Many of us probably remember exactly where we were when we got the phone call, email, or letter opening the hallowed gates of HBS to us. I received my acceptance while in a windswept forward operating base in Iraq. My colonel heard the news, grunted, and spit on the sand. “Good on ya, captain. You sure as hell aren’t going to make a million in the Marine Corps. So go get rich, but give back.”
I saw HBS as a place of almost unbounded opportunity. I still do. To some, HBS symbolizes great entitlement for a select few, at the expense of others. HBS has weathered this unfortunate reputation in its first 100 years. Yet now, more than ever, HBS can demonstrate unparalleled leadership in promoting socially responsible enterprise and public-private partnerships that bring tremendous benefit to society.
Consider the innovative initiative between Professor Michael Porter and the anthropologist Paul Farmer and Jim Kim at Harvard Medical School. Together they are working on a way to revolutionize global healthcare delivery systems using best practices from business management as well as community development and public health. Work like this has been dear to my heart for years now, it connects to some of my own service in Nairobi, Kenya, in a slum called Kibera that is home over 700,000 people. Before joining the Marine Corps eight years ago, Kenyan colleagues and I found a non-governmental organization called Carolina For Kibera. Its purpose is to improve healthcare and prevent ethnic violence in one of the largest and most volatile shantytown communities in Africa.
Our organization thrives today because of the social entrepreneurs in it. Tabitha Atieno Festo was a 35 year-old widow and mother of three when I first met her eight years ago. Trained as a nurse, she had been jobless for two years. She asked me for 2,000 shillings ($26) to start a business selling vegetables across town where she could under-cut the competition. I had made a habit of not giving out money in Kibera, in part for my own safety. But I was impressed by Tabitha’s plan and her conviction; I gave her the money. It was not a loan. I didn’t know whether or not I would ever see her again.
Well, Tabitha took the money and started her business. She grossed only $300 in her first six months, but it was enough to cover her administrative costs, feed her family, and save $100 to invest in her true dream – to start a health clinic in Kibera. It started off humbly, as a part of her own 8-by-8 foot shack. However, today that clinic treats 30,000 patients per year and is part of Carolina For Kibera’s own public-private partnerships with the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and even multinational corporations like SC Johnson that are trying to reach the so called “base of the pyramid.” The Tabithas of the world are the true social entrepreneurs. While they may not have a world-class business education, we can learn from them; just as they can learn and benefit from us.
One of our section’s first professors cautioned us that maximizing profits must never come at the expense of the profit of the soul. I am in debt to this school, literally and figuratively, HBS has proven to me running a profitable business need not be at odds with constructive social engagement.
All of us here will help chart the future of HBS. We should honor and extend the history of the school, but not allow it to rest on past contributions alone. Our charge is clear. As business people, as government officials and military officers, and as nonprofit executives and social entrepreneurs, let us help shape the next century of HBS so that it produces hope as well as prosperity, not only to those of us fortunate enough to learn or teach here, but to the greatest possible number of citizens of the world. And let’s make it a better world, a world where, to quote a famous movie, we are not what we are born, but what we have it in ourselves to be.
Happy Birthday Harvard Business School.