What do billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and Wharton students have in common? Both have a reputation for their relentless drive to make money — and lots of it.
But when Ackman came to speak at Penn on Monday as part of the Turner Social Impact Executive Speaker Series, neither he nor his audience was focused on making money. Instead, they talked about giving it away. This emphasis on using business acumen for good, students and faculty say, has become the norm at the Wharton School, a school best known for its data-driven approach to finance.
“Our goal is for Wharton to become known for social impact, just like other schools are known for innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Allie Ilagan, a spokesperson for the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. “Ideally, everyone graduates equipped with some type of knowledge to incorporate social impact, whether you’re going into banking or consulting.”
Wharton’s focus on social impact has been demand-driven. As millennials began to fill the ranks of Wharton’s MBA classes, more and more students were looking for an opportunity to do good. In 2010, now Managing Director Sherryl Kuhlman helped found the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, whose staff has since grown to include 11 employees.
“Social impact is a growing force at Penn,” College and Wharton sophomore Emily Zhen said. “Millennials don’t want to just go to work and do their job. They want to see the impact of their work and see that they can have a purpose and also be profitable.”
Zhen is an example of the impact Wharton’s programming and initiatives have had on students. When she came to Penn, Zhen says she didn’t know much about social impact, let alone impact investing and social entrepreneurship. But since her arrival, she has met world-class mentors and has been exposed to a variety of educational programs.
Today, Zhen is an active member of the Wharton Social Impact Advisory Board and has worked as a Social Impact fellow at the Wharton Social Impact Initiative conducting climate research for the White House. She’s had the opportunity to consult for two nonprofits through her work with 180 Degrees Consulting, a student-led consulting group on campus.
More and more Wharton students are getting involved in initiatives like Zhen’s. Every year, Turner’s social impact events are oversubscribed as students pile into auditoriums to learn about giving back.
On the undergraduate level, the Social Impact Consulting group is one of the most elite groups on campus. Meanwhile, 200 MBA students — or a third of Wharton’s incoming class — attended the introductory meeting of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative this year. Only a fraction of those students will be accepted to the exclusive Wharton Impact Investment Partners, the group’s investment arm that injects capital into growing social ventures.
This exclusivity is a key feature of Wharton’s social impact efforts.
“We’ve seen the student demand has grown a lot more sophisticated,” Ilagan said. “Because we’re Wharton, we’re using the skills and knowledge and resources that we have here, and that’s how were making an impact.”
But despite this growth, Wharton’s efforts are far from perfect. Many Wharton students are still not involved in any social impact programming, and many of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative events are attended by a “niche” group of students, Ilagan said.
As demand grows, however, and more funding goes toward social impact, Ilagan expects social impact efforts to expand in breadth, depth and reach. It might be time to trade in the notorious Wharton Slytherin T-shirts for some Gryffindor apparel.
“We want to be the social impact school,” Ilagan said.
Correction: A previous version of this article said the Locust Walk Investment Partners was the investing arm of Wharton Social Venture Fellows, a group that had 200 MBA students attend a meeting. It has been updated to reflect that Wharton Impact Investment Partners is the group of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, the group that held the meeting. The DP regrets the error.
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