U-M business students learn to make money... and a difference

Having served in both the Peace Corps and Americorps after completing his undergrad studies in philosophy and mathematics, Blake Van Fleteren says most of his friends were “extremely confused” when he decided to pursue an MBA.

"My line of work prior had never been in the private sector," Van Fleteren says. "It had been in the public sector. But it's through those kind of projects...that I definitely saw the power of business and the amount of power that comes along with really understanding business."

Van Fleteren says he was intrigued by the idea of using the "megaphone" of a major corporation to promote his ongoing value of promoting positive social change, so he sought a business school that aligned with that mission. The University of Michigan's Ross School of Business turned out to be a particularly appealing prospect thanks to a unique program called the Center for Social Impact (CSI). CSI was founded in 2014, consolidating several previous U-M programs that blended the worlds of business and social change.

More than just making money

"The idea was: how can we expose students to a wide variety of not only causes, but opportunities to do this work in their lives, education and careers?" says CSI founder and managing director Rishi Moudgil. "While there's a typical notion that nonprofits are there to do good and businesses are there to create profit, what we know is there's actually a lot of iterations in between there where you can create a financially sustainable enterprise and you can also create a social impact in the world."

For example, take a look at Eric Katz, a U-M student who created a socially impactful business with CSI's help before he'd even completed his BBA. Katz cofounded Kulisha, which aims to remedy both hunger and overfishing problems in Kenya by providing an alternative to the fish-based feeds used in many existing aquaculture operations there. Katz and his team developed a proprietary system to grow Kenyan-native black soldier flies, using organic waste to feed the insects before they are harvested to feed fish.

"It's extremely high-protein, extremely high-fat," Katz says. "It takes only two weeks to grow from egg to harvestability, and it just converts old food waste. We're just going to be collecting old food waste in Nairobi and then feeding that to the black soldier flies. That food ordinarily goes to the landfills."

Far from a one-off school project, Katz hopes to focus his energies on running Kulisha full-time once he graduates. He's received a major boost in his endeavors from CSI, which this year sponsored a new "Social Impact" track for the Michigan Business Challenge, a campus-wide student business plan competition, which is run by the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies. Kulisha took the grand prize in the new category, winning Katz and his collaborators $15,000. But Katz says CSI has given him more than just money.

"They've been really supportive in finding ways that we can not only improve, but also track, our social impact and find ways to make that aligned with profitability to ensure that it's sustainable," Katz says. "They've really given a lot of guidance in terms of how we can present it, what direction we should be going in, as well as been an excellent source of funding for us."

On the road

In many other cases CSI has sponsored students to work with existing businesses. Motivated by her interest in "business as a change agent," MBA student Brianna Brazell became engaged with CSI staff upon arriving at U-M in 2014. Last summer CSI sponsored Brazell's participation in MBAs Across America (MBAx), a national program that teamed up MBA students for a whirlwind five-week summer roadtrip. Brazell and her MBAx teammates traveled to work with five different social impact-oriented businesses across the country, both learning from the business owners and sharing their own insights to help the businesses grow.

"We honed a lot of personal skills, learned how to work in a high-functioning team under time pressure, learned so much about social entrepreneurship and the social fabric of our country–all these really amazing things," Brazell says. "And then we come back only to learn that nobody else will get to have that experience."

After last summer, MBAx announced that it was decentralizing, offering "open-source" guidelines on how to replicate the MBAx template instead of coordinating trips itself. Brazell was disheartened, but only temporarily. She and her former MBAx teammates set out to recreate the MBAx program at Ross, and the resulting program, Ross Open Road, debuted this summer. Two teams of four students hit the road to work with businesses in cities ranging from New Orleans to Fargo, N.D. One of them was Van Fleteren, who describes the experience as "absolutely incredible."

Brazell says CSI was the first organization her team approached for financial and organizational support.

"They just know," Brazell says. "They understand why the program is important, why it's impactful, why we cared so much about it. They were like, 'We're with you 100 percent,' and they have helped us in so many ways as we've put that program together."

Making a difference

Projects like Open Road and the Michigan Business Challenge represent only a portion of CSI's initiatives. There's also the Board Fellowship, which offers MBA students an internship-style experience as a non-voting board member of a local nonprofit organization; the Impact Corps, which places students in summer internships with nonprofits nationwide; and more.

Moudgil, who has worked in social impact-related programs at U-M since 2011, expresses a sense of satisfaction at CSI's success and the robust level of student participation in it so far. He says recent years have brought increased interest in social responsibility in business. That's thanks to businesses stepping up efforts to manage their own social impact, but also to an incoming young workforce with a desire to make a difference instead of just money.

"A long time ago students would enter school and they would say, 'I am going to go on a corporate path,' or 'I am going to go on a nonprofit path,' or 'Maybe I'll be an educator,' et cetera," Moudgil says. "What's changing now is that students are coming to school and saying, 'I want to make this change in the world, or I want to create this value in the world. I don't care necessarily what the structure is. I just want to figure out what the best way is to do it.'"

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate andMetromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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