In 1989 at Harvard Business School, J. Gregory Dees, then an assistant professor, proposed a class to study entrepreneurs solving social problems. "I was pretty much told, 'That's not what we do here,' " Dees says. "It was squashed."
But Dees was onto something powerful. At HBS today, the Social Enterprise Club boasts more than 300 members. Some 25% of Stanford Business School's class of 2004 earned certificates in public management. All told, at least 30 business schools in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom offer coursework in social entrepreneurship. And the ranks of Net Impact, an MBA student group advocating socially responsible business, have swelled to 9,000 in 95 chapters.
It may be that the 1990s trend with staying power wasn't dotcoms, but dot-orgs. Says Professor James Austin of the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative: "Academia reflects what's going on in the world. The growth rate of new nonprofits now exceeds that of private business formation and government expansion. Entrepreneurs go where the action is."
The interest in social enterprise also reflects shifting mores among students, says Ben Klasky, executive director of Net Impact. "We call it the rise of 'Generation And,' " Klasky says. More young people "want to make money and produce profits, but they want their work to have meaning and a social mission."
As awareness of business as a tool for social change spreads, MBA programs are drawing a different type of student, too. Jessica Droste Yagan, 26, majored in public policy as an undergraduate and worked on inner-city economic development before entering Stanford's MBA program. "I've become convinced that the market makes the world go around," she says. "If I want to make a difference, I need to learn how to use those forces for good."
It may be that such future leaders are as maniacal about changing the world as their predecessors were about making Internet killings. Dees, now at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, marvels at the potential cumulative effect of generations of MBAs intent on driving social change. "We are planting some very important seeds," he says.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.