Participants on executive MBA programmes are taught to learn, travel and think globally. But, while international residencies take those on the Darden School of Business EMBA to locations as far-flung as China, Estonia, Ghana and Cuba, one elective course keeps them grounded — by giving them a close-up view of social issues in their Virginia backyard.

Working with the local Piedmont Community College, the executives — who commonly study while working full-time in senior leadership roles — research and devise career pathways for school students, helping them get the qualifications to land jobs with decent salaries.

“Our university is the anchor institution for the Charlottesville community, where 14 per cent of families don’t make enough money to afford the essentials in life,” says Toni Irving, the professor teaching this non-profit management course to participants who pay $180,000 tuition and fees. “Our EMBA students understand all too well the relationship between academic degrees and well-paying jobs. They also understand the roles that corporations play as anchor institutions.”

The course is a second-year elective on the 21-month programme at Darden, the University of Virginia’s business school. This year’s class decided to focus on job opportunities in dental hygiene, radiologic technology, computer network support, advanced manufacturing, and telecommunications installation and repair. They then created and delivered a marketing plan to tell young people and parents about the career pathways.

Along the way, the participants get to put their recently honed economic, financial, marketing, organisational behaviour and data analysis knowledge into practice, with immediate real-world implications.

“What they accomplish in just eight weeks is pretty phenomenal,” says Prof Irving. The project has an impact on her participants as well as the school students, she adds. Some have subsequently convinced their employers to change the way they think about social issues or how they do philanthropy.

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“We spend a great deal of time at Darden understanding the more prominent, larger issues in our economy,” says participant Erin Schneider, chief financial officer for global business services at information services company Wolters Kluwer. “But, if we don’t address the social and societal issues properly, we won’t make a true impact.”

The course has been particularly relevant for another participant: Liz Brunette, who served for 10 years in the US military, including in Afghanistan, and is now principal program manager for diversity, equity and inclusion at Amazon. She is also a board member of the Constantino Family Foundation, which provides scholarships and grants to young people in San Francisco.

“The course has had a direct impact on how I support my family foundation,” says Brunette. “Now, I’m able to more keenly evaluate the purpose and impact of providing scholarships to Bay Area students”.

A growing number of business schools include social responsibility modules and projects on EMBA programmes, offering participants the opportunity to give back while learning responsible leadership. More than 70 per cent of MBA students say they expect content on responsible management, ethical leadership, global challenges and on diversity, equity and inclusion, according to research among more than 1,650 students conducted by education consultancy Carrington Crisp and EFMD, the European Foundation for Management Development.

Some schools make environmental, social and governance (ESG) courses or projects compulsory. HEC Paris reports that, in the past five years, it has doubled ESG content on its EMBA to 29 per cent. Students are required to complete a project or paper on social impact and professors are encouraged to include ESG cases in their classes.

“Our students are hungry to make an impact while they’re on campus and beyond,” says Brad Harris, associate dean for MBA programmes at HEC Paris. “It’s about pushing students to answer the question ‘How will I leave a mark on this world?’, then helping them take steps to make it happen.”

Every cohort on the Essec and Mannheim joint EMBA works on a mandatory social project — past examples have included fundraising efforts for children suffering from cancer, ensuring that veterans have better access to job opportunities, and campaigning to help save Mediterranean seagrass “meadows”.

At Hult International Business School, EMBA participants taking the Business and Global Society class are organised into teams, asked to select one of the UN’s sustainable development goals and challenged to identify a company for which the chosen goal could present a strategic opportunity. Projects so far have ranged from encouraging circular economy practices and new energy solutions, to improving science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) educational opportunities and developing nutritional foods at lower prices.

“Our EMBA participants learn how each decision we make changes the reality of the situation and has consequences — environmental, societal, as well as financial — that can be negative or positive,” says Joanne Lawrence, the professor of practice who teaches the class. “We view the concept of responsibility as a business imperative, because business has always been about serving society and, the better it does that, the more successful the company becomes.

“Today’s students are increasingly people with purpose,” she says, who want to “live their values in their day job”. “More and more are seeing that business can do well and do good and serve as a foundation to drive positive change.”

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