Ashni Mohnot wrote a fascinating and fairly provocative blog post at PopTech on “Who’s in the social entrepreneurship club… and who isn’t.

The post, which I found somewhat unsettling, garnered such attention that I felt a need to respond.

Ashni organizes her post around three major categories. I’ll do the same here, addressing each in order, but in different posts.  Also, I’ll incorporate quotes from her post to give readers the gist of her arguments and tee up my response.  If taking words out of context plucks them of their intended meaning, I apologize. It’s certainly not the intent.  Readers are encouraged to read Ashni’s full post – again, here.

I. “MBA Preferred”

Social ventures, the funds and foundations supporting them, and other socially entrepreneurial organizations are in love with MBAs… I understand that the MBAs bring to the role the business acumen these enterprises value…Of course, traditional nonprofit workers will probably require some business training to work effectively in socially entrepreneurial organizations. However, MBAs will also likely require training on the social issues the organizations are targeting. It is probably no more arduous to give entrepreneurial nonprofit workers a crash course in business than it is to give socially-minded MBAs a crash course in sociology or anthropology. Why then is it comparatively tougher for nonprofit workers to enter this field than it is for MBAs?

Frankly, I think Ashni’s argument here misses the point.  Are MBA’s overrated?  Sometimes, yes.  Is requiring “MBA or equivalent experience” irrational or somehow discriminatory?  I don’t think so.

First of all, MBA programs more and more frequently require several years of work experience.  So “MBA preferred” is another way of asking for people who have both 1) knowledge of and experience with the internal workings and operations of for-profit organizations and 2) some advanced training in business-related theory and practices.  This is a hugely valuable skillset for a small and growing business and is not something acquired through a bit of training – it takes years.

Secondly, MBA’s will generally have a much broader base of business knowledge to work from than a typical college grad or someone with only non-profit experience. But what’s often more important than “business acumen” is the fact that they may bring a reasonable level of expertise in a niche area that a social enterprise requires.  Knowledge of finance and financial modeling is a good example.  While these are trainable skills, they are 1) seldom taught in non-profits (at least in my experience) and 2) it would be both foolish and wasteful for a growing social enterprise to hire someone without this experience in the hopes that they could just pick it up.

But what about the knowledge of the social issues?  I have two responses along those lines.  First, one of the beauties of organizations is that they allow specialization. If my work in consulting has taught me anything, it’s that only particular people in particular jobs actually require deep knowledge of the customer issues the company handles.  People can be enormously valuable to the organization for the technical and general management skills they bring (VP IT, Director Marketing, HR Generalist, Financial Analyst), even if they don’t know boo about the subject matter.

Finally, and on a personal note, as someone who has a degree in sociology, deep knowledge of particular social issues, and who has spent the last four years in business development and consulting roles in the for-profit sector, I can tell you that learning “business acumen” is nothing to take lightly.  It’s easy to dismiss this skill set, but the combination of legal, marketing, business development, strategy, people management, finance, and other specialty knowledge that is required to build business acumen makes business administration a very complex profession.  It should be taken as seriously as, say, learning nursing or mastering a fine art.

So where does that leave those without MBAs or similar experience?  What about people with non-profit backgrounds? That’s a good question.  Without a doubt, there are hugely valuable skillsets to be leveraged there, as well, but to what extent and how will depend on the social enterprise, I think.  What we do know is that a desire to make a social impact may be a coveted, transferable value, but it’s not a transferable skill.

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