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How business schools can change the world

Experiential learning approaches that give management students exposure to adversity can help create empathetic leaders who are motivated to build a more equitable, sustainable future.

A version of this article appeared in the Autumn 2019 issue of strategy+business.

I teach an experiential learning course in Mumbai, India, in which MBA students visit and mentor schoolchildren in slums. The goal is to help children explore their areas of interest and strengthen their capabilities. These relationships are yearlong journeys of discomfort and discovery.

At the end of the year, I ask my students to answer the question, “Why is your mentee’s family poor?” In a group discussion, we examine popular misconceptions. Are the poor lazier than, say, those in your own family or community? Are they somehow less capable? Is there some cultural or religious reason they are poor? Is it a lack of gender parity? A lack of ambition? A lack of interest in education?

When we dig deeper into the “whys,” eventually insightful answers emerge. We begin to see structural issues at play: barriers to education, lack of social capital or private assets, class and group discrimination, lack of access to markets and credit, skewed pricing in the labor market, and a host of other problems. As my students think about the families with whom they’ve spent a year and compare those families’ situations with their own, stereotype after stereotype gets busted. Eventually, many come to the realization that the poor are poor because they were born that way, into a veritable whirlpool of factors that keep them down.

As I watch my students draw their conclusions, it strikes me that what provides them with the ability to go beyond a theoretical analysis of poverty is their firsthand experience of the slum, and the lived experience of their own family life. Poverty is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon. One cannot teach it in a classroom; it needs an immersion in the cauldron of real life. By mentoring a schoolchild, an MBA student is able to walk — albeit temporarily — in the shoes of someone who has received a raw deal in life. This has deeper consequences than just enabling a better understanding of poverty. As the mentoring progresses, the student and mentee form bonds of deep affection. They celebrate festivals and birthdays together, and explore shared interests. The child’s stories of small victories — a higher grade in school, a medal for music, better chess skills — bring joy and fulfillment to the mentor and to the mentee’s family. The slum neighborhood itself becomes not a strange, hostile place but a place of community and bonding. The result? My students go from being outsiders to insiders. An empathetic understanding of the “other” dawns.

Poverty is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon. One cannot teach it in a classroom; it needs an immersion in the cauldron of real life.

Current management school curricula pay inadequate attention to the creation of empathetic, grounded individuals. Schools tend to focus on teaching business knowledge and related skills and have left deeper, philosophical discussions to the humanities colleges. But in a world that is battling large-scale ecological destruction and shocking inequities, this approach is neither tenable nor morally conscionable.

Empathy is innate among humans, but it often takes an immersive real-life experience to bring it to the surface. The world needs business managers who have this sort of empathy — people with courage and the ability to fight battles on behalf of the weak. As countries grapple with poverty, inequality, and injustice, it’s imperative that corporate leaders take on the challenge of creating a more equitable, sustainable society. But this can happen only when there is deep-seated attitudinal change. Management schools must find creative ways to bring about this change. Experiential learning is one of the most effective tools that we can use, because the direct experience of adversity is powerfully transformative.

By incorporating experiential courses, management schools can become centers of values-driven learning, encouraging students to introspect, question business models, and derive meaningful paths for themselves and their companies. Such experiences can help students think not just about how to make a living, but how to live life.

Deepa Krishnan

Deepa Krishnan is an entrepreneur, educator, and social worker. She teaches at S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai.

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