Climate change. Economic turmoil. Social disadvantage. The issues the world faces in the mid-21st century are huge – and business has a critical role to play. Which is why we are preparing the next generation to think and do with reflection, creativity and a collaborative spirit.

Story by Megan Welford. Illustration by Petra Eriksson.

“My first act in this job was to make three major mistakes. I assumed everyone knew what I wanted to achieve. I assumed everyone thought it was a good idea. And I thought I could make it happen overnight.” So says former RSM Dean Steef van de Velde, with characteristic frankness.

Of course, every leader makes mistakes. But few leaders have what it takes to identify those mistakes – and then change course. The challenge was clear: enhance the school’s reputation, impact and relevance. But could a mission statement – words on a page – really make a difference? After all, most of us would struggle to recite our company’s mission statement, let alone agree that it impacts our working lives.

Words are not enough

“I wanted to bring in strategic philanthropy, but simply telling people you’re excellent isn’t enough,” says Van de Velde. “Together with the team, we went back to first principles: what exactly is RSM here for? We kept returning to the huge global challenges we face, and our conviction at RSM that business should play a key role in addressing them – that we can’t leave it to governments, individuals and NGOs.

“There’s good business in it too, and it reflects a way of thinking we have in this part of the world that the US and Asia don’t really have. So eventually we got to this statement: A force for positive change.”

A common purpose

Van de Velde was sceptical that a mission statement – words on a banner or a website – would make a difference. However, as staff and students got involved in defining exactly what it was they were trying to achieve, his excitement grew. The words they would arrive at – “Be a force for positive change” – would turn out to be more than just a mission statement. In connecting the school to deeply held human values, they would give the school a driving sense of common purpose.

What would come next required a step change. “We needed to walk the talk,” says Van de Velde. That’s where Eva Rood, director of the Positive Change Initiative, came in. “My role is to make sure the mission is shaped in our curriculum, research and facilities,” she says. “My small team and I are just the accelerator unit, though. We have a small budget and that’s deliberate – we shouldn’t take over the responsibility from the rest of the school.”

A new audience

Academic directors are redesigning the curriculum, and have rebranded the MBA as an MBA of Value that ties business into sustainability. Undergraduate teachers are drawing on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for their courses.

“One teacher is using UN poverty data instead of the dummy database he previously used for his statistics module,” says Rood. “Another is asking students to measure Fortune 500 companies against the SDGs. It’s playful and interesting. I’m setting up an escape room based on the SDGs, testing game-based learning. It’s all bringing us intriguing external collaborations too.”

Positive change is now part of the onboarding process for new students, she continues. “MBA applicants must write an essay about how they will be a force for positive change, then they discuss how RSM can help them achieve it.” She has acquired new colleagues who approached the school because they were inspired by the mission. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by people’s willingness to collaborate. I think the mission triggers something in people because it asks them to contribute to a greater good.”

Free online course

She’s also proud of a series of ‘deep dives’ with local businesses and frontrunners exploring dilemmas in the up-and-coming algorithm economy, which ‘provides opportunities outside of the usual scope of courses’. It’s just one way in which RSM is broadening access to its ideas.

So far, RSM has published a series of new frameworks on positive change exploring how business can contribute to society’s grand challenges, developed using the SDGs. And Rood’s team have launched an award-winning MOOC (free online course), Driving business towards the SDGs, that is open to anyone – and more are planned. “They are bringing RSM thinking to a different audience, of nature conservationists, farmers and investment bankers,” says Rood.

Business 2.0

The innovative, outwardly focused nature of the Positive Change Initiative is one which Elena Avramenko (Executive MBA, 2018) says she recognises. Indeed, her time at the school opened her mind to the social impact of business, and led to her startup The Time Donors – a volunteering platform where people offer their time and professional skills. “I did a summer course on social entrepreneurship,” she says, “and until that point I thought social meant not-for-profit. It was an eye-opener to think that a business could be for profit and have a social impact. Like Web 2.0, it’s Business 2.0.”

