How Generation Z Is Redefining Business

Article Icon Article
Wednesday, May 17, 2023
By Vallabh Sambamurthy
Photo by iStock/Zinkevych
Business schools must rethink their programs to meet the expectations and aspirations of the next generation of leaders.
  • Gen Z is prioritizing a traditional four-year college education and is expressing greater interest in entrepreneurship, social justice, sustainability, and inclusion than generations that came before.
  • Wisconsin Business School’s Trusted to Lead campaign highlights the varied passions and contributions of Gen Z students, who are committed to making business more diverse, inclusive, and innovative.
  • Business schools must encourage Gen Z students to challenge traditional definitions of business success, develop cross-disciplinary acumen, and explore multiple career paths so that they will know how to lead in an unpredictable business world.


As the father of two Gen Z daughters and the dean of a business school with thousands of Gen Z students, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe the trailblazing characteristics of the members of this diverse generation. According to a report written by Deloitte with the Network of Executive Women (NEW), the members of Gen Z have entirely new perspectives on what defines success in their lives and careers.

As a group, these teens and young adults, born between the years 1997 and 2012, are driven by interests in social justice, sustainability, and inclusion more so than the generations that have preceded them. They have a keen interest in entrepreneurship. And the Deloitte/NEW report also notes that, unlike past generations, “Gen Z is not reevaluating the value of a college education. In fact, Gen Z considers a traditional four-year college education more important than ever before.” As a result, organizations that invest in education and skill development will be “attractive to this education-oriented cohort.”

As Gen Z students enter the workforce, their new expectations and outlooks are sure to redefine the purpose of business and the ways we measure success. Layer their influence with today’s accelerating pace of change and the ongoing evolution of industry, and it’s clear that the demands made by and of business professionals will evolve as well.

It’s time for employers—and business schools—to embrace these emerging mindsets. At the Wisconsin School of Business (WSB) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, we are championing these changes in the classroom, in our community, and in a new brand campaign that we call Trusted to Lead.

Leading When There’s No Blueprint

Our Trusted to Lead campaign reflects both the expectations of young professionals and the demands of their employers. Both groups share the belief that people need to understand the big picture, know how to connect the dots that others don’t see, and recognize how business can help address global and societal needs.

The campaign itself is organic, telling the stories of 24 WSB students who are “leading when there’s no blueprint.” As members of Gen Z, they are embracing their individual strengths and backgrounds and pursuing nontraditional career paths. In the process, they are breaking boundaries and igniting change.

Gen Z students are embracing their individual strengths and backgrounds and pursuing nontraditional career paths. They are breaking boundaries and igniting change.

Take Riyana Chawla, for example. She is pairing a degree in marketing with a certificate in global health as she pursues her dream of one day opening a women’s clinic. Sam Komisar is studying finance, but his passion is advocating for mental health in the business world. Damola Owolabi is learning how to analyze data so she can put that data to work in her Nigerian food business.

As is common throughout Gen Z, these students have multifaceted passions, leading them to pursue a range of opportunities, including athletics, entrepreneurship, roles in student organizations, double majors, and certificates in various fields. Their individual stories showcase the wide array of backgrounds, strengths, interests, and values that Gen Z students bring as the next generation of business leaders.

Shining a Spotlight

Our goal with Trusted to Lead was to present the range of aspirations Gen Z students possess, as well as their desire to merge their passions and values with their career choices. We wanted to highlight how Gen Z is working to make the business world more diverse, inclusive, and innovative. With this in mind, we sent out a schoolwide call asking students, faculty, and staff to nominate exceptional students across several undergraduate and graduate programs.

Trusted to Lead shares custom video, photography, and written profiles on its social media and other digital channels, amplifying the voices of the selected students—including the voices of those who are historically underrepresented in business and higher education. The students featured are encouraged to share their profiles with their own networks. So far, these efforts have generated awareness of both Gen Z and WSB programs among prospective students, the campus community, and school partners.

The campaign follows a previous initiative that featured six WSB alumni stories. These alumni are recognized innovators and entrepreneurs who have disrupted industries and who lead with empathy. The core message of both campaigns conveys to the world that these students and alumni are “trusted to lead” in ways that meet the world’s pressing needs and challenge traditional stereotypes of success.

Going Beyond Business Foundations

To respond nimbly to Gen Z’s expectations, our business schools of course need to focus on the essential business foundations that we present in our core courses and functional competencies, such as vision setting and communication skills. But we also need to integrate content related to new trends and disruptions into everything we teach. At WSB, we are working toward this objective by emphasizing five primary areas:

Cross-disciplinary education. Business professionals who can apply integrative thinking—who can merge ideas and redefine ways to solve problems—will add value, innovation, and creativity to their organizations. They will be the ones who succeed in the future of work. That’s why we are helping students in every major develop cross-disciplinary acumen that will allow them to blend knowledge from different fields to address broad-scale business issues.

As an example, a new capstone course on strategic leadership will engage students working across multidisciplinary specializations through semesterlong consulting projects. A stream of co-curricular badges, such as the Accenture Leadership Certificate and Leadership at Lambeau, will achieve similar goals. We also are weaving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout our core curriculum, as well as instilling in students a foundational understanding of how data and technology are affecting all business disciplines.

Sustainability and diversity. The next generation of leaders also will need to consider how business can be a force for good in addressing global and societal needs. So, we must ensure that our curricula, students, and employer partners not only are committed to DEI, but also are focused on topics such as sustainability, entrepreneurship, innovation, technology, data analytics, and ethics. We need to empower people of all backgrounds to thrive in business, so that they can help businesses to thrive.

Business professionals who can merge ideas and redefine ways to solve problems will add value, innovation, and creativity to their organizations.

Multiple career pathways. We offer more than 40 career pathways to encourage students to explore many educational options. We also increasingly offer students opportunities to customize their experiences through badges and certificates. The formats of these shorter programs are flexible enough to allow us to quickly adapt these programs to changes in the business environment.

Nontraditional career pathways. We highlight the nonlinear stories of our alumni—those whose career paths have included explorations and pivots. We want students to realize, for example, that even if they major in finance, they can adjust if they realize that their true passion is to become a DEI consultant.

Experiential learning. We realize that hands-on learning will play a significant part in the educational advancement, learning, and career success of Gen Z students. While classroom activities are still necessary for learning theoretical concepts and frameworks, a wide range of experiential learning programs will be important for training students to blend theory with practice.

The more we can facilitate and foster such rich exploration during the educational experience, the better prepared students will be to continue that exploration after they graduate. As business becomes increasingly complex and unpredictable, it will be essential for Gen Z to broaden the scope of what’s possible in business.

Highlighting a Promising Future

As the members of Gen Z enter the workforce, they will play an increasingly influential role in shaping industries and companies that, in turn, will have a meaningful impact on their lives and the planet. At the Wisconsin School of Business, we know we must embrace Gen Z’s drive and ambition and continue to evolve our programs and curriculum.

We recognize that there’s no one path into business. We can offer students any number of programs and experiences, but, ultimately, it is this generation’s approach to doing business differently that will drive real change and impact.

I am inspired by Gen Z—and more poignantly, by my own daughters and our Wisconsin School of Business students. If their stories are any indication, business, industry, and society at large have a promising future under Gen Z’s care and leadership.

Vallabh Sambamurthy
Albert O. Nicholas Dean, Wisconsin School of Business, University of Wisconsin-Madison
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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