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When Tom Geraghty, ’20, was sent to Zambia as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2012, he was trained to help local farmers develop aquaculture businesses raising fish for sale. There was just one problem: he ended up stationed in a part of the country with little water. Forced to pivot, Geraghty worked with the district farmers’ association to set up a sunflower-oil processing business, converting a commodity into a value-added product that helped the farmers increase their incomes and improve their diets.

That taste of entrepreneurship got Geraghty thinking about how business and leadership training could help him be more effective in public service. As he researched MBA programs, he found Booth’s Civic Scholars Program, which prepares students to succeed in careers with a social impact.

“I thought the skills I could get through an MBA would really help me to be better at my job, so we could get better outcomes for folks who are working in the field overseas, putting in the sweat equity on the ground,” said Geraghty, who has worked for the Peace Corps in administrative roles since completing his own service.

Launched in 2016 with support from the Neubauer Family Foundation, the Civic Scholars Program offers full and partial scholarships to Booth MBA students who work in the government or nonprofit sectors. The program admits a cohort of students each fall who support one another, meeting to talk about shared experiences, offer advice, and build camaraderie. Students in the first cohort began their Booth education in 2016 and were all enrolled in the Weekend MBA Program. In 2019, the school announced it planned to double the size of each cohort by 2022 and opened the scholarship to students in the Full-Time MBA and Evening MBA Programs, offering greater flexibility to students and their career plans. Currently, the program has 35 students and alumni.

“I’ve learned from Booth that connecting with people is front and center in getting things done.”

— Tom Geraghty, ’20

Robert H. Gertner, faculty codirector of the Civic Scholars Program, came up with the idea while working in the Deans’ Office. “I thought that a scholarship program with supports around it would be a great way to broaden the student base,” said Gertner, the Joel F. Gemunder Professor of Strategy and Finance and the John Edwardson Faculty Director of the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation. “The relationships and skills you build in an MBA program are really valuable, not just for the business world, but also for the nonprofit sector and the government sector.”

The program helps people who are oriented toward public service, and who previously might not have considered an MBA, gain quantitative and qualitative tools for problem-solving and decision-making, and become familiar with underlying disciplines across industries, Gertner said.

For Geraghty it was refreshing to pursue projects that weren’t strictly focused on government. While a friend of his pursuing a master’s in public administration worked on a thesis project about building a bridge in a municipality, Geraghty was taking the Commercializing Innovation course from Scott F. Meadow, clinical professor of entrepreneurship. In that class Geraghty explored how agriculture producers could use robots for repetitive and sometimes dangerous tasks to increase yields—building on his experiences in Zambia and studying how productivity innovation could improve people’s lives.

“The MBA is a more general skill set, where you get exposure to many different concepts about how people are motivated that can be really enriching for results-oriented public-sector professionals,” he said. 

At the same time that Neubauer Civic Scholars are stepping outside their comfort zones, Booth students from more traditional backgrounds are gaining new perspectives from their classmates in government and nonprofit jobs, who might approach problems from a different vantage point. The growing visibility of the Civic Scholars Program demonstrates that Booth can be a training ground for leaders in all sectors.

“Leadership skills are required to run any enterprise, regardless of sector,” said Joseph Neubauer, ’65. “In the public and nonprofit sectors, leaders are often talented sector subject-matter experts who are tasked to run complex organizations in increasingly unpredictable environments. It is our hope that the Civic Scholars, thanks to skills and networks they build during their time in Chicago, will return to their organizations prepared to make even greater societal impact, having sharpened their managerial, problem-solving, and entrepreneurial competence. Likewise, we hope their for-profit colleagues will be inspired to support high-impact nonprofit organizations.”

Collaborating for Social Impact

Neubauer Civic Scholars benefit from the program’s close collaboration with Booth’s Rustandy Center, the school’s destination for people committed to helping solve complex social and environmental problems. The Rustandy Center jump-starts nonprofit and for-profit ventures through programs like the John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge, promotes social sector research, supports Booth courses, and helps students and alumni gain firsthand experience in the social sector.

