Problem Solving: HBS Alumni Making a Difference

Harsha Mulchandani, Contributor

Harsha Mulchandani (MBA ’21) reports on the project looking at alumni contributions with a broader lens.

A clip of Gordon Gekko proudly announcing, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works,” in a recent FIN class got me thinking. It’s not uncommon to use greed as a synonym for capitalism. And as a business school, HBS is not immune to being labeled as a breeding ground for capitalists. Professor Howard Stevenson (Professor Emeritus, former Senior Associate Dean, HBS), along with Shirley Spence, has been working to re-shape this narrative. The conversation on HBS alumni creating social impact is not new. However, now more than ever, there are examples of social responsibility manifesting itself in many meaningful avatars, evolving from traditional philanthropy to social enterprises and product and market innovations aimed towards a larger social impact.

Their project started roughly four years ago. A small project team surveyed 13 HBS classes spanning from 1955 to 2015, conducted more than 200 interviews, and extensively researched through secondary sources and school archives. Problem Solving: HBS Alumni Making a Difference in the World is a culmination of their efforts and speaks volumes through its 200-plus stories on alumni making an impact in their own ways.

“What you often see in the news is HBS alumni making money and sometimes about how much they give back to HBS. What these stories miss out is—by my estimate—these alumni have given more than 20x the amount to other institutions,” says Professor Stevenson, emphasizing how surprised he was at the many ways these alumni have chosen to solve problems. 

“Why call the book Problem Solving?” I ask.

“This is a different way of looking at problem solving. Teaching people to identify and solve problems is not always about making money or maximizing shareholder value. It is about giving students the ability to identify issues at hand and develop solutions to relieve those symptoms. Problem solving is grounded in the HBS experience,” Professor Stevenson replies.

Spence adds, “You will see when you read the book that no matter where you go in the world, you will find HBS alumni creating an impact, giving to the society in their own ways. And people have chosen to switch paths at different times in their lives, with many not expecting to land where they did!” Her observations ring true as I flip through my copy of the coffee-table book.

The book spans a multitude of ways that HBS alumni are tackling problems and pursuing opportunities in five broad, often overlapping, areas: education and lifelong learning, community and economic development, health and wellness, energy and environment, and arts and culture. They have pursued varying change strategies to tackle problems they care about.

Professor Stevenson does not shy away from mentioning Cohen’s story as one of his favorites. Sir Ronald Cohen (MBA ’69) left a successful career in venture capital and private equity to launch a movement in social investing. Social Finance, a non-profit aimed at catalyzing the U.K. social investment market by mobilizing capital and developing innovative financing approaches, founded by Cohen and David Blood (MBA ’85), among other U.K. leaders, developed Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) to attract private investment to fund social programs. One such program in 2010 reached out to help 2,000 young criminal offenders who were released from a U.K. prison, significantly reducing the rate of recidivism. Another HBS grad, Tracy Palandjian (MBA ’97), is leading the charge in the U.S. as the founding CEO of Social Finance.

For many alumni, it wasn’t always a decision met with support from peers. Faced with some headshakes and very skeptical eyes, Tom Tierney (MBA ’80) announced his step down from his position as Bain and Company’s top brass to start Bridgespan, in an era where, as the book quotes, phrases like “social entrepreneur” and “venture philanthropy” did not exist. Bridgespan is now a global organization helping make the world a better place by helping address some of the toughest challenges facing society at large.

And, boy, do these stories inspire. Pardon my unconscious bias as a writer, but I instantly connected with the story of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon (MBA ’06). A journalist, researcher, writer, and speaker, Lemmon is using the power of the written and spoken word to “change the way people see their world and shine a flashlight on a world they may never otherwise know.” Her first book came out of her travels to Afghanistan as a second-year MBA student writing a case on Afghan women entrepreneurs. Lemmon’s work includes, among two highly acclaimed books, CNN segments on girls’ education in war-torn Syria and economic solutions to female genital mutilation.

An alumni club event at HBS on November 12, organized by Sharon Lewis (MBA ’83) and her team from HBSAB (HBS Association of Boston) saw many of these changemakers in attendance. At a panel, four alumni—Andrew Kendall (MBA ’88, Executive Director, Henry P. Kendall Foundation), Eleanor Laurans (MBA ’06, Former CFO, Boston Public Schools), Manny Simons (MBA ’12, CEO, President & Cofounder, Akouos), and Robert Waldron (MBA ’92, CEO, Curriculum Associates)—spoke about their experiences defining their mission and actively working towards it. Kendall’s mission is closer to home for us: through his family’s philanthropic organization, Kendall aims to have more local, sustainable food production in New England. He is working towards helping New England reach the bold goal of producing at least 50% of its own food by 2060.

These stories go a long way in helping us recognize our capacity to bring change. Sharing a common alma mater or even the same seats with these alumni provides us with a profound legacy that we all have a responsibility to carry forward. For Thanksgiving this year, as I reopen my copy of Problem Solving and one of Gayle Lemmon’s first books, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Mary Oliver’s question comes back to me: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Harsha Mulchandani (MBA ’21) is Vice President of Business Development at the Harbus. She dabbles with topics in retail and brands and moonlights as a contributor. She previously worked in private equity and consulting, where she focused on consumer goods and retail. She grew up watching fresh toffees come out of machines, and now romanticizes most brands/products and everything else in life. Harsha loves to dance, teach dance, and talk about it to anyone who will listen.