Building a Community of Future Business Leaders

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Monday, May 6, 2024
By Michael Mitole
Photo by iStock/jeffbergen
The Business Scholars Institute aims to create cross-institutional groups of graduates who work together for the common good.
  • Business education needs to be more than simply a training ground for future professionals or an opportunity for students to build strong but insular alumni networks.
  • The Business Scholars Institute will bring together thousands of students from institutions across the U.S. and encourage them to build formative relationships and contribute toward positive societal impact.
  • Alumni will meet with undergraduate business students in City Communities to support the students’ professional development.

Is there a better way to develop the leaders that business and society need?

That question has been behind many of the innovations in the 140-year history of business education. And it’s a question that drove the recent establishment of the Business Scholars Institute, a new initiative supported by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, D.C.

We think that the search for a “better way” in business is much deeper than a race toward new courses, research centers, degree programs, and certificates. We believe it will involve bringing together outstanding alumni from a wide network of business schools and encouraging them to work together for the common good. That’s why, at the institute, we’re asking critical questions about the goals of student development, the relationships between institutions, and the timeline over which leadership formation takes place.

The Current State of Business Education

We’re not the only ones who think business education could benefit from new approaches. Over the last six years, numerous outlets—including The New York Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, CEO World, Harvard Business Publishing, and AACSB Insights—have called for radical transformation in the field. They don’t point to problems with salary figures or employment outcomes, because our students are among the best-paid college graduates and many work for blue-chip organizations. Instead, the publications focus on three reasons why business education needs to change.

First, many of today’s undergraduate business programs fixate more than they should on developing “professionals.” To the minds of critics, these institutions pursue a narrow purpose of upskilling America’s future white-collar class.

Second, there is a striking lack of esprit de corps among members of the undergraduate business school community. In the present era of higher education, factors such as rankings, disruption, enrollment competition, and brand differentiation have turned the undergraduate business environment into an archipelago made up of tribes and factions. Business graduates are told that their school’s tribe will provide everything they need in the future, from job contacts to career mentors.

Third, some administrators seem to be convinced that business students are fully formed individuals once they cross the graduation stage. This assumption ignores the fact that graduates are shaped just as much by their first jobs, their social communities, their managerial roles, and their graduate studies as they are by their initial college experiences.

At the Business Scholars Institute, we’re working to address each of these challenges.

First, we consider professionals along three other dimensions that work together to form the whole person. As citizens, our graduates can contribute meaningfully to the communities with which they identify and to which they’ll belong in the future. As scholars, our graduates draw on their knowledge and beliefs to make sense of the world and their places in it. And as individuals, they are defined by a set of traits and experiences that make them unique.

There is a striking lack of esprit de corps among members of the undergraduate business school community, which has turned into an archipelago made up of tribes and factions.

Second, while we recognize the power of alumni networks, we think that the history, purpose, and ideals shared by thousands of alumni across institutions matter more. Students from every business school should feel like part of the same tradition—and that very fact should engender more collaboration among them.

Third, we believe we must do more to help our students navigate the period that follows their formal educations. Can business schools create a community where graduates can engage with each other and continue giving back during each stage of their lives? At the Business Scholars Institute, we think we can.

A National Corps of Graduates

One of the inspirations for the institute goes all the way back to 1989, when Princeton undergraduate Wendy Kopp wrote a senior thesis that asked: “What could happen if we brought together outstanding young people who want to be the leaders of tomorrow and serve the generations following behind them?”

Kopp recognized a pressing need for change in the American educational system. She reasoned that, if she could marshal the energy and talents of its best products, together they could create gale force winds of change strong enough to cause radical transformation. Her vision ultimately resulted in Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits recent college graduates to teach in public schools in urban and rural communities across the U.S.

With similar convictions about the need for change in business schools and business leadership, we’re taking a comparable approach at the Business Scholars Institute. Our goal is to build a national corps of outstanding undergraduate alumni from institutions and cities across the U.S. These alumni will participate in City Communities in 15 designated U.S. cities. We are planning to launch the pilot program in 2024 and formalize it in the summer of 2025.