Neubauer Civic Scholars participating in a class discussion
Booth expanded the Civic Scholars Program in 2019, committing to doubling the size of incoming student cohorts by 2022.

The center also contributes valuable programming and a strong network of leading social sector contacts in Chicago and beyond, said George Wu, the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science, and the other faculty codirector of the Civic Scholars Program. “It plays a critical role because they understand the sector very deeply, at lots of different levels,” he said.

Civic Scholars students and alumni gather regularly for retreats facilitated by Gertner, Wu, and Rustandy Center staff, engaging in hands-on work to build job-relevant skills, while engaging with alumni and experts in those areas.

For example, in November, Wu led the scholars through a simulated negotiation loosely based on the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, a controversial program launched in 1999 that razed some notorious public-housing projects and forced residents to relocate. Participants learned negotiation strategies from Wu, heard from their peers who have led similar types of civic negotiations, and discussed the ongoing impact of the program with acclaimed author Alex Kotlowitz, who wrote about public housing in Chicago in his book There Are No Children Here (1992).

“Civic negotiations can be very complex because there are a lot of stakeholders and lots of different kinds of parties to the negotiation,” Wu said. “Learning these skills is essential for people in the civic world, and they aren’t always captured by the existing curriculum.”

Geraghty put his training from these events into practice right away. Shortly after another Civic Scholars Program retreat that was focused on crisis communications, the Peace Corps had to evacuate all its volunteers overseas because of COVID-19—the first time in 60 years that it needed to call all participants back to the United States. “My role is supporting our leadership team with the resources they need to get that job done, so having gone through an exercise like that one was helpful professionally,” he said.

Learning from Business

For Brian Chau, ’20, the Civic Scholars Program was an opportunity to learn how to apply management science to social-service agencies. Chau first grew interested in management research when he was promoted to supervisor in his first year of working at a for-profit mental-health agency. Not long after completing his master’s in social work, he became responsible for more than 10 clinicians serving 300 clients. “I had to shift my mindset from working in a clinical practice to supporting my employees to be the best they can be for their clients,” he said.

Chau decided to pursue an MBA, and his manager at the time joked that he was going to be the new “stocks and bonds guy” at the office.

“The typical perspective in the social service sector is that what MBAs do is make a lot of money and try to get the most out of their consumers, but it’s more than that,” Chau said. “It’s really thinking about problems systematically. Ultimately, if you’re serving your staff and agency better, the outcomes for your clients will be better.”

“You may think that we’re teaching people how to be business leaders. No, we’re teaching managers and leaders how to think clearly.”

— Professor George Wu

Learning to think systematically is exactly what Wu hopes scholars will get out of the program. “You may think that we’re teaching people how to be business leaders,” he said. “No, we’re teaching managers and leaders how to think clearly about managing people, handling economic problems, marketing their products, and understanding operations and strategy. All of those things are there whether you are running a nonprofit, working at PepsiCo or McKinsey, or working in the Commissioner’s Office for the City of Chicago.”

While Chau enjoyed the breadth of courses at Booth, he also discovered intangible benefits: the support of his Civic Scholars cohort and his newfound confidence at work.

As he was completing the Weekend MBA Program, Chau was promoted to area program manager for the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families. In his Managing in Organizations class, Chau volunteered for his group final project to put his own area office under the microscope.

Chau and his area director agreed to study performance challenges in their unionized office and evaluate the assumption that social workers didn’t respect management’s authority. The office had been flagged for some concerning performance trends with heavy caseloads and high turnover shortly before the current area director had arrived at the office.

In class Chau’s group developed a workplace climate survey, which found concrete data showing how psychological biases could be interfering with staff perceptions of office culture. For instance, a worker’s poor performance was often perceived as a personal failing, rather than understood as their response to their circumstances. Ultimately, his group suggested valuable solutions, including having workers and managers shadow each other on their job functions, which improved communication and cooperation.

“Having a more comprehensive worldview is really helpful,” he said. “If I look at my resume now, I do feel like I have an advantage. I adopt more analytical perspectives grounded in data, and I’m able to communicate with a wider range of audiences.”

