Business School Ethics, The Clinton Global Initiative Way

“Everything has changed in society, except the classroom,” says Vicky Colbert, founder of Escuela Nueva, at the Clinton Global Initiative earlier this week.


“Everything has changed in society, except the classroom,” says Vicky Colbert, founder of Escuela Nueva, at the Clinton Global Initiative earlier this week. While the rest of the world has begun to close the antiquated gap between philanthropy and profit, business schools have yet to make social entrepreneurship a staple of their ethical development curriculum (with some notable exceptions, such as Harvard). Indeed, the very concept of an “ethics class” reinforces the false dichotomy. Fortunately, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) has found a pitch perfect approach in bridging our humanitarian instinct with the hyper-ambitious dreams of the nation’s future businessmen.


Creativity and Design
Ethics isn’t all doom and gloom. Reversing the impact of catastrophic events in resource depleted environments, all while respecting culture norms, can be among the most fascinating of business puzzles. Microfinance pioneer (and CGI speaker) Jessica Jackley tells Fast Company that, in her experience, being “excited about building something or mobilizing resources” is as important as the product itself in understanding the motivation of a social entrepreneur. From handheld ultra-sound machines to universal mobile accessibility, the business of solving the world’s problems is an endless opportunity to apply existing technologies creatively in exotic places all over the world — and be thanked profusely by those in need. At the CGI, products and services adorn either side of the red carpet entrance, held aloft in museum-style cubic encasings. If business schools follow CGI’s lead and display the solutions to global problems like the masterpieces they are, students are likely to follow suit.

Humans are a pack animal; market spikes and downward spirals often follow from the sheep-like tendency of nervous investors. The same holds for ethics. For instance, in order to decrease littering, psychologists have discovered that leaving a single piece of trash in an otherwise pristine park was the most effective predictor of whether unsuspecting study participants would litter. Leaving trash all over signals a culture of permissiveness, and no trash gives no signal at all. The CGI approach to norm creation is to convene an almost exhaustive list of the global elite to show how unequivocal the world’s commitment to philanthropy should be. While most business school deans don’t have access to someone like Queen Rania of Jordan, local heroes are within reach. Or, if not a local hero, at least one elite CEO is within the grasp of most first and second tier universities. “Especially when you have a live guest in the room, you see a person that you can relate to, that you could imagine being like,” says Jackley, who invited speakers to her University of Southern California business class to make the path to social entrepreneurship salient.

Change the Debate
Conflict resolution experts have long known that asking participants to make arguments against one’s own point of view produces a dramatic rise in tolerance. As individuals craft a speech in opposition to their own views, the process forces them to openly consider the other side, uncovering reasons they never knew they would agree with. One of the very few debates that took place at the CGI was a discussion of whether microfinance banks should be owned by the lending community or should bring in external revenue from affluent countries. The sparring match between father of microfinance, Muhammad Yunus, and Vikram Akula, founder of SKS Microfinance, was a heated exchange of polite, but tough accusations. The subtle brilliance of the strategy was to replace the discussion of why we should embrace microfinance to how it can be conducted in the most ethical manner. For students, public debating is as difficult as it is nerve-racking; students are likely to sweat over the intricacies of ethical actions in preparation for their in-class debate. Reframing the discussion of “why” to “how” helps etch the most compelling benefits of pro-social behavior into students’ impressionable young minds.


They’re Ready
“This young generation is much different than our young generation, when we were young,” Muhammad Yunnus tells Fast Company. In his extensive experience dealing with skeptics of social entrepreneurship, Yunus says that young people are unusually open-minded to new economic models. The Internet has given them both a healthy skepticism of their parents’ traditions and access to alternative points of view. Jackley noticed the same of her students; “social” entrepreneurship didn’t even seem to be a separate category, but a path that they were naturally willing to experiment with. The new crop of students seems primed for a world of pro-social capitalism – let us hope that business schools catch up,

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About the author

I am a writer and an educator. As a writer, I investigate how technology is shaping education, politics, Generation Y, social good, and the media industry