Seeing Business as a Necessary Good

The biggest challenge we face is coping with questions about the legitimacy of business—and therefore the legitimacy of business education.

I love business education. I love how we train our students to think analytically and systematically. I like that every case begins with a problem and ends with a solution. I like that business helps people turn ideas into actions.

Today’s business educators are wrestling with big challenges, which include making sure our programs are relevant and delivering return on investment for our students. But the biggest challenge we face is coping with questions about the legitimacy of business—and therefore the legitimacy of business education.

There is no question that business today does not have a good reputation. Think about the verbs people use to describe business. It cheats customers. It exploits workers. It destroys environments. Think about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was an iconic expression of outrage and disapproval about business. While most people accept the fact that we need business, they consider it a necessary evil.

I believe business needs to be recast as a necessary good. Business schools have taken some steps toward achieving that goal. We’ve added social entrepreneurship courses and ethics classes; we’ve encouraged our students to consult for nonprofits; we’ve joined the United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative. But we have to be honest and ask an essential question: Do these courses penetrate the core curriculum in such a way that they change our students’ sense of the world?

I don’t think they do. I don’t think we’ve gone far enough in our journey to recast business as a necessary good—and business education as the vehicle that delivers that good. How can business schools achieve this goal? It won’t be easy, but I think we can begin with these four steps:

We need to help students to see the big picture. I had no idea how sequestered my world was until I moved into the field of relief and development. I didn’t think about the problems of global development, hunger, or child mortality.

Nor did I think about the real opportunities presented by emerging markets. Since 2006, emerging markets have contributed more to global economic growth than the developed world. By 2030, according to estimates by McKinsey, 45 percent of the Fortune Global 500 companies will come from emerging markets. Will our graduates know how to adapt when 2 billion people from emerging economies become consumers?

Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, has set two goals. The first is to practically eliminate extreme poverty in 15 years by lowering the number of people who make less than US$1.25 a day from about 12 percent of the global population to 3 percent. The second is to track the income level of every country to make sure that the bottom 40 percent grows faster than the average economy of that country. Should our students know about such milestones? Should they think about participating?

Our students not only must consider emerging economies, they must consider global sustainability and interactivity. How will our graduates manage in the global commons when key resources such as air and water transcend national boundaries? How will they respond to the knowledge that slave labor is part of the supply chains for products that we use every day? Do they understand what kind of impact technology platforms like mobile banking could have on the lives of the very poor? Business students must be trained to see the big picture—which is the whole world.

We need to look at the role of business. If business is to be viewed as a worthy profession, it needs to address some of the world’s great problems. Here are some intriguing statistics from the U.S.: Industry generates $20 trillion dollars annually, government resources account for $3 trillion, and nonprofits generate $1 trillion. Given that industry contributes about five-sixths of the total capital, it’s clear that global problems will not be solved by government and philanthropy alone. Business needs to play a part.

For instance, actor Ben Affleck has a nonprofit that works in the East Congo to rebuild the coffee industry, which has been decimated by conflict. He receives funding from USAID, the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, and others; the farmers he works with eventually will export their crops to Starbucks. This is an example of governments, nonprofits, and business all working together.

It’s clear that global problems will not be solved by government and philanthropy alone. Business needs to play a part.

I expect to see more such collaborations. But if students are going to understand how those relationships work, they will need to do more than simply go to Kenya for a week. They will need to have courses that help them deeply understand the massive activities of business and how these activities have massive impact.

We need to recover the missing focus on people. The language of business is very mechanical. We maximize, we optimize, we try to understand what levers to pull when we want to motivate people.

That leaves me with a lot of questions. Where is the focus on the human being, on the community, on the common good? What do we lose when we view humans through the lens of business language, when we reduce them to assets and liabilities, opportunities and threats, revenues and costs, investments and returns?

It troubles me that business sees people as means to an end, and not as the end itself. And I think business educators must ask themselves if they have, by omission or commission, played a role in that particular framing.

Finally, we need to empower our students. When I was a new dean in 1997, I invited a dean from a prestigious school to come to Notre Dame and talk about how Mendoza could improve its program. He told us that his school succeeded because it helped its students improve their earnings curve. It had no other focus.

His statement bothered me for three reasons. First, it was simply wrong. A profession exists to provide a specialized service to society. When its members care only about their own rewards, they risk doing more harm than good. Second, it was unwise. It was guaranteed to create a generation of people who would eat their young and throw everyone else under the bus. Third, it showed that he had very low expectations of students, because he assumed they had no values.

I contrast his words with the work of Mary Gentile, who created the “Giving Voice to Values” program. This program assumes that students already have values and just need help expressing them in the workplace. But it also assumes that educators have a responsibility in helping students act on their values—and that such actions are beneficial to society.

I believe our current approach to business education disempowers our students. We encourage them to believe that their complete worth is defined by their success, which is narrowly delimited by money and position. We encourage them to become so focused on winning that they don’t even stop competing when it comes to human relationships. And we encourage them to leave their emotions at the door. We don’t help them access their deepest passions, which are the very things that will help them choose their professions, set their boundaries, and make enduring commitments. We don’t help our students honor their goodness. We say, “We don’t know what to do with your goodness.”

I know that deans have very difficult jobs. But they shouldn’t forget the noble purpose of this profession. They must help students see the big picture, understand what business is capable of, recover a focus on people, and uncover their own values and passions.

I don’t think this is an impossible agenda. I think it will allow us to promote the legitimacy of our profession. I think it will help us turn the perception of business from one of a necessary evil to a necessary good.

Carolyn Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, which provides aid to people in more than 100 countries. She spent 40 years in business education, the last 15 as dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. In April, she delivered a plenary speech at AACSB’s International Conference and Annual Meeting (ICAM). The above text is based on that speech.