Building New Skills

Current student Yi Wei found a path to a new career through the Civic Scholars Program. Before enrolling at Booth, she had spent nine years working in international development for the nonprofit organization iDE, mostly in Cambodia, helping to develop rural markets. Her mission was to leverage the private sector to deliver basic goods and services, helping international and local businesses find profitable ways to sell toilets or clean water—products that were essential to public health but not readily available.

Neubauer Civic Scholars collaborating on a project
Current student Yi Wei joined the Civic Scholars Program in 2018 and has since moved into a career in impact investing.

What started as a pilot project in Cambodia grew to a six-country program across Southeast Asia and Africa, and Wei became involved in innovation, marketing strategy, and fundraising.

“I knew my passion lay at the intersection of business and social impact,” she said. “I had learned a ton on the ground, but I had started to feel like my skills were plateauing. I had reached a level where I was the one reviewing business and financial models, and I felt like I wasn’t fully prepared to lead in such big decisions.”

She had long considered an MBA but had ruled it out due to cost. “I knew I wanted to stay in the social sector, which is not super lucrative, and I didn’t think the ROI would pencil out,” she said. But she learned about Civic Scholars at a nonprofit conference when a Booth recruiter messaged her through a conference app. The timing was right, and Wei joined the program in Fall 2018.

At Booth she was eager to develop the finance skills she would need to move into impact investing, which aims to generate a social impact alongside a financial return. “As I was reflecting on what had been the most impactful work that we had done at iDE, a common thread was that it was tied to really smart financing,” she said.

Through the Rustandy Center’s Net Impact Board Fellows program, which matches Booth students with nonprofit organizations to serve as nonvoting board members, Wei met Trinita Logue, founder of IFF, a Chicago-based community development financial institution, which serves people in low-income neighborhoods who historically have been shut out of economic opportunities. In 2019 Wei made her career transition and began working for IFF. She is now raising capital for community development projects across the Midwest, including a real-estate fund focused on serving the South and West Sides of Chicago.

Across her courses, Wei has appreciated Booth’s culture of inquiry and respectful dissent and its emphasis on data-driven decision-making. “One thing that has been pleasantly surprising is how tight-knit and generous the community is,” she said. “The Civic Scholars Program takes what can be a really intimidating new experience and makes it safe and comfortable.”

Innovating with Speed

Neubauer Civic Scholars who receive full scholarships commit to staying in the government or nonprofit sector for at least three years after graduation. That requirement means Booth recruits students who are truly dedicated to service—such as Peter Morrissey, ’18, who started looking for MBA programs while working at the Volcker Alliance, a New York–based nonprofit organization that focuses on increasing government effectiveness to improve citizens’ lives.

Morrissey was the third employee of the organization, founded in 2013 by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. The Alliance had a startup feel, and Morrissey wore many hats, helping to set up finances, develop operations, and manage people. After three years working there, he started researching part-time MBA programs in the New York City area, but tuition rates gave him sticker shock. Booth found him through a LinkedIn message advertising the launch of the Civic Scholars Program. He became part of the first cohort, in Fall 2016.

Within the close-knit group, he found classmates with similar goals and a few more years of work experience to learn from. Beyond his cohort, “I got a huge amount of value—much more than I had anticipated—out of all my classmates who were not in the government or nonprofit sector,” he said. “It was a good reminder that, in work, you tend to self-segregate with people who approach things similarly to you.”

One of his most valuable experiences was taking the Building the New Venture course led by Lindsey Lyman, clinical assistant professor of entrepreneurship. After floundering early in the quarter, his group proposed a business based on anaerobic digestion: the process of converting bacteria, such as those found in pig manure, into biogas that can be used for heating or fuel. It was an industry where the teammates had almost no experience, but week by week they gained momentum, and they ended up scoring the highest in the class.

“One of the big lessons was, just try some stuff. If it fails, you will foreclose some mistaken paths, and you’ll have learned a bunch of lessons. If it succeeds, you’ve gained a path forward validated by experience.”

