A new way to MBA

Mary Baldwin’s new graduate business program teaches both profit and positive change

Joe Sprangel, Dean of Mary Baldwin’s College of Business and Professional Studies

When professor Joe Sprangel arrived at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, leaders there wanted to add a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program to the university’s offerings. He didn’t think it was a good idea, because there was such a glut of MBA programs nearby—the competition for students was too intense.

To make the idea workable, Mary Baldwin would have to have something unique to offer. A few years later, Sprangel learned about the B-Corporation business model, in which a company remains for-profit, but must have a positive social or environmental impact on the world in addition to making money. He had found the niche he needed.

“This approach resonated with me as it addressed many of the issues I had seen with the status quo of business in nearly 30 years in the automotive industry,” says Sprangel. “I began doing scholarly research in this area. The more I learned the idea to frame an MBA around this approach began to emerge.”

MBA student Philip Holbrook explores a possible experiential learning location on a trip to Haiti sponsored by the program

The Sullivan boost

Serendipity intervened, as it was right around this time that Sprangel became acquainted with the Sullivan Foundation and its Faculty Fellows program. He began developing a proposal for the new degree and got in touch with the people in the program about his idea. In 2015, he became a member of the second class of Fellows.

Having a diverse and talented group of peers to bounce his ideas off while in the program helped Sprangel fine-tune his idea, particularly program leader Christopher Gergen, the CEO of Forward Impact and a social entrepreneurship fellow with Duke University’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship initiative. Sprangel attended two Sullivan retreats in the fall and spring of 2015 and 2016.

“Access to someone of the caliber of Christopher Gergen was the greatest benefit of the fellowship for me,” he says. “His breadth of knowledge and experience were integral in the further development of the initial approach to developing the MBA program. The other fellows were also a valuable source of information. Each of the retreat meetings led to me having a long list of resources to further research that were recommended by the various participants.  I gained more knowledge in a few hours than I could have done in a month on my own.”

Sprangel shakes the hand of Mary Baldwin alum Susan Nolan Palmer, whose gift supported the launch of the new MBA degree

Breaking the mold

Now in its second year, the program has 39 enrolled students (Sprangel hopes to see that number hit 100 in the next year). The program is all-online in order to allow for a wider range of types of student and lasts four eight-week semesters. Enrollees are spread out from the east coast all the way to Hawaii.

Rather than beginning with courses like finance or marketing, students study the different elements of the B-Corporation assessment (corporations must meet requirements to achieve a B-Corp designation). Those elements are the community, customer, environment, governance, and worker.

After that, students move on to learn the elements of a business plan for a new social enterprise and, ultimately, do a final project in which they must either prepare a strategic plan for an existing business or develop a plan for a new one.

“We look to attract students who want to see business as a force for making the many social and environmental changes necessary to undo damage done by the business sector,” says Sprangel. “This could be those in the for-profit sector who have seen too much emphasis on the financial bottom line. Alternatively, it could be those who have been working in the non-profit sector that are being challenged to provide more evidence of the impact their work is having for the population they serve and to develop alternative revenue streams as it has become more difficult to land and manage grants and giving.”

Beth Beal, a student in Mary Baldwin’s MBA program

Serving those who wish to serve

Those students have found in the program an educational experience that nurtures their desire for service and meets them where they are in their lives.

For Beth Beal, who currently works at the University of Virginia’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs, an advanced degree was important to advance her career, but she didn’t have the liberty to take a break from that career midstream. As such, the all-online setup of Mary Baldwin’s MBA suited her needs. Even more important, however, was the content of the program.

“Mary Baldwin’s MBA curriculum was designed in a manner that would allow me to think outside the box,” says Beal. “This form of divergent thinking was exactly what I was looking for to take me to the next level as a business leader who is prepared to use change management and the power of business to solve tomorrow’s problems.”

The same is true of Becky Benton, who also maintains a full-time job and is about a third of the way through the program. Benton is among those students who have already started a venture and are looking to push their efforts to new heights.

“With this MBA degree from MBU, I plan to foster and grow the LLC I created to assist businesses in their quest to foster corporate sustainability, environmental sustainability, while being socially responsible,” she says.

The power of business

Through this special MBA program, and, more importantly, the innovative social ventures its graduates will some day start or contribute to, Mary Baldwin is promoting a business world that is less about the ruthless pursuit of personal gain and more about taking care of oneself while also taking care of the highly-interconnected world that surrounds.

“My sincere hope is that this approach to teaching students to do business from the for-benefit approach becomes common place by all business schools,” says Sprangel. “For MBU in particular we want to see students put their dreams into action where they can make a meaningful difference in the world through the power of business.”

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