01 Jun 2010

MBAs on a Mission

For nine years, the HBS Leadership Fellows program has helped MBAs launch careers with nonprofit and public-sector organizations — a win-win for everyone involved.
by Sarah Auerbach;Deborah Blagg;Julia Hanna


When she joined the new private-sector team at Oxfam America as a freshly minted MBA in 2007, Roshini Moodley Naidoo was essentially given the following directive: All those great ideas we’ve been discussing? Make them happen.

It was a bit more nuanced than that, of course. But Naidoo’s experience was typical for an HBS Leadership Fellow. The program catapults new grads into high-level positions at nonprofit and public-sector organizations, offering access to CEO-level management and decision-making. Meanwhile, organizations benefit from fresh talent, analytical skills, and a new strategic outlook. Since its inception in 2001, 89 MBAs have taken part in the program, working at 43 organizations as diverse as the City of Boston Mayor’s Office, Teach For America, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Mercy Corps. Fellows receive a one-year salary of $90,000, funded in equal parts by HBS and the participating organization. Approximately one-third of program alumni are now permanent hires of the organization, one-third are at a similar organization, and one-third have gone on to pursue a position in the private sector.

“My job for the first few months involved building business plans that our team could use to execute different projects; then I was able to choose a couple to pursue for my own interest,” recalls Naidoo, who also cites the need to immediately shed any sense of MBA “specialness.”

“At Oxfam, there was no place for egos — only big hearts and a very strong will to carry out our mission.”

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts has sponsored a Leadership Fellow almost every year of the program’s existence. “Any established institution runs a major risk of becoming staid, stodgy, complacent, and self-satisfied,” observes Lincoln Center President Reynold Levy. “The fellows we’ve had here ask questions like, Why are we doing it this way? Is there another option? Just imagine for a moment if…. They bring a new perspective to the table and an enormous amount of intellectual energy.” That MBA firepower has left its mark over the years, too: “The work that fellows do, with rare exception, is quickly mainstreamed into the life of the organization,” says Levy.

So if the Leadership Fellows program provides benefits that most young, high-powered MBAs crave — access, impact, and leadership opportunities — it also satisfies an equally urgent desire shared by the young alumni whose stories follow: the chance to make good on making a difference.

The Power of Serendipity
What’s your next career move when your previous job experience includes redirecting a wayward herd of elephants in Ghana? Working for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) might seem like a logical step, but Andrew Murphy (MBA ’07), director of strategy, research, and development at the WWF’s Markets Group, would disagree. He insists his path “looks much more coherent in hindsight than it ever did while I was making the decisions. Let’s just say,” he notes, “I’m a big believer in serendipity.”

Murphy went to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer after graduating from Georgetown University with a degree in business and working briefly as a management consultant. A yearlong project at a homeless shelter during his undergraduate studies had whet his appetite for volunteerism, so when his managerial background landed him “the world’s best Peace Corps assignment,” he was more than ready for the adventure.

Murphy was assigned to the Red Volta River Basin in northeastern Ghana, where his projects included exploring the potential for ecotourism, organizing a women’s farming collective, and coordinating efforts to save crops from raids by elephants. He enjoyed the experience so much that he extended his term by a year to help a local ecotourism group gain USAID funding and then stayed on to manage its operations for another three years.

At that point, Murphy says, “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep being the guy on the ground in the developing world or get the credentials to become more involved in the big picture.” His acceptance to HBS tipped the scales and set in motion a frenetic few months that included marrying Sarah Abugre, a teacher he met in Ghana; moving with her to the United States; and settling in at Soldiers Field.

While pursuing concurrent MBA and MPA degrees at HBS and the Kennedy School, Murphy was delighted to find “so many opportunities to exchange ideas with people from disparate backgrounds.” During his final year at HBS, he heard a talk by WWF president and CEO Carter Roberts (MBA ’88). “In Ghana,” says Murphy, “I had come to the conclusion that sustainable business development was key, and Carter’s talk focused on engaging companies in issues related to their supply chains in the developing world. I wanted to get involved in that.”

During his year as a Leadership Fellow at the WWF, Murphy served as director of enterprise planning and got to know the organization well enough to make a successful bid to stay on. In his current job, he manages issues at the intersection of conservation and global markets. “In places with sensitive habitats — Malaysia, Indonesia, the Congo Basin, and the Amazon, for example — we’re working to influence the environmental choices global companies make in the large-scale production of commodities such as palm oil, pulp, livestock, and soy,” he explains. “It’s definitely big picture but there’s also a lot of one-on-one consensus building.”

In an organization with “a big, hairy mission,” Murphy says conflicting demands, priorities, and constituencies are a constant challenge. “You don’t save the planet in a day,” he notes, “but I’m in a place where I can influence really important decisions every day, and that’s just where I’ve always wanted to be.”


The Hub in the Heart of Texas
The success of any large-scale project usually comes down to the effective management of hundreds and hundreds of small, pressing details. As director of strategic initiatives at Dallas’s Museum of Nature & Science, Jennifer Houston’s (MBA ’05) large-scale project is the construction of a new $185 million home for the museum, which came into being in 2006 with the merger of three of the city’s respected cultural institutions — the Dallas Museum of Natural History, The Science Place, and the Dallas Children’s Museum. One of her pressing details involves predicting the future of handheld technology at the museum.

“Right now we need to figure out which handheld device people will own when the museum opens in three years,” says Houston, a Dallas native who often visited the city’s museums as a child and worked at the Museum of Natural History for a year before applying to HBS. “We have to decide on the most user-friendly method of con-veying exhibit information to, say, a parent with three small kids and no spare hands. We want to wait as long as we can to be sure what we use will be cutting-edge, but we’re testing some options now.”

Houston describes her job as “constantly pushing the ball forward,” a task that relies on the collaboration of a stellar team of building and landscape architects, technology experts, construction engineers, and exhibit designers, as well as the museum’s “incredibly supportive and creative building committee.” Working with skilled professionals from a wide range of disciplines is something Houston did often in her experience at New York City’s Lincoln Center, first as an HBS Social Enterprise Summer Fellow, followed by a year as a Leadership Fellow, before being hired to serve as the center’s director of strategic initiatives.

“I worked primarily with the president and the CFO of Lincoln Center, and that was an extraordinary opportunity,” Houston says. “I gained experience in everything from labor union negotiations with security guards, to analyzing attendance data, to developing new media initiatives. I wouldn’t have been ready for the challenges in my current job without that prior experience,” she states. “I loved my time at Lincoln Center.”

In part, it was the sheer excitement generated by the development project that drew Houston back to her hometown in 2007. “People in Dallas are truly captivated by this venture,” she notes. The facility, to be named the Perot Science Museum, will be located near the city’s sports arena, a few blocks from the new Dallas Arts District and Victory Park. “We’re right in the cultural hub of the city,” says Houston, adding that one of the museum’s primary goals is to provide a venue for world-class traveling cultural exhibits that have skipped Dallas in the past.

Along with managing construction-related details, Houston’s weeks are filled with business planning, fund-raising, and logistical coordination with city officials on issues such as parking and access to Dallas’s light rail system. Responding to constant demands for information and decisions can be stressful, she admits, but the challenges are inspiring. “We’re changing the cultural landscape of an entire city,” Houston emphasizes. “How often does anyone get a chance to do that?”


Medicine, Milk, and Management
As a Leadership Fellow for the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative (CHAI), John Kim (MBA ’08) never had the same kind of day twice. On one day, he might take a bumpy flight and a four-hour drive to check out a health center in rural Ethiopia. On another, he might meet with staff from the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, assessing the performance of hospitals in Addis Ababa. And it could always turn out to be that other kind of day, like the one he spent trying to track down a generator for CHAI’s office in the Dembel neighborhood of Addis Ababa, where blackouts rolled through every other day. He finally found one in “Djibouti? Or Jordan?” — he can no longer remember — and had it shipped to him.

This mishmash of days and roles was Kim’s job as CHAI’s deputy country director in Ethiopia, where he managed the daily operations of the 120-employee office. If Kim and his team noticed people lined up outside hospitals that nevertheless had an abundance of empty beds, they studied the phenomenon until they understood it. Sometimes the solution was to shift work away from swamped doctors and on to other staff. Other times, they could streamline hospital admissions or computerize medical records. The idea was to improve HIV/AIDS treatment for as many people as possible by identifying fixes that could scale-up and serve as a blueprint for change.

Kim’s MBA proved useful and not only in the office: His wife and one-year-old baby moved with him to Ethiopia, where pasteurized milk supplies ebbed and flowed, as did the electricity needed to refrigerate it. “We had to forecast our needs for certain commodities and procure accordingly,” he observes with a laugh.

Kim’s milk-procurement issues serve as a metaphor for the health-care problems he worked to solve in Ethiopia. “The issue wasn’t about money, it wasn’t so much about getting the right equipment or medicine,” he says. The issue was making sure that resources and people were where they needed to be at the moment they were needed: “Management capacity was a key bottleneck.”

Post-fellowship, Kim continues to unclog global health bottlenecks through CHAI (now known as the Clinton Health Access Initiative since its mission has expanded to include pandemics like tuberculosis and malaria). As director of operations research working out of CHAI’s Boston office, Kim has widened his focus from Ethiopia to a global perspective; he’s now solving problems that affect the more than twenty countries where CHAI works by adapting the same quantitative modeling techniques used in business logistics to find the most efficient ways for countries to use health facilities or procure and distribute medications. Since his first-year TOM class at HBS, Kim has added a world of hands-on knowledge about operations management — not the least of which is his newfound expertise in milk procurement and distribution.


Full Circle
Growing up in South Africa, Roshini Moodley Naidoo (MBA ’07) witnessed the country’s transition to democracy and its challenge in overcoming inequality, injustice, and poverty — all issues taken on by Boston-based Oxfam America, where she worked until recently as a special adviser in the private-sector department. “I was aware from a young age that Oxfam and organizations like it were fighting for my future,” Naidoo says.

