Solving for Societal Impact

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Tuesday, November 8, 2022
By AACSB Staff
From left: Felix Stellmaszek, Boston Consulting Group; Alison Omens, JUST Capital;
Jason Wingard, Temple University; Jean Oelwang, Virgin Unite
AACSB’s first Societal Impact Conference convened over 200 business educators, leaders, and students to discuss opportunities for creating positive change in the world.
  • To address the most vexing societal issues of our time, leaders must get to the root problem: outdated and ineffective systems.
  • Business schools need to ensure they are engaging students’ passions for creating a better world—and developing the competencies needed for those students to lead change.
  • Solving today’s major global challenges requires both shared responsibility and collaborative solutions from leaders in all sectors of society.

New York City is a place that inspires innovation, spurs creativity, and embraces people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Against this backdrop, AACSB held its first annual Societal Impact Conference, bringing together leaders and learners from across the globe to discuss the need for all sectors of society to work together to implement systemic change for a brighter, more balanced future. The conversations among attendees sparked new ideas and affirmed that creating lasting societal change must be a top priority for business schools, businesses, governments, local communities, and broader society.  

Calling on Changemakers

The first session of the conference, “A Call for Systemic Change,” set the stage for the next two days by establishing the imperative for societal transformation. Many business and institutional leaders agree that change is needed. The traditional one-and-done degree no longer serves the continually changing needs of organizations. Employees need more educational touchpoints throughout their careers, especially as standards for a healthy society and business success shift. Topics like diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB); environment, society, and governance (ESG); and sustainability may not have been part of an employee’s prior education, yet these are the pressing issues today. They will continue to evolve for tomorrow.

How can business educators work with businesses to ensure they are preparing leaders at all stages in their careers with the competencies to address ongoing problems faced by global society—while also working to change outdated systems?

Students in younger generations in particular are increasingly interested in working in areas where they can be a force for good in the world. Accordingly, they want to work for companies that have established policies around DEIB, ESG, and sustainability. Educators and higher education administrators are working on better responding to this need. In the session “A New Value Proposition for Business Schools,” panelists advocated for business schools to take ownership for the role they have played in creating societal challenges. The traditional b-school curriculum has not adequately addressed social and economic welfare, and schools have not historically invested resources in areas that need to change. Carl Rhodes, dean of UTS Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, said, “For business schools and businesses to embark on a strategy or approach of looking at societal impact, economic, and social well-being, it requires acceptance that we’re part of the problem. We need a little bit of self-reflection.”

Speakers suggested that by stepping back and reviewing the school’s mission, vision, and values and understanding what is most important to students and other stakeholders, business school leaders can establish a clearer path forward to impact. Panelists assured participants that a lot of good is already taking place in business education but reinforced the importance of avoiding siloes and working collaboratively across the university, with students and stakeholders, to create change. “Start by knowing it’s going to take a long time,” said Katell Le Goulven, executive director of the Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society at INSEAD. “It’s important to have champions, but make sure your champions don’t make it just their space. Bring in your students. Encourage them to be activists and to ask for more from their university.”

“For business schools and businesses to embark on a strategy or approach of looking at societal impact, economic, and social well-being, it requires acceptance that we’re part of the problem.” Carl Rhodes, UTS Business School

The importance of individuals changing their own mindsets was reiterated throughout the conference. Jemilah Mahmood, executive director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health at Sunway University and special advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, noted that “there are no shortcuts” to creating a lasting impact. The session “Nonprofit and NGO Partners in Creating Change” brought together NGO and humanitarian agency leaders to stress the importance of collaboration—another key theme running throughout the event. When asked about how to prioritize meeting local community needs versus creating a large global impact, Mahmood advised attendees to pause and assess areas that have the greatest potential for change. “You can’t deal with everything. There are so many global issues to look at, where do you think you add the most value? Be disciplined so that you do not encounter too much scope creep. Homing in and having focus is very important.”  

Learning From Learners

In the final session of the day, student panelists—both undergraduate and graduate—offered perspectives on what learners want to gain from their business education. “Empathy is a valuable leadership skill that’s not often taught at business schools,” said London Clark, an MBA candidate at New York University’s Stern School of Business. She charged business educators and business leaders with embedding empathy deeply in curriculum and strategy.

The students all agreed that business school should be a place where they not only learn fundamental skills necessary for career success but also are given opportunities that inspire them to create impact. “Your goal as an institution shouldn’t be to find me a job. It should be to help me find my passion and my purpose,” said Rohan Nipunge, an undergraduate at the CU Denver Business School at the University of Colorado Denver. “If I find that, it will create a ripple effect throughout my career.”

