The stereotype of the MBA graduate is of a sharp-elbowed, aggressive, and arrogant creature, convinced of his own brilliance, and sure that managerial analysis can fix any problem. And the knock on business schools—particularly in the years leading to the financial crisis—is that they did little to discourage these worst tendencies of their students.
It wasn’t only U.S. schools that were criticized. In India, too, where up to 500,000 people apply for MBA programs every year, institutes have been accused of contributing to a fast money culture, and declining moral standards. "People say that MBA students are arrogant, that they don’t want to dirty their hands, and only want to give their advice," says Abbasali Gabula, deputy director at SP Jain, a leading school in Mumbai.
To counter the arrogance problem, SP Jain has done something unusual. Rather than pandering to students’ whims, it has started requiring them to think about other people—specifically, to spend time in the poorest parts of the city. Every second weekend, the 240-strong MBA batch has to put aside at least two to three hours to mentor school children, helping them with their homework, talking through their problems, and giving advice about careers and cleanliness.
Gabula says the program, which started in 2008, is a direct response to the financial crisis. And he claims the idea is bringing results: both for the children involved, and for the MBA students, who improve their sense of empathy and understanding of society’s challenges, and hone their skills as mentors—a key skill for senior managers.
"The companies that take our students say they are humbler than other graduates, that they roll up their sleeves, and are ready to work from day one. They don’t want to just give advice to everyone, but to lead by example," he says.
SP Jain works with 65 local schools, each of which put forward four mentee-candidates. The 12- and 13-year-olds then go through a selection process, where a few dozen are chosen to receive the mentoring, and some financial assistance.
Rukaiya Joshi, who heads the scheme (called Abhyudaya) says the mentees often improve their grades and behavior, gain more confidence, and encourage other family members to aim higher. "Interestingly, the impact is also on the neighbor’s siblings and the parents," she says.
Meanwhile, the MBAs become more thankful for the life they have.
"When they find that someone is striving in such odd conditions, then they cannot be complaining about the A/C not being the proper temperature. In these places, there is sometimes not only enough room for five people to sleep. It’s very humbling thing for them. There’s a great sense of gratitude."
It’s hard to assess exactly what impact a program like Abhyudaya has. But interviews with some of the MBA students and mentees testify to a lot of positivity.
Not far from the school, Chandrakala, a 13-year-old mentee, lives in a 10-by-6-foot room with her mother and brother. There is no running water, electricity is patchy, and the canal/sewer behind the row of houses is beyond description. It is deep black from industrial and human pollution, and crammed with plastic bottles and bags.
Chandrakala, who wants to be an engineer when she’s older, and build bridges, says the best thing about the program is being friends with the mentors. She also enjoys using SP Jain’s computers, playing chess, and learning English as part of the program.
Her mother, Lalita, says Chandrakala is more outgoing since she joined up. She used to be extremely shy, and wary of communicating with people she didn’t know well. Lalita says the mentors, who rotate year to year, become "part of the family," and fit in easily when they visit on Sunday afternoons.
Harshal Jain, an MBA student specializing in marketing, says visiting the slums also provides useful customer insights.
"Meeting people at the so-called bottom-of-the pyramid gives you basic consumer understanding. You see how they manage their income, how they vary their spending. You can see it from a marketing point of view, and also from a finance point of view—the essentiality of micro-finance, for instance. Being closer to the consumer is something you always want as a marketer."
Jain and his fellow mentors think other schools should think about doing similar things to Abhyudaya.
"Even people who are not becoming very sensitive to the poverty do learn the mentoring aspect. That creates value for their ongoing career. If other schools had courses like this, there would be more graduates aware of other people’s feelings."