Among the most popular recruiting pitches in the startup world today is the claim to be “mission-driven” and to be oriented towards “social impact.” This follows the lead of so many established tech companies, whose pretensions to “make the world a better place” ring so close to home that when skewered on HBO’s Silicon Valley, it’s hard to know who’s in on the joke. Throughout the tech world, “social impact investing” and “philanthropy” are some of the hottest new status brags for the upwardly ambitious.
When I first stepped into business school back in 2009, I was surprised to learn during orientation that more than a third of my classmates had cited a strong interest in “social entrepreneurship” as a part of their applications. At the time, I was puzzled why anyone would pursue an MBA to go into social entrepreneurship, which was a concept I only vaguely understood at the time. What I later learned was that almost none of them actually did. Nevertheless, social entrepreneurship programs are so popular that not only are they ubiquitous at prestigious business schools (and at those that aspire to be), but they are very prominent features in school marketing. This trend has only grown since I graduated. The landing page for Harvard Business School’s MBA program features a big splashy carousel advertising how its graduates are “Making a difference” in Southeast Asia and Africa. (70% of HBS grads last year went into management consulting, finance or tech, btw.)
It’s time to splash some cold water on this phenomenon. Some corrective is needed to counter both the gospel of “social entrepreneurship” as the most effective route of social change, as well as the usefulness of corporate partnership in the same.