Criteria for Membership

In the future, current business school seniors and alumni will need to apply if they want to belong to a City Community. But to kick off the first year of the program, we’re inviting more than 1,000 cross-institutional graduates to participate.

We want our City Community members to be known for their intellectual vitality, leadership instinct, professional promise, and depth of character. Therefore, we’re looking for graduates who have these attributes:

  • Originality of perspective, intellectual curiosity, and a desire to use their careers to engage with problems or needs that matter to them.
  • Subtle or overt habits of leadership that are rooted in values and inclined toward growth.
  • A sense of professional direction and a willingness to engage in the world around them in ways that complement their career goals.
  • A strong sense of self and a remarkable spirit to do what’s good and what’s right.
What we’re asking is, “Are you on a mission in life? Are you interested in being part of a community of folks who are?”

Unlike many other professional and social groups, we’re not asking City Community candidates about their net worth. We’re not requiring them to come from “the right schools”—in fact, our network will span more than 60 institutions. Neither are we requiring them to work in “the right industries”—instead, we’re connecting alums across nearly 80 companies. We’re not even asking if our potential members plan to be in the C-suite someday.

What we’re asking is, “Are you on a mission in life? Are you interested in being part of a community of folks who are?”

City Community Engagement

If students answer yes to these questions, and if they are near one of our host cities, we will invite them to join our City Communities.

We hope each of these groups will function as a community of friends, supporters, and like-minded individuals who want to use their business educations to make a difference in the world. Our City Community program is led by a national leadership team that is composed of representatives from local leadership teams to ensure each city’s alumni group is engaged in several key ways.

First, our local leadership teams plan to offer city-specific social events throughout the year to encourage alumni to connect and develop meaningful relationships. We trust our teams will develop events in formats that work best for their communities, which may include brunch groups, happy hour socials, outdoor activities, and fireside conversations with executive leaders.

Second, our local leadership teams will facilitate engagement opportunities between alumni, their alma maters, and other undergraduate business schools near their cities. While recent graduates have less to contribute to the business school community in the form of dollars, the currency they have to give includes their time, their skills, and the insights they have gained from their experiences. We anticipate that, as alumni, they might take roles as speakers, career mentors, and advisors to business school leaders.

Finally, starting in 2025, our national working group will work with undergraduate deans and career services directors around the country to find out where their students will intern around America. This knowledge will inform how we encourage our City Community alumni to support these students during their internships. We plan to coordinate intern socials and fireside chats on life and careers with alumni from different industries in each of our cities.

We hope each City Community will function as a group of friends, supporters, and like-minded individuals who want to use their business educations to make a difference in the world.

In talking with undergraduates around the country, we’ve learned that many of them hope to form meaningful relationships within their firms and surrounding communities. But they also have deeply personal goals: They want to answer questions about the careers they might want to pursue, to discover what will matter to them in the lives they build after college, and to learn how to be the kinds of leaders they aspire to be in the future.

Vision for the Future

We expect that, for most of our participants, the value of the City Communities program will be maximized within the first decades of their careers. However, we hope that our members will find enduring value in the relationships they develop with each other. We also hope that, as they continue in their careers and expand their capacity to give back, they will remain engaged with our network and continue to serve the undergraduate business school community.

We realize that we have our work cut out for us as we launch the program. However, we are confident that our footprint will expand as word of the initiative spreads. School officials can help us achieve our goals in three ways:

  • By sharing information about the initiative with students and encouraging them to apply.
  • By helping us connect with students who will be interning in our host cities in 2025.
  • By letting us know how we can best serve current students, wherever they are in their journeys.

As the managing fellow of the Business Scholars Institute at Georgetown McDonough, I have my own vision for what I’d like to see happen in the future. In the next four years, I’d be happy to learn that several of my classmates at Harvard Business School were members of a City Community somewhere in the United States. In 10 years, I’d love to see City Communities establish stronger connections between undergraduate business schools, their students, and their graduates across institutional lines.

In 20 to 30 years, I’d be proud to see City Communities bring about a new class of managers, executives, public servants, and community leaders who represent the best of our discipline and our institutions.

Michael Mitole
Management Consultant at the Boston Consulting Group and Managing Fellow of the Business Scholars Institute at the McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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