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Interview with Andrew Bernstein

Recently, I had the chance to meet with my Social Enterprise Alumni Mentor, Andrew Bernstein (CEO, Cymfony & MBA 1990) about his involvement in social enterprise. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

What is your role in social enterprise?
I primarily work in social enterprise as President of the Board of Cambridge School Volunteers, an organization that oversees all volunteer activity in the Cambridge Public School System. Last year, we had over 1,000 volunteers, particularly students from Harvard and MIT, participating in high impact work including: Intergenerational Literacy and Math Programs, After-school Volunteering, and Corporate Volunteering. I also serve on the Board of Junior Achievement and the Sports Philanthropy Project.

How did you get involved with Cambridge School Volunteers?
After I graduated from HBS in 1990, I started working at Stride Rite. Looking to get involved, twenty of us worked with Cambridge School Volunteers to set up their first corporate mentor program. I became a mentor for a second grader who lived in the housing project near Central Square. Because housing costs are so expensive in Cambridge, the middle class is becoming effectively squeezed out, leaving only the wealthy who can afford it and the lower income. Often the wealthy send their kids to private schools, leaving the public schools to serve more of those who can’t afford otherwise. While Cambridge spends more per pupil than probably any other district in Massachusetts, its results are less than stellar. The students come from tough neighborhoods and the schools have a difficult time coping, which means the volunteers can have a strong impact. I would spend two hours per week with this boy, a good kid, and all we did was read. As his skills improved, his mother asked me what she could do to help him learn, and I told her to get the TV out of his bedroom and buy him some books. It was a great experience, and eventually I was asked to join the Board and see how we could make the program more effective.

From your experience, why should HBS students get involved with social enterprise?
Social enterprise work offers a nice foil to the for-profit world. Instead of marketing meetings where people “gain points” for clever criticism, you can join a group of children and hold hands and say something nice about the person next to you. It gives you a break from the pressure and allows you to really get to know people, especially people from walks of life different than your own. You realize that your life is a lot more than your job and making money, and you are able to contribute to something bigger than yourself.

How does your for-profit experience help in your non-profit work?
In order to have a strong impact in non-profit work, it helps to have a strong record in for-profit work. Many times, it can give you more credibility, not only in fund raising, which is a major role for any senior manager of a non-profit, but also in management. In particular, many non-profits could benefit from the sense of urgency and competitive spirit of the for-profit world. More and more, I see those developing careers in non-profit choosing business schools over public administration schools, precisely to develop that approach to making non-profits as effective as they can be.

What advice do you have for those who may want to have a career in the for-profit world but still have a strong impact in social enterprise?
Pick one non-profit where you can effect change. Make it something you care about, not something you just do for networking. This will make it far more worthwhile, both for the non-profit organization and for you. As a member Cambridge School Volunteers, I have certainly gotten more out of it than I have put in.

This profile is part of a semester-long series that highlights the lives of HBS alumni involved with nonprofits, socially oriented for-profits, and government. Each featured alumni is a participant in the Social Enterprise Club’s mentorship program, which currently facilitates interactions between 35 mentor/student partners. For more information about this program, please contact Ted Hill at thill@mba2004.hbs.edu.

February 3, 2003
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