“Your goal as an institution shouldn’t be to find me a job. It should be to help me find my passion and my purpose.” —Rohan Nipunge

Bill Imada, founder, chairman, and chief connectivity officer of IW Group Inc. and moderator of the student panel, noted a previous speaker’s observation that some students know more about ESG than individuals who have been working in the industry for years. Panelist Sofia Martinez, a Latin America Representative of PRME Global Students Initiative and recent graduate of CETYS University, affirmed that many of today’s students are indeed more familiar with ESG based on the prominent planetary and societal challenges in their lifetime and their interests in solving those problems. “We can better conceptualize ESG strategies because the values are important to us already,” she said. Future leaders have societal impact at the forefront of their thinking, which influences the way they learn and the way they will lead.

Sharing Responsibility—and Solutions

On the second day, keynote speaker Jean Oelwang, founding CEO and president of Virgin Unite, opened with a discussion of the power of collaboration. Inspired by American television host Mr. Rogers, who famously asked, “Who has loved you into being?” Oelwang asked the audience, “Who has loved you into being—in your career?” To Oelwang, collaboration is key to creating lasting impact and positive change. “As human beings, we often mistakenly think we make us into ourselves, when in reality it’s the people around us who create us,” she said. “Deep connections help us lead a healthy, happy life, but they also lead to the greatest collaborations.”

Collaborative efforts are often more effective at solving societal challenges than individual efforts. When responsibility is shared among stakeholders, nobody is waiting for a single individual or entity to take action, and a greater number and diversity of ideas can flourish. Panelist Jason Wingard, president of Temple University, gave an example of a partnership between the university, the local police force and government, students, and other stakeholders to work toward crime reduction in the city of Philadelphia. “When looking at a problem, we ask, whose responsibility is it to solve it? We can all benefit from a solution, but no one wants to take the responsibility. By bringing together the community of stakeholders, we can all take the responsibility together,” he said.

“Deep connections help us lead a healthy, happy life, but they also lead to the greatest collaborations.” —Jean Oelwang

Chief strategy officer at the nonprofit JUST Capital, Alison Omens, discussed how businesses can benefit from partnerships with higher education. “One of the beautiful things about colleges and universities is the ability to think long term. So much of the problems business runs into is thinking about what’s right in front of us,” she stressed. “The system of higher ed can solve problems in a way we are just circling around in business. Business schools can change how we think about investing in the long term in a holistic way.”

Taking a broader perspective on collaboration, author and academic Henry Mintzberg expressed the need for balance among sectors in the session “Rebalancing Society.” A balanced society, according to Mintzberg, consists of a respected public sector, responsible business sector, and robust plural sector. But to have true balance, each of these sectors must exist in a relationship where they function equally. Once each sector is fully balanced, major social change can take place. Mintzberg’s advice to businesses and business schools was to stop exacerbating the imbalance by teaching students to learn from each other and embody “communityship”—a sense of community within an organization—versus individual leadership.

Instilling Sustainability Mindedness

The conference concluded with a session focused on the skills needed for future business leaders. A priority area for skills development, which was evident in sessions and commentary throughout the conference, is sustainability. “Sustainability shouldn’t be seen in isolation,” warned Jan-Willem Vosmeer, global manager of sustainable development and stakeholder engagement for The Heineken Company and an AACSB societal impact accelerator participant. “Whether an employee is a controller or a salesperson or an HR specialist, they all have something to do with sustainability in their own way. [This sense of shared ownership] creates a lot of enthusiasm in energy in the organization.”

Panelist Austin Okere, founder of CWG Plc and also an AACSB Accelerator participant, emphasized the need for business education leaders to instill a sustainability mindset in students early, before they begin exploring career paths. “We should build from the top with sustainability in mind. Not bolt it in as we go along,” said. “That is what we should be doing in business schools, so right when they are beginning their education, we should bring sustainability in,” he said.

“When we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about things on a global level. It is fundamental for students to think with a global mindset.” Christopher Boone

Other session panelists advised that future leaders also need to think globally. Christopher Boone, dean of the College of Futures and professor in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, expressed the need to think about our world as a whole when it comes to sustainability. “We need to understand that what matters when we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about things on a global level. It is fundamental for students to think with a global mindset.”

Looking to the Future

As AACSB looks to business education’s future role in creating societal impact, we will continue to facilitate opportunities for members and collaborators to engage in this critical topic. While communities throughout the world may define impact in different ways based on their unique needs and influences, regardless of how these areas of impact are prioritized, it’s clear that we all have a lot of work ahead of us. AACSB looks forward to connecting and convening leaders in the business education ecosystem to work together toward positive change.

The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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