She was supported by Professor Patrick Flood at RSM. “He said my idea was good because it tapped into the generous, altruistic side of people. Through him I discovered the work of American psychologist and author Adam Grant, who says that although we are ‘givers’ with our friends and family, at work we are, at best, ‘matchers’ – if we give, we expect something in return. My business allows people to give, in a professional context. The idea is we should share our knowledge, not hold it, because otherwise it’s of no use to anyone.”

Millenials: the future of business

For Avramenko this is not a ‘soft’ idea – it’s a necessity for future businesses if they want to attract and retain talent. “For millennials, brand name and salary aren’t enough,” she says. “They also want to make a social impact.” She cites the 2016 Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement Study that says by 2020 millennials will make up 34 per cent of the global workforce, and 76 per cent of them prefer to work for a “socially active” company.

Blanca Vergara (MBA, 1999) agrees that the rise of the millennials will lead to a drastically different society. “By 2030 just nine per cent of us will be full-time employees,” she says, citing PricewaterhouseCoopers research. “We will be an entrepreneurial society, not a hierarchical one.”

Entrepreneurial jungle

Vergara set up her own coaching business 12 years ago, after working for the European Commission and then the European Space Agency. “Once I stopped being an employee I learned so much,” she says. “I like to call it the entrepreneurial jungle, because it’s organic, exciting and colourful.

“We have to let go of the idea that competition is the way forward. Collaboration is the only way that innovation is possible. People have misunderstood Darwin’s idea of survival of the fittest. Fittest doesn’t mean strongest, it means the most adaptable.”

Vergara says RSM woke her up. “I remember one particular lesson on the moral responsibility of companies – about a dirty logo at the entrance to a building – where we were pushed to think: ‘What am I doing here? Why do I get up every day?’ It was one of many lightbulb moments for me,” she says.

Turning into world citizens

Hande Macit (IBA, 2014) mentions the heart when she talks about Luwia Yoghurt, the sustainable food business she has started with her brother, making fresh yoghurt. “I was so excited to move to the Netherlands from Turkey, because it’s a dairy country,” she says. “It’s famous for its cows, cheese and windmills. However, I was shocked to find that the Dutch don’t eat fresh yoghurt. Dairy is very industrialised here, and I believe the food system needs to change.

“A recent report from the World Economic Forum says unhealthy eating now costs more lives than smoking. We are passing on our DNA to the next generation – we need to look after ourselves, to be able to look after the world. My brother and I make yoghurt on a local farm and sell it directly. It makes my heart feel good to know that we’re offering people something good.”

But she says she may never have taken the plunge into entrepreneurship without RSM. “RSM made me more daring. It gave me entrepreneurial spirit. I met people of all nationalities, and we went on trips to places like India to learn about business. I think we learned to take the best from each other, to share and combine, and that turned me into a world citizen.”

A higher goal

According to Rood, the world’s problems are “frightening and overwhelming. But with our mission statement, we are actively deciding to focus on what we can do. We can’t solve these problems alone. That’s why members of our accreditation body, who were initially critical, spent three days here recently and completely changed their minds. They said that although we are providing an excellent education and research, that is no longer our end goal. Instead, we are trying to make business a force for good, which is more than education and research. It’s a common higher purpose.”

Do the best you can

RSM believes the strength of individuals and businesses is multiplied when we join forces, and we can use that force to make positive changes. But we encourage everyone to take action. All it takes to make a start is the power of one, just as in the hummingbird story where a tiny bird is mocked for trying to put out a huge forest fire, but responds with: “I am doing the best I can” by Nobel Peace prize laureate Wangari Maathai, a campaigner for sustainable development, democracy and peace.

SDGs online course

RSM’s new free MOOC, Driving business towards the SDGs, explores the role of business in contributing to a better future without giving up profits. The seven-week online course uses the UN’s SDGs as a framework for addressing the global problems, looking at the issues the goals relate to, how to apply business insights to each of them and what individuals can do. It also explains how all 17 of the SDGs are interconnected, and why synergy is the key to meeting the challenges.

More information

This article was first published in the summer 2019 edition of RSM Outlook – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers.

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