At HBS, an initiative is a group of people committed to change, fueled by research, and driven by the demand to solve societal issues. These communities are made up of faculty, students, and alumni and are connected with practitioners in the given field to develop insights that drive impact. In July, HBS hosted an information session for prospective students about the level of impact these initiatives can have on the community and the world.  

In this post, we are sharing the discussion from the Social Enterprise Initiative session. Our panel of experts have varied backgrounds from education to government to private equity, but each has one thing in common – a passion for social impact. 

The Social Enterprise Initiative  

Matt Segneri (MBA 2010), Director of the Social Enterprise Initiative, spent his summer internship while attending HBS in Washington, D.C. at the Federal Bureau of Investigation through the Special Advisor Program. After graduation, Matt participated in the HBS Leadership Fellows Program, joining the Boston Mayor’s Office as an Advisor to Mayor Tom Menino and staying for a second year as a Senior Advisor following his fellowship. In the process, Matt got to know Mike Bloomberg (MBA 1966) and his team and spent two years at Bloomberg Philanthropies on the Government Innovation team, where he helped mayors and cities drive innovation. Matt returned to HBS in 2014 to take the helm of the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative.

HBS can be an inflection or pivot point in student, staff, and faculty lives. It provides opportunities to go deeper. It can help launch your startup. In particular, the Social Enterprise Initiative is the nexus of activity in thinking about how to apply business skills to have impact across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. We work with leaders who are committed to driving change and creating impact that spans all three. 

In its 25th anniversary year, the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative celebrated its pioneering role as the first business school to have a center for social impact. This was a novelty 25 years ago and now is a necessity; every top business school has a center focused on this field.  

SEI is inherently cross-sector. In the first year at HBS, 29% of students have prior experience with social enterprise coming into the program. And there are an incredibly diverse array of ways to get involved even further at HBS—from organizing conferences, to leading student clubs, to launching new ventures.  

In addition to on-campus opportunities, the Social Enterprise Summer Fellows program supports about 80 MBA student internships per year.

There are many ways to puzzle together an impactful experience at HBS—each MBA can “choose her own adventure” and “create his own path”. Our students and alums are asking big questions about how to have an impact—which looks very different for different people. I’ve been heartened to learn the extent to which every entrepreneur is thinking about  her role in the communities she serves. Each one is poised to have a tremendous impact in the communities in which they work in addition to having outsized financial impact. Some of the best parts about the MBA experience I’ve had were created or co-created by students.

Recent alumni from HBS are becoming more and more involved in social impact and entrepreneurship. Currently, 37% of alumni sit on nonprofit boards, with 85% doing it at some point in their careers. Volunteerism and philanthropy are big parts of who they are and what they do. We view leaders of the future as tri-sector athletes who have the capacity to work across the public, private and nonprofit sector. They can set a big vision, rally people around it, and get things done. And they have a deep and abiding interest in helping people find their own true path.”

Chelsea Banks (MBA 2017) became a middle school math and science teacher in New Orleans after graduating from Princeton. While pursuing her degree, Hurricane Katrina hit and she decided to take a service trip to New Orleans—motivated to provide future generations of children with access to the same quality of education she had. Seven years ago, Chelsea joined the Parthenon Group (now Parthenon-EY) and focused on education clients. Chelsea then joined an education start-up, Empower Schools, and worked there for a year before making the leap to business school.  

“There are 930 other students in an MBA class so the opportunity to be part of a conversation with them was compelling. It is a fun and engaging learning experience. I was 28 when I started and was concerned about the opportunity cost. But, at HBS, there are financial resources available to make the transition possible. I became a Goldsmith Fellow and had a cohort from the moment I walked on campus.

The Social Enterprise Club has over 300 members per year and has spun off a number of new clubs since I graduated (including the Education Club). When I was one of the Co-Presidents of the Club, we put together a speaker series on social change, history of waves of populism and nationalism, and the role of government. I worked on a startup during my first year with students from the Graduate School of Design and the Graduate School of Education. This place is great if you know what you want to do and want to go deeper. It is also a great school if you don’t know; it's the place you can figure it out. There are a wealth of resources available and that makes it worth taking two years out of your career. And the opportunity to have huge impact starts during those two years.

