When Rob Zeaske (MBA 2002) came to Harvard Business School two decades ago, he was also interested in having an impact at the intersection of business and social enterprise, but he didn’t know exactly how to pursue that career.

Fast forward to today and Zeaske has led mission-driven organizations around the country, and he credits the HBS Leadership Fellows Program as the springboard that launched his career. Now he is back at Harvard Business School as the Director of the Social Enterprise Initiative helping develop more leaders who will make a difference in the world.

What is the Leadership Fellows Program?

The Leadership Fellows Program was launched at Harvard Business School in 2001. The program was designed to provide social-sector organizations with access to analytical and strategic talent to deliver high-impact results and encourage emerging leaders to develop an appreciation for and understanding of the complexities of leading in the social sector.

To achieve this goal, HBS partners with government and nonprofit organizations to offer one-year high-impact roles to a select number of graduating students. Salaries for these roles are funded jointly by HBS and the hiring organizations, with each party contributing $60,000 to make up a $120K annual salary. Commitment to the new graduates’ success is also shared equally, with ongoing coaching, cohort connections, professional development, and other resources throughout the year.

The Leadership Fellows program now has 255 alumni who have been placed with 93 organizations around the country. Some organizations, like Mercy Corps, Lincoln Center, and the City of Boston have been mainstays of the program for years. Other organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative and Los Angeles Unified School District are new this year. Zeaske and the Leadership Fellows Team are continually expanding the types of organizations they are engaging with based on current issues and student demand.

Organizations are selected through a competitive proposal process, based on roles that provide opportunities for access to senior leaders, impact in the defined roles, and leadership opportunities to apply their MBA skill set.

The Leadership Fellows Impact

When Zeaske refers to the Leadership Fellows Program as a career accelerator, he speaks both as the Director of the Social Enterprise Initiative and a former Leadership Fellow. Reflecting on his Leadership Fellows experience at Mercy Corps, he notes the significance of the fellowship on his career trajectory.

“It was an unbelievable catapult,” he shared. “I was able to take the relationships, experience, and seniority I got out of my first position into multiple different roles after that. It was a giant leap forward in my ability to be an effective executive.” After one year at Mercy Corps, Zeaske stayed with the organization as a Program Strategy Manager for another year before joining Jumpstart as the Senior Vice President of External Relations. Three years later, he became the CEO of Second Harvest Heartland.

Zeaske’s experience mirrors those of alumni fellows who have benefited over the years from access to meaningful roles and close collaboration with senior leadership in the Leadership Fellows Program.

“We promise as part of the Leadership Fellows Program that projects will be mission-critical and relatively discreet so that within a year you can make a meaningful difference,” Zeaske said. “They need to have a job for our grads that is going to move the needle.”

He added, “Access to leadership is another important component. One of the most important decisions people make as they come out of business school is ‘Who are the leaders I want to learn from?’”

Outside of the role itself, the Leadership Fellows Program is exactly that – a program – and is specifically designed to build community and provide ongoing learning to each graduating class of fellows. “One of the things we hear over and over again from our grads in social enterprise is the importance of finding community,” said Zeaske. “Being able to engage with your peers is powerful, personally and professionally.” Furthermore, as part of the ongoing professional development embedded in the program, fellows have exposure to faculty and staff at HBS doing work in social enterprise. “It’s like an extra bonus year of HBS,” Zeaske said.

What are Students Looking for from Participating Organizations?

Students may first look to the Leadership Fellows Program to find a specific organization or role, but Zeaske encourages any student ready to accelerate their social enterprise career to think broadly about how the program can help them have impact.

Referring to his Leadership Fellows role at Mercy Corps, then subsequent roles at Jumpstart and Second Harvest Heartland, Zeaske said “I didn’t do anything that was international development-related after those two years; I went into education and then hunger relief. So, it was more than an industry specific set of skills I drew on. The Leadership Fellows Program taught me broader leadership skills and served as a clear indicator that I was someone who was committed to the field.”

Zeaske also finds that the Leadership Fellows Program is ideal for those dedicated to social enterprise but that are managing the financial concerns of nonprofit work. The elevated roles graduates enter into as Leadership Fellows set them up with a base salary of $120K, and importantly a level of seniority that translates to their next role and salary.

“The program helped me get to work faster on problems I cared about while de-risking the social enterprise path,” said Zeaske. “I wanted to start off being in the business of giving back instead of waiting until later in my career – the Leadership Fellows Program allowed me to do that.”

How to Apply

Interested in learning more about the Leadership Fellows Program and how a fellow can make an impact on your organization?

Review the Leadership Fellows Proposal Guide (pdf) to determine if your organization and role are a fit for the program. Then access the Sample Proposal (pdf) as a guide for what the program is looking for in an excellent proposal.

Contact the HBS Leadership Fellows Program at lfp@hbs.edu with any questions.