot be taught in a lecture or through a slogan. Students must tangibly take action. It has to be a cross-cutting issue in all subjects and be embedded in a university’s pedagogical model so it can be measured. 

At Esade Business School’s newest program–the Transformational Business and Social Impact bachelor (BITBASI)–students step outside the physical classroom and take on different real practical projects, involving companies with social impact.

The projects become more complex as the semesters progress over four years and the student’s knowledge grows. The students will be immersed in business culture and entrepreneurship, providing solutions to real situations that companies face. Within the projects, they’ll develop knowledge of technology, humanities and management in every aspect: marketing, finance, programming, anthropology, philosophy, machine learning, physics, ethics, sociology and more. Content includes projects for digital prototyping, business plans, crowdfunding, disruption with a B Corporation (a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit), and the development of management skills.

As a final project, students create their own startup with social impact. A combination of academic rigor, pedagogical innovation, and real-life experience enables students to acquire the skills and competencies necessary to carry their projects successfully. 

After each project we use the Socratic dialogue method, based on debate and answering questions. We hold feedback, debate and critical reflection sessions so that students can assimilate what they’ve learned, identify areas of improvement, reinforce strengths and knowledge, and plan next steps. It’s designed to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out audacious ideas and hypotheses.

This type of example underscores the importance of business schools creating situations where students can deploy their motivation and curiosity and where they can apply the knowledge they have learnt. 

The Right Partnerships for Learning to Happen

The right partnerships need to be in place across various relationships and dynamics.

First, business schools may have to break the mold in terms of understanding the teacher-student relationship. BITBASI features a combination of faculty, professionals, mentors and tutors designed to provide students with the necessary knowledge.

Also important in the partnership equation is the student cohort. Business schools should look for students who not only care about human and social problems, but who demonstrate the grit and courage to try solving them. We think it is critical for social impact programs to attract nonconformists who love learning and want to develop a growth mindset. When students with a passion to address issues such as sustainability, climate change, inequality, and building a circular economy are all in partnership and embarking on the same experience, they push one another to new levels that they never thought were possible.

Listening and observing others are excellent ways to learn. Therefore, for this and many other reasons, the cohort should also be diverse (the current BITBASI class is made up of 44 students representing 27 nationalities; 64 percent are women). A university should include people who are both like and different from one another. By actively listening within such a diversity of people, students build a network of contacts and are able to see how a connected and global ecosystem are needed to tackle the world's major challenges, whether it is climate change, dehumanisation, polarisation, inequalities or pandemics.

Partnership also needs to be in place outside the traditional classroom. Students need exposure to brave entrepreneurs, experienced business managers and executives, as well as other professionals like external mentors. For the BITBASI program, we have joined forces with the likes of Pentabilities, which has developed a system for developing social and personal skills, and Minerva Project, a leading university specialized in the science of learning, which has provided methodology, technology and infrastructure in teaching cognitive skills through its state-of-the-art on-line platform to top universities across the world.

It has been well-documented that content has a short shelf life. For some people, the main aim of studying at a university business school program is to obtain a recognition that proves with grades what they know about a subject. Yet the experience is much more than just a degree.

Educational systems at a well-chosen business school program show students that transparency, cooperation, sensitivity and individual responsibility are key values for finding the best versions of themselves. It is difficult to find an environment where all these factors coincide other than the university.

This type of foundation can only benefit Greta Thunberg and others passionate about social impact as they channel their passion towards transforming existing businesses, creating new ventures and making a positive contribution to the planet and society.

Xavier Ferràs
Associate Dean, Bachelor in Transformational Business and Social Impact, ESADE
Mònica Casabayó
Academic Director, Bachelor in Transformational Business and Social Impact, ESADE
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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