25 Aug 2021

Socioeconomic Inclusion at HBS Profile Series: Joshua Mbanusi (MBA 2021)


Photo courtesy Joshua Mbanusi

by Shona Simkin

As the youngest of five siblings, Joshua Mbanusi (MBA 2021) grew up watching his single mother juggle two—and sometimes three—jobs while getting the undergraduate degree required to resume the nursing career she left behind when she immigrated from Nigeria. Her efforts to lift her family out of poverty instilled in Mbanusi both an understanding of the difficulty of doing so and a desire to help others do the same.

While getting his undergraduate degree in policy analysis, Mbanusi spent a summer working for the Department of Education and a year in the New York State Senate, aiming to better understand how to scale economic mobility and alleviate poverty through state and federal educational policy reform. After graduation, he moved to North Carolina to teach with Teach for America, so he could perform a “360-degree analysis of the challenge.” That experience, he says, solidified his understanding of the multi-faceted nature of poverty.

“If you're not looking at a whole set of other issues—healthcare, housing, economic opportunities available to parents—in a much more comprehensive way, then you’ll fall into the fallacy of thinking education is enough,” said Mbanusi.

To delve into those multiple facets, Mbanusi took a position at MDC, a non-profit in Durham, focusing broadly on poverty alleviation across the South. Over the next five years, he gained exposure to efforts with employment, economic security, and strategic philanthropy. Two particular roles he says, set the stage for an interest in the private sector and ultimately his decision to attend business school.

Mbanusi founded and led an organizing initiative that aimed to connect youth to post-secondary opportunities and living wage jobs; part of a broader business-led, community-based partnership attempting to create regional career pathways in the city. Working with private sector stakeholders in this effort sparked a curiosity about the role of business on issues such as youth disconnection, economic mobility, and intergenerational poverty.

“These employers noticed that the city’s economic opportunities weren’t reaching those in need, and wanted to make a difference,” said Mbanusi. “That challenged my preconceived notions about the role of business in society. These companies were moved by morals that connected their business operations with social challenges, and that was super exciting to me.”

Then, by advising various foundations’ philanthropic efforts, Mbanusi saw how a focused strategy could directly address some of the root causes of social and economic challenges. “Helping these foundations think about how they could be more catalytic with their funds instilled an appreciation of how capital, when strategically deployed, can really speed up social change,” he said.

With those two experiences in mind, Mbanusi applied to business school with an eye towards impact investing. “I wanted to explore what it would look like to be part of a new generation of business leaders looking to not just maximize shareholder value but doing good by doing well—how to pursue business that has a social mission at its heart while also generating returns for its investors,” said Mbanusi.

Casting a wide net in his applications, Mbanusi says he was drawn to HBS for its investment in and commitment to social issues. Once he arrived, he dove into his required courses and new environment. That experience, however, was jolting—very little about the campus and culture were familiar, either from his low-income childhood or as an adult in economically-depressed areas in the South. From social dynamics, additional fees and dues, to case narratives and perspectives, Mbanusi felt isolated and excluded. When he learned that Holly Fetter and Alexxis Isaac from the MBA Class of 2020 had formed a task force to examine and address socioeconomic inclusion at HBS, he immediately joined.

“I wanted to take part because of the experience I was having—I didn’t want people to come to HBS and feel the way I did for those first few months,” said Mbanusi. “I want this to be a place where one’s ability to have a fulfilling experience is not determined by their economic background.”

Importantly, says Mbanusi, he felt that HBS wanted to be different—more inclusive and welcoming—it just wasn’t there yet. Digging into the work with the task force, which was composed of students, faculty, and staff, reinforced his sense that the institution was invested in change.

“What does it look like for HBS to become a place where someone like me can enter and feel a strong affection and affinity? How do we signal that this is an institution that on its surface could be exclusionary but has resisted that impulse by taking intentional efforts to make sure that someone like me feels like they belong? That intention builds a tighter affinity between the student and the institution that goes on for a lifetime,” said Mbanusi.

The task force held workshops, brainstorming sessions, and programs to address socio economic inclusion and to surface related tensions in the community, and conducted a quantitative survey to examine the MBA experience of class at HBS. Mbanusi and classmate Tory Voight (MBA 2021) took on the baton as co-presidents when Fetter and Isaac graduated.

“The energy behind the task force was exceptional, and we’re really proud of how we were able to play a role in advancing the ball,” said Mbanusi. Among the developments created by the task force was the establishment of the HBS First Generation / Low-Income Club, to provide socialization, normalization, and support for students as well as encourage ongoing efforts—in Financial Aid, Admissions, Career & Professional Development, and MBA Student Activities & Services—aimed towards socio economic inclusion. The task force also established several student-led working groups to help develop, inform, and execute on innovative strategies to promote socio economic inclusion in collaboration with key stakeholders within the administration.

After graduating in May, Mbanusi joined Guild Education, an educational technology company facilitating employer-sponsored, debt-free education programs through a curated learning marketplace particularly targeted at frontline workers.

Mbanusi is excited for this next step, which reinforces his conviction that there needn’t be a compromise in finding an intersection between business and social impact. “We too often accept a false tradeoff that in order to do well in the world, whether environmental, socially, or economically, you need to accept work that doesn't pay well,” he says. “That can cause people to set their internal GPS to something that doesn't necessarily align with their values—and I don't think that that tradeoff has to be there. I think that people can engage in more daring recruitment efforts and find a job that aligns with their values and ensures that they are economically sustained.”

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