Harvard Business School Examines Alumni Social Impact in The World

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New book describes the positive role that people trained in business can play in society

Harvard Business School

BOSTON, MA—Harvard Business School (HBS)’s more than 86,000 alumni are using their leadership and problem-solving skills to tackle education, health, environment, poverty, inequality, and myriad other challenges, according to a new book called Problem Solving: HBS Alumni Making a Difference in the World. Authored by Russ Banham, Shirley Spence, and Howard Stevenson, the book highlights the many ways that alumni are taking action as corporate leaders, social entrepreneurs, impact investors, nonprofit professionals, public servants, generous philanthropists, and good citizens quietly contributing to their communities.

Based on almost four years of research, Problem Solving reviews HBS’s commitment to social responsibility since its founding in 1908 and acknowledges the 2019 commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the School’s Social Enterprise Initiative. It goes on to describe how today’s MBA experience reinforces a tradition of tackling business and social problems, illustrating five problem-solving strategies observed across more than 1,100 stories of alumni social impact: finance for social purpose, capacity building, product and market innovations, social and political mobilization, and government policy and legislation.

“People know Harvard Business School as a training ground for the world’s great business leaders, but our mission is to ‘educate leaders who make a difference in the world’ and that goes far beyond business,” said HBS Dean Nitin Nohria. “Problem Solving shines a light on a facet of HBS that too few people know about, namely, that our alumni provide leadership in all walks of life and create real value for society. Their achievements are stunning and their impact is undeniable. To see so many stories side by side is quite powerful.”

Author Howard Stevenson, an MBA and DBA graduate of the School and member of the faculty for 40 years, observed this phenomenon first-hand. “As a student and faculty member, I knew that our deans were personally committed to tackling some of society’s most pressing problems. They were powerful role models. I also observed my former classmates applying their skills for social good and saw opportunities to personally contribute,” said Stevenson. “When I became dean of external relations, traveling the globe and meeting with thousands of alumni, I was struck by how many were making important contributions to their communities and their chosen causes—in many different ways and often without fanfare.” He adds that Problem Solving is dedicated to all HBS graduates “living the mission” as they work to make their communities, their countries, and the world a better place by addressing urgent needs, tackling the root causes of problems, and effecting system-wide change.

Problem Solving is the culmination of research conducted by a small project team from 2015 through 2018 in collaboration with HBS alumni, students, faculty, and staff. Its broad and deep knowledge base is based on a survey of 13 MBA classes spanning from 1955 to 2015, more than 200 interviews, and extensive archival and secondary research. The final result, developed, designed, and produced in cooperation with Southwestern Publishing House, is a coffee table style book with 300 plus pages of text brought vividly to life with photographs and quotations. Its more than 200 stories from around the world provide a sampling of alumni impact in education and life-long learning, health and wellness, community and economic development, energy and the environment, and arts and culture. “These stories are just the tip of the iceberg,” Stevenson stressed.

“We had ambitious goals for this book from the outset,” said project director and author Shirley Spence. “We wanted to help all members of the HBS community understand the School’s long history of social responsibility and impact. We also wanted to recognize the individual and collective impact of today’s alumni in many different fields and to provide a conduit for alumni to learn from each other and to share their experience with students.” For a broader audience, she added, “the hope is that Problem Solving will help to promote a more positive view of business and capitalism at a time of growing public mistrust.”

“It’s well documented that Harvard Business School has produced some of the world’s greatest business leaders,” said author and veteran financial journalist Russ Banham. “But it is remarkable to see how HBS alumni use their skills, experience, relationships, and other resources in many different ways to tackle social problems and advance the causes and organizations they care about. The breadth of the impact is extraordinary.”

To learn more about Problem Solving: HBS Alumni Making a Difference in the World, or to download or purchase a copy, visit https://www.hbs.edu/about/pioneering-research/Pages/problem-solving.aspx.

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