This place has incredible opportunities and also access to the rest of Harvard. I was able to meet with course heads and ultimately the Dean. I did a summer fellowship through the Office of Innovation in Boston Public Schools, and ultimately was offered a full-time role in the Office of Human Capital. I am just wrapping up the Broad Residency program now. As a woman, the MBA has given me greater flexibility and optionality in how to approach education work.  

One piece of advice: think about why you’re coming here before you get here. There are too many opportunities to take advantage of. If an opportunity doesn’t exist here and you want it to exist, create it.”

Jerren Chang (MBA/MPP 2021), worked at McKinsey after graduating from Duke and worked on public and social sector projects. Jerren later joined the Mayor’s Office in Chicago, focusing on economic policy development, and ultimately left to attend HBS and HKS to prepare for city government leadership. 

“My goal is to go back to city government leadership and I wanted a better grounding in leadership practices—so HBS really stood out. I’m already itching for impact, which is why I’m trying to start a company now. Start-ups can democratize access to civic service and civic engagement making it a more meaningful experience than one-off volunteering. Start-up life has its ups and downs even on a good day. But, if you are thinking about interdisciplinary learning, it’s hard to beat the Harvard ecosystem. The extra year I took for the MPP at the Harvard Kennedy School was just enough to take other electives and expose me more deeply to public policy. I’ve also tapped into resources both at the Graduate School of Education and the Law School.  

At Harvard, you can frontload thinking on your identity, your purpose—that’s a critical component of being able to make the most of your experience. It’s great to be intentional about what you want to test. Take risks. Even if you fail, you’ll come out of it with an incredible network of folks and you can always pivot back to more traditional roles.

The application process is a great time to think about the problem you want to impact. What school or set of schools will help accelerate a five-year time horizon? I felt that HBS was the strongest school for that set of skills. We have the benefit of being at an institution like Harvard where all of the other graduate schools are among the best so it’s been a great privilege to also spend a year at the Kennedy School and engage with the Harvard network more broadly.”

Smitha Ramakrishna (MBA 2018) started a nonprofit in middle school focused on building water infrastructure in India and has worked on water rights advocacy for the Native American community in Arizona. Since the age of 12, Smitha was committed to making a difference. After college, Smitha went to work in policy in Washington, D.C. and ultimately left to work in private equity to gain more training before attending HBS.

“I kept asking the question, ‘What’s the most effective way to make a difference in the world?’ Working in private equity introduced me to the world of impact investing. I thought, 'How can I use impact investing and tie in for profit principles to have an impact?' Impact has been in my blood for a long time and HBS seemed like a great option to re-center and commit to that path.  

At HBS, you have an interesting seat at the table that enables you to affect the trajectory of the School. I was able to do that on the impact investing side. A friend and I started a guerilla group, the Impact Investing Club, within the Social Enterprise Club. We wanted to elevate this new Club and broaden it among those also interested in for-profit investing but with a social impact lens. There was a lot of interest and momentum. At the same time, HBS was launching a new course focused on impact investing. I got to be part of that journey with the Club. The Impact Collaboratory was a research-based effort to help understand the practice of investing for impact. We connected with faculty who were creating the curriculum and started a mentorship program to connect the impact investing alumni network with students. I cannot stress enough how amazing the alumni community is.  

On the academic side, there are great classes linking to this—for example, “Reimagining Capitalism.” I often think back to the really gritty questions we asked. That class changed the way I think. On the career side, I did a summer internship supported by SEI, and I now am an HBS Leadership Fellow.  

HBS is an interdisciplinary place. There’s a lot of fluidity in how you can cross-register. I was a Teaching Fellow for a class between Harvard Kennedy School and the School of Public Health. It’s a wonderful community and I was enraptured by the case method. It’s a more engaging way to learn something like accounting.

During your MBA, there are five buckets of how you can spend time: career; academic; extracurricular; social; personal wellness. Prioritize these upfront. 

There’s a lot of leeway in the application process itself. There’s more pre-work before you even get to the application and that journey continues as you become a student here. I’m still trying to cling on to some of the reflection tactics and essays we had in school. You want to learn from all the risks you’re taking.  

After business school, I decided to double down on impact investing and took on an HBS Leadership Fellow role working at Social Finance as an Advisor to the CEO doing innovative financing for nonprofits. Next for me is to stay on at Social Finance post-fellowship and continue this work.”