A year after the U.S. elected a business leader as president, a growing number of M.B.A.s from the world’s most prestigious business school are getting into politics.
Around 40 Harvard Business School graduates from this past spring leveraged their pricey master’s degrees to launch careers in government and nonprofits—twice as many as from the Class of 2016. Although that represents just 4% of the school’s more than 900 new graduates, they have joined dozens of other alumni from the school who have pivoted to public service.
Business leaders and fellow alumni such as Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and departing Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. CEO Meg Whitman have shown a growing desire to have a hand in solving the complex social issues previously considered the purview of politicians, say students, faculty and administrators. That shift has inspired students also to get involved in politics and policy-making.
More than a dozen Harvard M.B.A.s have recently announced campaigns to run for local, state or federal government, said Matt Segneri, who directs the school’s Social Enterprise Initiative. The program grants around 85 students and alumni fellowships each year to help fund work in nonprofits and the public sector.
“More and more people are feeling they need to step up and that they can, because they have the right skills to solve the big, important problems we face,” said Mr. Segneri, who graduated from the school with his M.B.A. in 2010. The number of HBS grads pursuing such careers has spiked in this election cycle and include members of both political parties and independents, though on aggregate they lean Democratic, he said.
Democrat Tim Keller, who graduated in 2005, was elected mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., last month, while Republican Margaret Busse from the class of 2001 in October announced her campaign for Massachusetts state senate. And this week, Sarah Amico, a class of 2003 graduate and executive chairman of logistics firm Jack Cooper Holdings Corp., is expected to announce a bid for lieutenant governor in Georgia, where she plans to run as a Democrat.
Students and faculty at top business schools across the country have become more politically active, hosting fundraisers, marching in protests and hosting debates on the immigration and environmental policies of the Trump administration.
But the surge in activism has been particularly pronounced at Harvard, students and alumni say, as high-profile—and sometimes polarizing—graduates like former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon have jumped into influential roles in the public sphere from careers in business. More than 650 HBS student and alumni women signed a letter, published in the New York Times last November, that disavowed the appointment of Mr. Bannon.
“The interest really built on itself as people started to see that they could be successful in making a difference in public service” from recent alumni serving in government and public policy, said Harvard management professor Mitchell Weiss, who previously worked as chief of staff to former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
Mr. Weiss said he was surprised when more than 70 students registered to take his course on entrepreneurship in the public sector examining novel solutions to problems like the opioid crisis this fall, and more than 100 others expressed interest in signing up. Around 30 students enrolled in 2015, he said.
“Fifteen years ago, government was seen as instrumental for business—these were the people who make decisions on whether or not I get a good tax break,” said Daniella Ballou-Aares, a partner with strategic advisory firm Dalberg Advisors and M.B.A. from the class of 2001.
She and fellow Harvard M.B.A.s formed the nonprofit Leadership Now after the 2016 election to recruit fellow alumni and other business leaders to enter politics and to help fundraise for their campaigns.
With a reach of around 300 high-level business leaders, Leadership Now is one of a cluster of organizations formed by HBS graduates in the past year to encourage a new generation to enter government. With Honor, co-founded by class of 2009 M.B.A. Rye Barcott, was formed in November to support veterans running for office and plans to spend around $30 million campaigning for 25 to 35 congressional candidates in 2018.
Interest in government and public policy at the institution that produced the chief executives of Boston Consulting Group, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and others extends well beyond the campaign trail. Students have recently gone on to work for the chief innovation officer for the San Jose mayor and roles in other city offices. They have also been drawn to a budding startup scene known as “govtech”—founding companies that solve problems government agencies and other public-sector groups face.
At a recent fundraising event at a Manhattan restaurant, dozens of HBS alumni gathered to support class of 2017 graduate Adem Bunkeddeko in his bid for a U.S. congressional seat. Mr. Bunkeddeko decided to pursue an M.B.A. two years ago after working in community development in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“Before Trump, there was an old Harvard model that you should ‘learn, earn and return,’ ” said Mr. Bunkeddeko, 30, who is running as a Democrat to represent New York’s Ninth Congressional District in Brooklyn. Now, he says, “the old rules aren’t the rules anymore.”
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