Image: Professor Debora Spar in the classroom. Photo courtesy Natalie Keyssar.

In a milestone for the School’s mission to educate leaders who make a difference in the world, all first year students last month completed a short new course on the Social Purpose of the Firm (SPF), organized by the Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society (BiGS). Over two days, 11 faculty members from across the School taught five new cases involving companies ranging from Microsoft to Sweden’s Northvolt electric battery maker, raising questions about the role business plays in addressing environmental and societal issues.

“I’m thrilled that the SPF module resonated with both students and the 11 of us who taught the classes,” said Debora Spar, Senior Associate Dean for Business and Global Society. “This material is hard, it’s inter-disciplinary, and it forces both students and faculty to grapple with questions that don’t really have clear answers. We were delighted to see how engaged the students were, and how seriously they are taking the challenges they will confront as business leaders.”

Many students found taking an in-depth examination into a firm’s role, responsibilities, and purpose in modern society invigorating. “The module was absolutely brilliant. It got me thinking on many tangents that generally aren’t covered here in the regular course,” one first year student commented. “I look forward to learning from more BiGS-related cases.”

New Cases, New Knowledge

Reflecting a growing demand for business to “do more” to address some of society’s most pressing challenges, SPF was designed to explore just what it means for firms to undertake a purpose beyond profit, and the conditions under which they are most likely succeed in this complicated task. Each case was specifically written for the course:

“I truly enjoyed teaching the SPF module and getting into interesting conversations with students on issues we might not otherwise discuss,” said Paul Healy, James R. Wilson Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Research. “I think it’s a game changer for the students in the classroom as well as the faculty.”

Equity Group Holdings CEO James Mwangi and HBS Professor Ranjay Gulati discuss purpose during the Jan. 28 BiGS Conversation on HBS campus. Equity Group Holdings CEO James Mwangi and HBS Professor Ranjay Gulati discuss purpose during the Jan. 28 BiGS Conversation on HBS campus. Photo courtesy Susan Young.

BiGS Conversations with CEOs Bring Cases to Life

On the Saturday following the course, SPF capped its new program with a live, four-hour event featuring three of the case protagonists, who flew in from Seattle, Stockholm, and Nairobi to connect with students and bring the cases to life. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also shared exclusive thoughts via video.

The program included breakout sessions with Dr. James Mwangi, CEO of Kenya-based Equity Group Holdings; Carl-Erik Lagercrantz, CEO of Vargas Holding and vice chair of Northvolt; and Natasha Crampton, Microsoft’s chief responsible AI officer.

In his standing-room only classroom session, Mwangi described why he made financial inclusion a priority for the insolvent bank that he was asked to lead, and how he ultimately transformed it into one of the largest banking conglomerates in Africa. Lagercrantz discussed why and how he built what is today Europe’s largest and greenest maker of electric batteries. And as ChatGPT made worldwide headlines, Crampton spoke to students about how the company is developing AI with social responsibility in mind.

“I wish I had a course like SPF in my RC year,” said Angela Son, president of the Sustainability Club who co-moderated the conversation with Lagercrantz. “It’s critical that tomorrow’s leaders learn how to think about the important societal issues of our generation and the role that business plays.”

The BiGS team collaborated with student leaders of the Africa Business Club, Tech Club, Sustainability Club, and the Energy & Environment Club to host the three protagonists on campus.