Meet Alice Howard (HBS MBA '81)

Listening to yourself-your own values and interests-and shutting out some of the noise around you is precisely what you have to do.

I came to know of Alice Howard (HBS MBA ’81), my alumni mentor, through the Social Enterprise Club Mentorship Program, and over the past few months, had chances to meet and chat with her a number of times. In the following interview excerpts, she shares her passion, experiences, and candid advice on pursuing a career in the nonprofit sector.

Alice started her own consulting practice in 1990, and over the past 12 years has been working with numerous nonprofit clients including international health organizations, educational institutions, and private foundations among others. She was also one of the initial founders of the Community Action Program of the Harvard Business School Alumni Association of Boston.

Harbus: What is your background, and why did you decide to work in the social sector?

AH: Prior to coming to HBS, my experience-and probably my heart–was always in the nonprofit sector. I came from a very socially-involved family, and after graduating from a one-year program Harvard Graduate School of Education I founded a nonprofit agency for youth and adult education in Lynn, Massachusetts. I got a taste of management in that job and thought that an MBA would provide a strong foundation for my future work.

HBS was strange place for the small handful of nonprofit folk in those days. We were wildly outnumbered by people who wanted to earn boatloads of money. I remember recruiters wincing as they looked at my resume. After HBS I pursued a very unusual career path compared to my classmates. I joined a small consulting firm focused on agribusiness consulting but left after 3 years to do research and write cases at INCAE, a Central American business school based in Costa Rica.

Prof. Jim Austin, in fact, was instrumental in helping me consider this at the time. I then came back to the US and joined Bain & Co. where I worked for 4 years. I left to start my own management consulting practice in 1990. Over the past 12 years, my practice has shifted more to nonprofits because that’s where my true interests lie-in working with organizations having a social mission.

Harbus: What do you like best about social enterprise?

AH: The degree of commitment and involvement of many of the people and their strong desire to make their corner of the world a better place. And the fact that you can bring a modicum of good management practices and strategic thinking to the sector and make a very significant impact. Beyond this, I’m always learning about very important social problems–environmental degradation, fighting disease in sub-Saharan Africa, the challenge of public education-whatever my client is involved in. It definitely increases my civic engagement.

Harbus: What are the challenges and drawbacks about working in the social enterprise sector?

AH: I knew many people throughout my career who were interested in social enterprise but didn’t pursue it because they were worried about what it would do to their r‚sum‚. I always thought that was a real mistake. Luckily, that attitude seems to be disappearing, and I see many people at all stages of their careers vitally interested in the social sector. I think some of the big decisions center around financial goals.

You won’t get wealthy, by HBS standards, working in social enterprise.

At the same time, I feel like I have incomparable wealth compared to the rest of the world-and if you spend some time in the developing world this will become very obvious to you. It has to do with where you set the bar.

Apart from not being able to generate wealth or have very high financial rewards, the drawbacks have to do with the “culture” of some nonprofits.

If you are starting your own social enterprise, you can create that culture. But many existing organizations in the social sector are not strongly performance-oriented, and that is frustrating for MBAs. The capital markets for nonprofits–individual donors, government, foundations-won’t step in and pull the plug for mediocre performance.

So it takes a great deal of internal drive to set challenging goals and be tough on measuring your success. That’s precisely why MBAs are so valuable in these settings.

Harbus: What are the skills required to be successful in the social enterprise sector? What advantages and difficulties do MBA, particularly HBS students have?

AH: Many social enterprises don’t have MBAs or managers with experience in the private sector-people who are very focused on performance. Therefore, you run the risk of alienating people quickly by trying to make major changes in how an organization is run. Many times, this is exactly what the nonprofit needs. But it’s a fine line-you can’t be so oppositional that everyone rejects you. But you can’t be too complacent, either, if you want to make real advances. Walking this fine line requires a lot of intelligence, diplomacy, and interpersonal skills.

Harbus: Any advice to HBS students who are trying to decide whether to pursue a nonprofit career?

AH: When I left HBS, I did not feel that it was “ok” to work in the social sector. While I did not share the same financial goals and business interests of many of my peers, I somehow absorbed their measures of success. So for a long time I was engaged in a sort of straddling strategy–working early in my career on some international development consulting projects, getting on pro bono case teams at Bain, taking two years to work in an academic setting, etc. It took me a long time to come back to my real values and interests after my experience at HBS.

I think there is far less risk that this would happen now given how the Social Enterprise Program has developed-which is fantastic to see happening. However, it is hard to ignore the success indicators that are cherished by your classmates, particularly in the fishbowl setting of Harvard. But listening to yourself-your own values and interests-and shutting out some of the noise around you is precisely what you have to do.