— Peter Morrissey, ’18

“It can be very paralyzing to not have all the questions answered when you set out on a new initiative,” Morrissey said. “One of the big lessons was, just try some stuff. If it fails, you will foreclose some mistaken paths, and you’ll have learned a bunch of lessons. If it succeeds, you’ve gained a path forward validated by experience.”

It’s a lesson Morrissey has implemented at the Volcker Alliance, where he is now associate director, managing a project of building regional councils around the United States to bring together universities and government leaders to better recruit and train college students for public-service careers. The “fail-fast” mentality he learned in Lyman’s course has helped him adapt the program during COVID-19, which has forced a shift away from a model of in-person engagement and toward a looser network that gives more responsibility to the Alliance’s partners.

The growth of the Civic Scholars Program is part of a larger trend of corporations and business schools reexamining the role of business in society and the responsibility of companies to all their stakeholders. In 2019 the Business Roundtable, a group of 181 CEOs, publicly committed their corporations to delivering value to customers, investing in employees, dealing fairly and ethically with suppliers, supporting communities, and generating long-term value for shareholders. Investors and regulators have become more insistent that companies pay attention to environmental, social, and corporate governance issues. And in September 2020, Booth hosted a virtual conference convening 1,500 attendees in the United States, Europe, and Asia to hear from experts on corporate social responsibility in today’s business landscape.

At Booth Gertner has seen students become more willing to scrutinize the social implications of business decisions. When he started teaching competitive strategy in 1990, he said, no one would question whether it was acceptable to seek to maximize profits at all costs. “Now students will raise questions about that fairly reliably,” he said. “I think confronting the role of capitalism and the role of business in society is much more a part of the discussion across the board in the classroom, which I think is a good thing.”

While the scholars aren’t responsible for that change, they have helped to shift the dialogue. Their success as alumni advertises the fact that Booth students don’t fit only one mold. “The school has a bit of a reputation for being a very free-market, traditional-economics-focused place,” Gertner added. “That’s a part of who we are, but that’s not all we are. The program can play a role in the short run to change perceptions about the school, to better reflect the reality of what we teach and who our students are, the kind of research we do.”

In the long run, Gertner hopes the Civic Scholars Program helps Booth be recognized as “the top place for people who want to be leaders across all sectors, and one that takes a disciplined and rigorous approach to management and leadership across all domains.”

And these different career paths can intersect: Booth alumni in government or the nonprofit sector may collaborate with other alumni in the corporate world who sit on nonprofit boards, donate to charitable causes, or forge public-private partnerships. Neubauer Civic Scholars “don’t necessarily go into the program thinking of people in the private sector as allies, even though they’re naturally partners,” Wu said. “They learn to recognize many more partnership opportunities, and because they’ve gone through the program, they have credibility.”

Booth alumni who sit on nonprofit boards can help publicize the program by identifying people in the nonprofit organization who could benefit from earning a Booth MBA, Wu added.

Alumni such as Geraghty also help to build the reputation of the Civic Scholars. He’s preparing to move to Botswana to serve as the Peace Corps’s director of management and operations in that country, where he’ll oversee a team that will play a major role in bringing volunteers safely back to the country. As he plans this transition, he often thinks about what he learned early in the MBA program about being approachable, projecting warmly, and supporting others in working through problems.

“I’ve learned from Booth that connecting with people is front and center in getting things done,” he said. “The technical skills are important, too, and will help me make sure we’re getting the right things done.”

As the Neubauer Civic Scholars support one another in attaining their goals, they also hope to inspire classmates from outside their cohort to create social impact in their own careers, whether they stay in their current jobs or decide to move in a new direction.

“Whenever any Booth alumni get to the point in their career where they feel like they need a change, or that what they do is not sufficiently rewarding, they should consider public-service work,” Morrissey said. “There are a lot of amazing things in the incredible market economy we’ve built, but there is also a commons—and someone has to be minding the commons. Very genuinely, I think it can be an extraordinarily important and noble calling.”

Know a rising nonprofit or government leader who might be a good fit for Booth’s Civic Scholars Program? Visit ChicagoBooth.edu/CivicScholars or email Wai-Sinn Chan, MBA ’02, MPP ’02, at Wai-Sinn.Chan@chicagobooth.edu.

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