Scrolling through my newsfeed this week, I can’t help but marvel at how many HBS alumni are pursuing public service.
Amanda Renteria (MBA 2003) announced her bid for Governor of California yesterday. The Wall Street Journal featured Adem Bunkeddeko (MBA 2017) as one of the millennials shaking up politics in New York for his challenge to an incumbent U.S. Representative. Mitt Romney’s (MBA 1974) expected entry into the U.S. Senate race in Utah is imminent, delayed by the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (a mere five miles from my own). In the wake of this terrible tragedy, Congressman Seth Moulton (MBA 2011) was especially vocal on the need to take action against gun violence.
These four are among the wave of alumni of all ages getting involved in local, state, and federal government—in the U.S. and across the globe. It’s inspiring to see more of our MBAs take this path and, in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “get in the arena.”
I’m not the only one who’s noticed. A recent WSJ article highlighted this phenomenon among HBS alumni, as did additional coverage from The Crimson and Poets & Quants.
But, is this pursuit of public service truly a new trend, or has it always been the case for HBS MBAs? To be fair, it’s a bit of both.
Meaningful engagement in public life has been a hallmark of HBS leaders for generations. You can find former mayors, state legislators, governors, Representatives, Senators, Cabinet Secretaries, ministers, diplomats, and heads of state in our alumni ranks. While direct entry has been less common, there’s a tradition of our MBAs eventually going into government. Notable HBS alumni like John Whitehead (MBA 1947) and Michael Bloomberg (MBA 1966) parlayed business success into appointed and elected office, respectively, along with significant nonprofit board leadership and philanthropic pursuits.
That said, from where I sit, MBA student and alumni interest in the public sector definitely is growing—noticeably so in the last 12-18 months.
SEI runs an Industry 101 session (“Leadership and Innovation in the Public Sector”) for first-year students each fall. We’ve seen an increase in attendance each of the last three years. But, our September 2017 offering marked the most significant year-over-year growth—and the room was over capacity. Among alumni, I speak often with folks keen to shift into public service. A few even called about exploring a first-time run after they read the WSJ article.
What’s driving this interest? It’s not just one thing, because it’s not a monolithic group. They’re running as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. It’s a combination of things. People want to tackle tough problems and bring new energy and innovative ideas to age-old debates. They see a place for their general management skill-set in a tumultuous time. They’re fired up about specific issues. They want to usher in the next generation of leadership.
What do they want to do? Many run for offices that are full-time jobs. (Though not exhaustive, here’s a recent rundown of HBS candidates in mayoral, gubernatorial, and Congressional races.) That’s especially true in this 2018 election cycle—but also in the last few. We now have HBS mayors in Buenos Aires, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Newton, Massachusetts (where I’m proud to call home).
Still, pursuing a full-time office is only one path. There are multiple routes to service and civic engagement.
Furthermore, you don’t even have to work in government to engage in public problem-solving. MBAs are joining and launching companies that sell to government (or directly to citizens), lead venture funds, operate as nonprofit partners, and more. Mitch Weiss (MBA 2004), Mayor Menino’s former chief of staff and a Professor of Management Practice, has created an MBA course focused on public entrepreneurship. And we recently partnered on a new case study that follows four HBS MBAs navigating public sector careers.
This heightened interest isn’t limited to MBAs. When it comes to HBS faculty, Mitch’s work is the tip of the iceberg. The latest work from our U.S. Competitiveness Project, a multi-year faculty effort led by Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin, focuses on why politics fails to deliver results for the average American. Our Young American Leaders Program brings together cross-sector leaders from across the country. David Moss leads an effort to re-envision how history and democracy can be taught in high schools through the case study method. Matt Weinzierl launched an elective on the role of government in market economies and Karen Mills (MBA 1977 and former Administrator of the Small Business Administration) is a leading voice on innovation and entrepreneurship.
These efforts span the University, too. Graduate students pursue joint HBS/HKS degrees in earnest and multiple SEI faculty have joint appointments across schools. Our faculty work closely with colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to support school superintendents through the Public Education Leadership Project. In partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, HBS and HKS recently launched the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative to advance leadership, management and innovation in cities around the world.
Here at SEI, we provide programs to help students get involved in public service early in their careers. Our Social Enterprise Summer Fellows program supports students working across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Our HBS Leadership Fellows Program enables graduating MBAs to spend a year working with nonprofit CEOs and leaders in federal, state, and local government. And our Social Enterprise Loan Repayment Assistance Program reduces the debt burden of MBAs working in the public and nonprofit sectors (and for-profit social enterprises) from 0-10 years after graduation.
These offerings make a meaningful difference for our students and alumni. They certainly did for me. They enabled me to join the FBI during my MBA internship, serve in the Boston Mayor’s Office as an HBS Leadership Fellow, and work with Mayor Bloomberg on the Government Innovation team at Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Public service is a profound platform from which to effect change in communities and countries. There’s no one right way to do it either. You can serve the public good in the public, private, or the nonprofit sector. You can even be a tri-sector athlete and pursue a career across all three.
I’m thrilled to see more of our MBAs called to lead in this way. It’s a timely trend (and tradition) that I hope is here to stay.
Matt Segneri (MBA 2010) is the Director of the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative.