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What Social Impact in Business Means for College Students

June 5, 2023 | Estimated Read Time: 6 Minutes

By Kate Sitarz

When it comes to choosing a college and career path, students are increasingly likely to consider how their career allows them to make a positive social impact. They want to make a difference at work, in their communities, and in the world. And they want a career that’s as much focused on purpose as it is on the paycheck.

Sound like you?

You’re not alone. About 70% of Americans believe it’s important for companies to make the world a better place, according to a Porter Novelli survey.

The rise of impact careers—including job roles that didn’t exist just a few years ago—proves this is a major focus area that is continuing to grow. One of the best ways to set yourself up to create social impact in business across any industry is to make sure your college education equips you with the skills needed to start and thrive in impact jobs.

What We Mean by Social Impact in Business

“The world has changed. Business has changed. Expectations have changed. And the world is more unpredictable than ever before. We’re dealing with social issues far more than business issues,” says Cheryl Kiser, the Executive Director of the Institute for Social Innovation and Babson Social Innovation Lab. 

And these issues—climate change; sustainability; human rights; clean supply chains; employee policies; gender, equity, and diversity—are closing in on the business community. 

When it comes to business, focusing on people, planet, and corporate social responsibility initiatives are the bare minimum. As Kiser defines it, social impact is putting this social innovation mindset into action toward any activity that advances one or more of the United Nations Global Goals.

“Impact is about service to others, not to the organization or yourself,” she adds. 

Creating social impact in business requires entrepreneurial leaders, good communicators, and strategic thinkers. If you want to start and grow in an impact role, understanding and employing the Entrepreneurial Thought and Action® (ET&A) methodology is key. 

“In an unpredictable, and oftentimes unknowable world, we teach students how to navigate uncertainty and do business in this unpredictable world,” Kiser says. 

“The beauty of an entrepreneurial mindset is it enables you to go into a job and see problems and opportunities differently. It allows you to think about other ways you can create impact,” says Kristen Yngve, the associate director of strategic engagement for the Institute for Social Innovation. 

Building a Sustainable Future Across Industries

Building a sustainable future requires problem solvers across industries and job functions. 

“There are multiple pathways,” reminds Yngve. “There is no one sector, no one type of role, and no one type of company that is going to solve all these big complex issues.”

Kiser recommends honing in on what interests you and starting your journey from there. What social issues matter most to you? Why does it matter to you? What do you know about it? “Talk to 30 people dealing with that issue—people who have that problem or people who have been successful in solving that problem in other domains,” Kiser advises. 

Then, spend time researching organizations in the area that support that cause. Spend a day volunteering to work with them. “Just get involved, don’t overthink it,” Kiser says. “If you want to solve an issue, you have to experience the issue. You can’t just think about it.” Being on the ground, experiencing the issue firsthand is what’s going to fuel your ability to solve the issue in the long term.

Going through this process will help you determine if you still have the desire to solve the issue you thought you wanted to solve. 

If you still do have that desire, then you can continue to hone in further on what specifically you want to accomplish. Take healthcare issues, for example. Do you want to tackle the issue by going to medical school? Writing about the issue? Researching the issue? Working for a healthcare venture?  Assisting on a healthcare project?  There are many different ways to tackle any one issue. It’s all about examining your specific skills and goals to find the best way you can contribute toward solving it.

Finding the Right Social Impact Career

The way we think about creating positive social impact in the world is evolving. As Yngve explains, there used to be two ways we thought about this:

  1. Make a lot of money and give it away.
  2. Work in a nonprofit and make less money.

“With all the ways business and society have blurred and blended—especially in the past several years—everyone is rethinking what it means to create profit and purpose at the same time,” Yngve says. That’s evolved into impact careers.

You can have an impact and add value within a major corporation, a B corp, the social sector, a nonprofit, or by creating your own movement. “These pathways have always been there, but there’s a lot more opportunity and understanding that these are realistic things to do regardless of your age, where you live, and your background,” Yngve adds.

While you may have heard of roles like corporate social responsibility manager, there are also impact roles like impact investing consultant and cause marketing manager.

Every other week on the Institute for Social Innovation’s LinkedIn page, Yngve shares a curated list of open social impact careers in business and other sectors. These are positions that organizations are currently hiring for. Follow the page to get an idea of the possibilities open to you.

Making an Impact in Social Impact

While not all businesses create both economic and social value simultaneously , today more than ever, there  is enormous value in studying business to create a positive social impact. This is true whether you want to start a business, create change within an existing business, or want to do something seemingly unrelated to business. 

As an example, Kiser mentions students who may want to become screenwriters. Business is essential for this career path to understand the business of making movies. “You have a whole leg up on anyone else going into that industry,” she says.

That’s because a business degree gives you the tools and disciplines to get things done—and that is extra true when you take business courses alongside the liberal arts and sciences, as those two foundations provide a healthy mix of hard and power skills.

Business courses provide an understanding of marketing, operations, organizational behavior, strategy, design, accounting, and finance, among other areas, which opens the door to endless opportunities. Learning the liberal arts and sciences across disciplines teaches you to look at who you are and what you already have to offer, as well as your place in the world. They also strengthen your communication, critical thinking, problem solving, presentation, and general people skills. 

One of the biggest things you need to learn, Kiser says, is the ability to communicate ideas. “You have to be really good at communicating in the impact world.” That’s because unlike a product or service-based world where you can easily say here are the benefits and features of that product or service, the impact world requires you to effectively tell a story that gets people engaged and onboard with an idea. The impact world tends to challenge the status quo which requires effective strategies, communications, and relationship management.  

It’s also about how you start, manage, and lead initiatives. “Business is a very powerful platform for accomplishing great things in the world,” Kiser stresses. “Business school is for people who care about policy, faith, social impact—it’s about focusing on what you care about and putting the context you want on it.”

“The reason business is so important—no matter what sector—is because business is a grounding for anyone who wants to create value,” Kiser says.

Ultimately, a business degree gives you the flexibility to pursue numerous career paths and job roles.

Why Study Sustainability and Social Impact? 

Everything we do affects the environment around us, whether it’s the natural environment or the people that inhabit that environment. Because of that, now more than ever, it’s crucial for businesses to focus on social and environmental responsibility, or integrated sustainability.

And it’s not enough to simply focus on social and environmental concerns in a vacuum. Rather, businesses that want to thrive in the long term understand the importance of keeping this at the forefront of every business decision, whether that’s ensuring a clean supply chain or investing in the local community, to name just two examples.

Go Beyond Your Business Degree 

Business schools and programs are becoming more attuned to these growing industry needs in the social impact realm. The undergraduate curriculum at Babson College gives students pursuing a business degree a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences and in hands-on learning that sets them up to make an impact wherever they go.

Babson students are introduced to integrated sustainability from day one at Babson through Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship (FME). FME gives you an understanding of all areas of business—from operations and marketing to finance and accounting. During the course, you’ll think about how each decision you make impacts people and the environment.

In your second year at Babson, you’ll take Socio-Ecological Systems. Addressing issues as isolated events only exacerbates major issues. But, if we can learn to look at the big picture and see how everything—energy, food, shelter, water, climate, our communities—is interconnected, we can start to untangle and truly solve some of the most complex issues. This systems-thinking mindset is a crucial tool that you can apply to any role you pursue.

And while sustainability and social impact are woven into the curriculum in several core courses, you can also add a concentration or minor to your degree that broadens your studies and allows you to pursue specialized interests and learn more about the world. 

For those studying social impact in business, as an undergraduate student, you want to look for options that fall under the liberal arts and sciences. That includes course work in environmental sustainability or science, history, political science, cultural studies, language and literature, and more.

Babson students may be interested in environmental sustainability; global and regional studies; historical and political studies; identity and diversity; justice, citizenship, and social responsibility; legal studies; literary and visual arts; and social cultural studies concentrations.

There are also numerous ways students can get involved outside the classroom with social impact opportunities on campus. These include volunteering with area nonprofits, from mentoring middle-schoolers to working in local shelters, or teaching entrepreneurship to youth in Tanzania. Babson undergraduates can also join several student clubs that focus on impact, such as the College's chapter of the Food Recovery Network, an organization that helps colleges and universities tackle food waste and hunger.

For example, some students tie their work to their concentration. For example, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program connects Babson volunteers with low-income community members to help them file their taxes. “You’re learning skills at Babson and can give back with them,” Yngve says, noting it also gives Babson students real work experience.

At Babson, you learn to accelerate getting things done using the resources you have at hand, while being responsible in the way you’re impacting society. Here, you can build networks and relationships that help you every step of the way. And you’re doing it all through real-world experiences.

“Everyone has the basics,” Kiser says. “Those experiences are what’s going to differentiate you and help you pave the way.”

Combine that with an entrepreneurial mindset, you’re prepared for jobs that may not even exist yet. “The world keeps changing,” Yngve says. “Entrepreneurs are well prepared to create and define these new roles.”

Find out more about how Babson turns students into enrepreneurial leaders.


Student Edge

Harvard Business Review


About the Author

Kate Sitarz is a copywriter and digital marketer with more than 10 years of experience helping startups, Fortune 500 companies, and every size business in between achieve their goals.

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