That perspective on poverty deepened during Naidoo’s training and practice as a medical doctor. She worked in modern facilities in Durban, but also treated much less privileged patients in rural South Africa. “There would be fifty or so patients waiting, all of whom had to be seen in the three or four hours before the clinic closed,” she recalls. “But the biggest challenge in treating my patients extended beyond the interaction with me or the attending nurse. These issues related to physical access to clinics, availability of medication and referral systems, and community health education.” So Naidoo enrolled in the master’s program at Harvard’s School of Public Health as a way to understand the policies and skills required to address the systemic challenges that many developing countries face.

She then moved to Johannesburg to assist with efforts by South Africa’s First National Bank to create a more sustainable approach to doing business in a post-apartheid era. “It was a phenomenal introduction to business,” Naidoo says. “The experience made me appreciate that the private sector has extraordinary potential to create positive benefits for society.” It was back to Harvard, this time for an MBA.

In addition to building her “hard” business skills, HBS solidified Naidoo’s sense that systemic and structural issues were the root cause of many of the problems she had witnessed in South Africa, and that partnering with business could bring about real change. “Multinationals understand that there is significant growth potential for their products in developing markets,” she notes, “but those same consumers-to-be are incredibly vulnerable, socially, economically, and environmentally. Having Oxfam at the table adds enormous value by creating a voice for people in those markets to influence the way growth and development occurs, and ultimately benefits business as well.”

As a member of the eleven-person private-sector department, Naidoo has led multinational project teams in building on research that Oxfam did in partnership with Unilever to determine the multinational’s impact in Indonesia — economically and socially — all along the value chain. “Everyone knows what a carbon footprint is,” she says. “The vision driving this work, which is ongoing, is to create a scalable methodology and framework that does the same thing for social and economic impacts.”

In April, Naidoo circled back to her roots, returning to Johannesburg where she lives with her two young children and Euvin Naidoo (MBA ’03), also a native South African. She’s working in health care, her passion, but views her Leadership Fellow experience at Oxfam as integral to a long-term commitment to working at the intersection of business, government, and NGOs. For Naidoo, borders are meant to be crossed.


Framing the Future
Cindy Song (MBA ’07) is in the business of building. As director of capital expansion and financial services at Habitat for Humanity International, Song manages a $34 million loan portfolio that funds construction and rehabilitation projects in over 1,500 communities in the United States to provide affordable housing.

Song knew of Habitat before coming to HBS, but didn’t fully understand the organization’s model until it was the focus of a case discussion. “I always thought that Habitat was just building homes and giving them away to low-income families,” she recalls. “But homeowners have to put sweat equity into the construction of their house, and the homes of other Habitat families, and also purchase the house.” With the average cost of a Habitat home at $67,500, a typical monthly mortgage payment (which will fund other Habitat projects) tops out at $315, often less than what a family might pay in rent.

“It’s a sustainable model that empowers homeowners to help themselves and others,” says Song, who also works as a volunteer on Habitat projects. “It’s possible to frame a house in one day, so you can see the results of your work and meet the homeowners who will be living there. That’s very rewarding.”

Since her arrival at Habitat’s Atlanta headquarters three years ago, Song has expanded the lending program she oversees from an $8 million annual fund supported by pro bono services and two employees (herself and a part-time attorney) to a team of seven full-time staff. She also helped create a self-funding model that charges a modest loan-processing fee to the affiliate organizations that work on Habitat projects. “It would have been hard for us to do a $17 million loan program last year by relying on pro bono services alone, as wonderful as that help was,” she says. “Our goal is to raise $150 million and help fund 5,500 homes over the next five years.”

In an odd twist, the real estate foreclosure crisis has made it possible for Habitat to serve more families. “The biggest barrier to Habitat’s growth was the high cost of land,” notes Song. “Right now, our affiliates are often able to make a purchase at 50 percent of what it might have cost in 2007.” Many affiliates are also buying foreclosed and abandoned properties, rehabbing and reselling them to Habitat families. “We are not only building homes, but also revitalizing communities impacted by the foreclosure crisis,” she adds.

Song cites access to senior management, support from the HBS community, and high levels of responsibility as just a few of the benefits of being a Leadership Fellow. “The experience definitely made me stretch beyond what I thought was possible,” she says. “Given that a nonprofit has fewer resources, it requires a start-up mentality.” That challenge, along with Habitat’s ongoing growth and evolution as an organization, promise to keep Song engaged for the long haul. “I’ve been blown away by the people who work here,” she says. “They’re hardworking, smart, and so humble. I joke with a colleague who has been here for fifteen years that I’m following in her footsteps. I hope to be here at least that long.”


To learn more about the Leadership Fellows program, visit http://www.hbs.edu/socialenterprise/a>.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

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follow @MurphinGhana
Class of MBA 1988, Section H
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Class of MBA 2005, Section C
Class of MBA 2007, Section F

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