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By Mark Fleming

How should MBAs think about integrating financial returns with sustainable community impact?

That was the question I sought to answer earlier this year when I participated in the New Orleans Learning Journey — a conference for impact investors — leading up to New Orleans Entrepreneurship Week.

The Learning Journey’s organizers, Daryn Dodson and Jenna Nicholas, believe that people open to embarking on a journey of knowing themselves better are more equipped to invest in personal relationships that, over time, lead to structural community change. Dodson works with the pioneering impact investing firm Calvert Funds and is on the board of directors at Ben & Jerry’s, a billion dollar company at the forefront of responsible business. Nicholas helps lead the Divest-Invest Philanthropy, a movement with nearly $5 billion in assets pledged to divest from fossil fuels and invest in clean energy solutions.

Looking back on the four-day event, I learned three major things that could help an MBA become a better impact investor.

1) Leadership through personal core values

Often we start projects with the best of intentions, but the day-to-day process of reports, meetings, fundraising and deadlines frequently move us away from the initial goal of the project.

We’re taught to figure out the quantitative aspects of an investment, but if we want to invest in businesses that create social good, we also need to look at what motivates us to stay involved. If you want to produce financial returns and create a social impact, then look introspectively at your core values.

During the Learning Journey, we spent part of the first day asking ourselves a series of questions and mapping out the mission of our life’s work. There were two key insights here:

  • If you don’t ask yourself the tough questions about where you are and what you want to be, you will not fully understand your core values.
  • When you feel like you are too busy, need more time or can’t devote time to yourself, you immediately need to take the time to realign your values with your day-to-day activities.

2) Build values-based relationships

At many business schools, when students travel together before officially beginning school, they are asked not to talk about where they are from, what they did before school or where they hope to work after school.

I come from a town where the first two questions you ask a stranger are “what’s your name?” and “who do you work for?” Getting past these questions enables you to see people for who they are, not who their resume says they are.  At this conference, we didn’t start off by asking each other where we worked or what we did. Instead, we were instructed to talk about the questions we asked ourselves to shape our core values. Naturally, this lead to professional conversations, but the major difference was that we were sharing our core values and not just past work experience.

As we get busy and our post-business school lives become cluttered with the day’s to-do-list, it would benefit us to have a network of investors with whom we can have high-impact conversations about collaborating at the point where our work and values intersect. This way, we, and our firms, can create long-lasting collaborative opportunities.

As you get further into your careers, your network will tend to become increasingly mission-driven and share your vision.

3) Local communities come first

Once you have a network of mission-driven investors and entrepreneurs with similar values, how can you create community-level collaboration that will continue to yield business opportunities?

The Learning Journey conference unfolded with New Orleans Entrepreneurship Week (NOEW) as a backdrop. NOEW is attended by investors, entrepreneurs and thought leaders from around the world. As we traveled throughout a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, I thought about how the recovery has affected local residents who lived there before the storm and whether they were a part of the rebuilding process.

In order to create a long-term ecosystem, we should involve the community in solving its own problems. If our vision for the community aligns with what the community wants for itself, then we can utilize our network of relationships and differing skill sets to solve local problems. The solutions will be more sustainable because the local community will be involved.

Utilizing these three lessons should help impact investors build more meaningful, values-driven and convergent opportunities. Thinking through a values-based sustainability lens will help investors leave legacies they can be proud of.

Most importantly, these tips could be an early step in creating an ecosystem that is better equipped to support the strategic, community-level collaboration needed to solve the pressing social and environmental issues of our time.

Mark Fleming is entering his second year in Kellogg’s Full-Time Two-Year program. At Kellogg, he holds leadership positions in the Business Leadership Club and the Private Equity and Venture Capital Club. Prior to Kellogg, he worked as the Associate Director of Business Outreach for the Senate Majority Leader; in that role he led efforts to build relationships between US Senators and Fortune 500 CEOs.