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Business with a conscience

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Business students here have a tremendous ability to do good work through their motives and actions. Interviews with six past and present students and administrators in the College of Business have made this clear.

Former Dean of the College of Business Frank Reilly notes business persons are needed to help society and individuals. On a macro level, countries need good business people to establish capital markets for sustainable development as shown in Southeast Asia. On a micro level, financial planners help individuals develop resources for their personal goals.

Some counter the view that business is evil. Kim Brennan, the program manager of the Master of Science in Administration program that teaches about non-profit management, believes that the for-profit sector can provide many good examples of how to run an organization effectively and make something sustainable to those who wish to serve in the not-for-profit sector.

In order for business to be a genuine service, Reilly maintains that one’s efforts need to have proper understanding. He emphasizes that executives clearly miss the point if they don’t recognize the larger purpose beyond making money.

Senior Justin Brandon is a former business student pursuing a Sociology degree and an International Business Certificate. He notes that hunger for money is not the best motive for business. Business is intended to serve people, not the other way around. Ultimately, it comes back to the people.

Many serve by working in the non-profit sector. The Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship has several programs that students can work with. Programs range from neighborhood mentoring projects with disadvantaged teenagers to international partnerships with poor communities in South Africa and Jamaica. These programs try to shift paradigms and tell students that they do have real, professional options in the non-profit sector.

Students can also join the Student International Business Council (SIBC). Having a mission of “Peace through commerce,” members find innovative ways to apply their talents. SIBC Chief Financial Officer and junior accounting major, John Boots, says that the Global Development Division in particular can use student support for their bednet project in Haiti and their business school venture in Kenya.

Despite the value of non-profit work, it isn’t for everyone. Students can also do tremendous work in the for-profit sector. The key is maintaining a value-oriented foundation.

2003 alumnus and old roommate John Cannon, who is currently doing non-profit work in Alabama, believes that businesses inherently serve people because they fulfill a need in society. He points out that our capitalist economy is driven by competition, and everyone suffers when this system drops.

However, capitalist competition neglects various social areas, and a socialist aspect of our society tries to address this through public education, medical access and a progressive income tax. Consequently, Cannon emphasizes having balance and perspective. It’s important to be very conscious of how one fits not only into a business but also the local community and the total society.

Getting this perspective takes effort during undergraduate business studies. A couple of students noted that the business curriculum is more about developing skills and making decisions. It doesn’t necessarily challenge one to think about broader social problems or to study the larger role of business in society, let alone in light of this community’s Catholic character. Although our professors do comparatively well at ethical education, the Catholic character of academics is a persistent concern not just for business but for all our colleges.

The profit-minded mentality was what drove Justin Brandon away from the business school as an upperclassman. Although the business skills he acquired will still be valuable, his studies in sociology were what provided a broader understanding of corporate responsibility.

Some students aren’t able to relate business to its social impact. It’s not that they don’t care; they just don’t make the connection. They have incredible power to discover. Consequently, Brandon encourages his peers to pursue outside studies to derive a better understanding of the role of business.

Some corporations maintain a clear social concern while pursuing profit. For example, Boots was encouraged to pursue service work in an internship interview with KPMG. Many corporations like KPMG have organizations for workers to demonstrate servant leadership and responsible corporate citizenship.

Doing work outside the job can be a valuable experience, especially if one feels that their business work is not having an impact. Pro bono work may take a small percentage of one’s time. Young business professionals are always welcome on community boards. Experienced executives are needed for philanthropic work. Any business person can be a great asset because of their unique skills in organization, strategy and development. All these efforts support an example of character both on the job and for one’s family.

In the six interviews, one theme repeatedly surfaced: passion. It’s different for each person according to their skills and interests, but when focused in some way on others’ welfare, the power is awesome.

Business students are developing specialized skills the world needs that only they can provide. By acting on their passions with the right perspective, business people will see that they have tremendous power.

Andrew DeBerry is a fifth-year senior majoring in aerospace engineering and minoring in Middle Eastern Studies. His column normally appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at adeberry@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.