Developing Leaders to Make a Positive Difference in the World

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Last month, I announced Ross’ new mission statement:  At Ross, we develop leaders who make a positive difference in the world.  This mission statement is at the core of the many initiatives underway at Ross to build on our tradition of excellence and transform the ways we deliver business education for the 21st century. 

Today, we face unprecedented challenges throughout business and society, and our mission statement builds from an ethos that is at the heart of our culture.  When I walk through the community spaces of Ross and listen to our students and faculty, the discussions I hear center around not just the creation of profitable economic enterprises but also the capacity of business to have a positive impact on our world.  As the leading public business school in the world, we are deeply conscious of the context of business in society and recognize the significant interdependence of the two.

The mission statement embodies the philosophy that, if the world’s most pressing problems are going to be solved, business must take a role not only as a participant in generating solutions but as a leader.  There is tremendous opportunity for business to partner with government and civil society in realizing positive change in areas vital to our collective welfare including climate change and access to food, housing, healthcare, primary education, transportation, and more.

Of course, we at Ross are not alone in recognizing that business must become a significant driver of progress.  The largest corporations in the world have more power and resources than many nations and governments.  And most political and corporate leaders today recognize the potential of business to make a positive difference.  This recognition is called many things including conscious capitalism, creative capitalism, shared value creation, and positive business.

Companies large and small throughout the globe are adopting practices that address social as well as business goals (see graph).  For example, in 2010, Unilever CEO Paul Polman announced that the company would double the size of its business by achieving eight socially-focused goals by 2020.  Polman has stated that business cannot survive in a society that fails, and companies must play a more active role in addressing societal issues.  These activities demonstrate the possibility that all leaders and all companies can incorporate into their core business activities, whether in a large or small way, the goal of making a positive difference in the world.

Here at Ross we are highly conscious that in order for businesses to successfully assess and implement opportunities to create value through socially-mindful business practices, their leaders must be equipped with the skills and understanding to navigate the challenges that go with these efforts.

To aid students’ development of skills in this area, the Ross Impact Challenge, part of the Ross Leadership Initiative, this past year included action-based learning projects in Detroit asking teams of students to develop for-profit business concepts that would also benefit social causes such as hunger, reliable transportation, and affordable housing.  Students explored the complicated issues of reconciling business and social goals, and the winning team designed a concept for a mobile grocery store to offer fresh food in areas typically lacking in healthy food options.  The focus on business practices that make a positive difference continues throughout the Ross Leadership Initiative curriculum.

Many Ross faculty focus their research and teaching on examining the power of business to make a positive difference in the world and the bottom-line impact of socially-mindful business practices.  For example, Professor Jim Walsh studies the relationship between corporate social and financial performance and translates this knowledge to students.  Last summer, he and a team of BBA students traveled to Ghana to explore the economic climate in the region and perform community service.  The students came away with better understanding of developing markets, the need for corporate and public partnerships, and the opportunities facing future business leaders.  Professor Walsh has also led MBA student projects in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Holland, India, Ireland, Russia, Vietnam, and the U.S. that focus on the role of business in society.

Ross’ top-ranked Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies houses three student-managed investment funds, one of which is Ross’ Social Venture Fund.  The Social Venture Fund is managed by MBA and BBA students from a variety of backgrounds including technology, investment, and education, and it aims to make investments which both deliver financial returns and promote positive impact on society.  The Fund makes early-stage investments ranging from $50,000 to $250,000 in innovative, for-profit organizations driving change in the areas of education, food systems, the environment, health, and urban revitalization.  Its 2012 investment in LearnZillion, a web-based platform providing access to high-quality education lessons for students, teachers, and parents with otherwise limited access to education, was the first investment ever made by a socially oriented, student-led fund. 

The Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, a partnership between Ross and the University’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment, is committed to developing solutions for some of the world’s most critical environmental and social challenges through transforming business practices.  Through research, programming, and collaborations with industry, faculty and students are fueling commercializable concepts relating to energy and climate change, the built environment, green markets, and mobility.  

Advancing the world’s knowledge about how business can most effectively make a positive difference in the world while generating profit for shareholders, and the skills leaders must have to implement those practices, is a key element of our strategic plan.  As we seek to become the most innovative provider of life-long business education, we will continue to expand programs and initiatives for students and scholars to lead in this domain.  I look forward to the exciting chapters that lie ahead and the positive difference for our world that will result.