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Rising Leaders for Social Impact Forum: Class of 2023 Perspectives

16 Jun 2022

How can I have impact in my career? What are different approaches to the problem I want to solve? How can I best use my time at HBS? Where do I find impact-oriented people at business school? How can I bring my voice to the classroom? How do I find my career path with the strong currents of consulting and banking at the school? How can I learn from my classmates and alumni in the field?

These are some of the questions our HBS students have as they start their first year. Our MBA students come from a range of social enterprise pathways: entrepreneurial ventures, for-profit companies focused on social impact, funding organizations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. They focus on issue areas including arts, education, economic development, environment, healthcare, human services, international development, and more – in countries and regions around the world.

Many of these social impact focused students are coming to HBS to build their experience and knowledge for further impact through courses and career development programs. A new program at HBS supports classroom, career, and community – helping students to navigate the unique career path, and challenges and opportunities of MBAs in social enterprise with a strong cohort of peers.

Launched in Fall of 2020, the Rising Leaders Forum is HBS’s premier offering for social impact oriented students. The program is designed exclusively for MBA students with a social enterprise focus – those who have a demonstrated commitment prior to HBS and a goal of continued exploration or commitment to social enterprise. Through carefully tailored content and small peer group discussion, our highest potential change leaders are engaged in reflection, conversations, tools, and networking to help them have impact and lead positive change in the world.

We talked to a few of the 48 first-year students who participated in the Rising Leaders Forum over the 2021-22 academic year.

Why did you decide to participate in the Rising Leaders Forum?

Amara Warren: My background is in education, so upon starting HBS, I was eager to plug into the various programming offered by the Social Enterprise Initiative. I joined the Rising Leaders Forum mainly because I wanted to build relationships with peers also committed to working on big intersectional social impact projects – from workforce development, to healthcare, to racial justice, to climate change and more. I also found myself craving space for self-reflection and exploration, and I was excited to get the most out of the forum.

Kyler Evitt: I was looking to build a community of likeminded classmates. HBS has an especially large class and its students bring a wide variety of professional interests, so I think the number of students who are focused on social impact-related career paths here is larger than it is at most top business schools. The key is finding that group of people. I was hopeful that Rising Leaders Forum would help me do that and I wasn’t disappointed.

Mathieu Davis: I have always been passionate about community engagement, mentorship, and using my talents to help those less fortunate. In fact, my long-term goal is to start a venture fund dedicated to providing funding to minority founders who are addressing the social determinants of health. My key interest in HBS was the plethora of social impact activities and offerings, particularly the Rising Leaders for Social Impact Forum, that the school has on offer. As an engineer who came to business school to pivot into the social impact arena, the forum provided me with an opportunity to engage with like-minded individuals who are focused on making a lasting positive impact on their communities and work places. I am personally passionate about the education and food security spaces and the forum allowed me to receive the mentorship and guidance I needed to hone my knowledge and skills in these areas.

Natalie Gould: The Rising Leaders Forum offered space for introspection and a community of passionate peers. I came to HBS after seven years of leading operations at a high school in the heart of Washington, D.C. I knew that the HBS classroom offered an unparalleled opportunity to build and broaden my context, and I was delighted by the diversity of perspectives revealed through the case method. But at the same time, I was looking for points of familiarity and connection with those who had also spent a significant portion of their careers to-date within direct service and social impact organizations. I wanted a more focused community who had considered some of the same challenges as I, whose background as fellow-practitioners would push me to think more critically about the nuances of social impact work. The Rising Leaders Forum created this opportunity very early on in my first year and I am grateful for the friendships and conversations I had as a result.

Tell us about your experience in the forum.

Amara: The best part of Rising Leaders is the people – the program attracts an amazing cohort of interesting people who have become good friends. It’s a rare opportunity to meet classmates from outside your section and this allowed me to meet 50 new people with a shared commitment to social impact. The Forum was also a place for introspection, and for candid conversations about how HBS can support students in the social sector. I appreciated that this group met consistently, and this peer group helped me better navigate my first year.

