Social Enterprise Initiative Hosts “Business and Education Leaders Together.”

Social Enterprise Initiative Hosts “Business and Education Leaders Together.”

By Ali Huberlie


On November 20th, students from across Harvard University had the opportunity to attend a unique panel discussion at HBS. Hosted by the Social Enterprise Initiative, “Business and Education Leaders Together: Accelerating Opportunity for America’s Students” brought together leaders from business, academia, and philanthropy to discuss one of our nation’s most troubling issues: our declining education system. Throughout the discussion, America’s current education system was posed as a threat to American competitiveness, something that deeply concerns all of the panelists. All of these individuals have committed to doing whatever they can to propose workable solutions to this issue, and had in fact just emerged from a day-long conference, with dozens of other business and education leaders, all of whom were brainstorming ways to fix our broken system.


The panel discussion kicked off with moderator Allen Grossman (of Harvard Business School) discussing the “BELT” (Business and Education Leaders Together) initiative. The aforementioned conference is part of the ongoing U.S. Competitiveness Project. The initiative has already produced A Business Leader’s Playbook for Supporting America’s Schools; all panel attendees were giving an executive summary of this document. Grossman then moved to introduce the panelists: J. Puckett of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Kevin Sharer of HBS, Sara Allan of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Nithya Vaduganathan of BCG.


All of the panelists began by sharing why they became interested in education. While the reasons varied, Puckett’s story caught some attention: when Hurricane Katrina hit, he offered to have BCG help out in some way in New Orleans. Ultimately, this offer turned into quite the project: rethinking K-12 education in the city. From there, Puckett was hooked. Vaduganathan, another BCG consultant, ultimately joined him on this project as well.


Much of the panel then turned to focus on the day’s conference, with Grossman challenging the panelists to name their single biggest takeaway from the event. Puckett began on a high note, noting: “What I learned today is that there is reason to be optimistic.” Sharer, though, was a bit more tempered, noting that, if education were compared to a business: “We’re losing market share, and there is no product innovation.” He did note, however, that we still have a “shot at winning,” particularly with the recent introduction of the Common Core Standards. Allan echoed his thoughts, explaining that while the current system often left her feeling “beat up,” she saw reason for hope in the collective action that could come from BELT.


Of significant interest to many students at the panel, Grossman then asked Vaduganathan, a recent HBS graduate, to explain how her MBA skill set had transferred to her work in education. She noted that BCG had been an excellent place to express her deep interest in education (developed during her days as an undergraduate and now expressed through her work in New Orleans), and that her MBA skill-set had given her an extremely unique viewpoint on how to resolve issues in education. Specifically, she felt that incremental action in the education system would be worthless—instead, “bold change” is needed.


The panel wrapped up with several questions from the audience, including further queries on the Common Core, and “best practices” for businesses to get involved in education. These answers all struck a hopeful tone, with the panelists each emphasizing the scale of the challenge ahead, but noting “It is such a worthy challenge.” Finally, they wrapped up with their advice for the audience. All of the panelists urged students to get involved as much as possible. But it was Puckett, perhaps, who best explained why: “Own a part of this issue. Because given the impact of education on American competitiveness, we all own this issue.”