Kyler: The most positive element of the Rising Leaders Forum for me was the community it helped me build. Meeting 3-4 times per semester, the Forum held the space and promoted the conversations that allowed me to build meaningful relationships with at least a dozen social impact-minded classmates. The nature of life at HBS is such that once you’ve seeded those relationships early on, they continue to build on themselves throughout the year through dinners, trips, and impromptu social overlap. I hope to hold onto many of these relationships in second year and beyond. The other especially positive element I’d highlight is the professional support from the Rising Leaders Forum. Navigating your internship search and planning for your post-graduation career path can be challenging during your first year. Many of us come into HBS with bold visions for our future careers, but part of first year experience is meeting people from all backgrounds and industries and at one point or another completely questioning the plan you came into school with. That’s normal, and in many ways healthy. What the Rising Leaders Forum did was give me the mental tools, mentors, and supportive community to help me evaluate what was truly important to me and navigate my way towards it. The internship I’m doing this summer came about because of conversations I had with Rob Zeaske, one of the Forum’s sponsors, and multiple discussions with other participants.

Mathieu: I had an amazing time as part of the Rising Leaders Forum. For me, being surrounded by like-minded individuals who are passionate about social impact and making a positive change in their workplaces and communities, was extremely impactful for me. Being able to sit down with these individuals every month and hear about their challenges and their successes, helped motivate and drive me forward in pursuing my goals. The biggest takeaway for me, was being able to learn more about the various ways that impact is being created on campus and in industry. It allowed me to broaden my scope of learning and understanding. 

Natalie: The Rising Leaders Forum supported me across both professional and social dimensions. The internship recruitment process is long and riddled with landmines. I appreciated the opportunity to contemplate and reflect with my peers on my personal values as I navigated this exploration. Socially, the program gave me dedicated, consistent time every few weeks to discuss issues that were important to me. Our conversations about the areas of passion for many of my classmates extended outside of the forum into dinners and meaningful friendships.

What advice would you give to an incoming HBS student interested in social impact?

Amara: My advice would be three-fold: 1) Dig beyond the surface to find alumni who match your interests. I’ve come to find out there are hundreds of alumni who work at all levels in public sector, non-profit, and social enterprise work…and this group is growing. As you narrow your interests, utilize the alumni network. 2) Do some soul searching on your values and how social impact fits into your life. If you hope to make changes in the social sector, don’t wait…have the courage to explore them during HBS. 3) Try an internship in the social sector. There is so little to lose if this is a new field for you, and it’s a great place to learn about a new organization or industry.   

Kyler: Hold space for what’s important to you. The first year is so full. It’s both wonderful and exhausting. You’ll meet so many fascinating people, challenge yourself academically and socially, and find that your calendar will fill to an extent you never thought was possible. If you let it, the first-year experience can fill your every waking minute (a couple times over) without you explicitly choosing anything. So before your schedule fills up, be deliberate. Decide what’s important for you to make time for this first year and build a forcing function into your schedule. Want to build a social enterprise? Apply to Start-Up Bootcamp and join a pitch competition. Want to learn more about education or healthcare or the future of work? Join a club and get involved with one of the conferences. Want to meet social impart-focused classmates and make time for rich conversations about impact at HBS? Join Rising Leaders Forum.

Mathieu: I would definitely advise joining the Rising Leaders for Impact forum. The forum will undoubtedly provide you with a depth of experiences that will broaden your perspectives. You will also walk away with a cohort of friends and colleagues who you can rely upon in your career. I would advise to be open minded and ask all the questions you have. There’s so much wonderful information to be gained, and being open to learning is the most important thing. Additionally, I would tell an incoming student that social impact might not always be the most streamlined career path. It’s an area that is still very much being defined and redefined, so it can be frustrating. While your peers may have well-defined career paths in business school, you may have a slightly more circuitous path in finding internships. The key is to be patient, and trust your networks. 

Natalie: There are so many ways to better the world; it’s up to you to determine the impact that you would like to see, and then, undoubtedly, HBS can help you to achieve it. The most common concern I hear from my classmates is that they have too many great options for impact and don’t know how to prioritize their time – this is a wonderful problem to have. Whatever your passion (and at whatever stage you are in your thinking about issues related to social impact), there are resources at your disposal to help you reach the next level, and a community that is ready to support and cheer you on as you do!