A significant percentage of my graduating ChemE class is going into investment banking and consulting (myself included). I'm willing to bet the other science and engineering disciplines at MIT are witnessing similar trends. My hardcore engineering friends tease me for selling out, opting for the big bucks and cushy office instead of sticking to my technical roots. Personally, I have no problem making money, and I encourage you all to make buckets. After all, money talks. But let's be original about what we choose to say with it.
As MIT graduates, we are uniquely positioned such that we can have our cake and eat it too. If we marry our technical competence with societal needs and some basic business sense, we can make money and save the world at the same time. This marriage has a name — social entrepreneurship. We can be the new wave of tech entrepreneurs who integrate business strategy with social values. We can recast traditional, non-profit philanthropy and in so doing revolutionize current approaches for addressing global challenges such as poverty and disease.
Industry giants like Bill Gates, Pierre Omidyar, and Steve Case have already begun to pave the way. These tech gurus have applied the business acumen they used to create Microsoft, eBay, and America Online toward combating daunting problems around the globe. Gates has contributed large sums to big pharma for the development of malaria vaccines. Adopting a different tact, Omidyar kickstarted the microfinance industry by donating millions of dollars in small loans to finance impoverished entrepreneurs in India. To put the brakes on escalating pollution levels, Case invested in car rental startups that lease environmentally friendly vehicles. Clearly, there is no set recipe for what constitutes a successful social enterprise. This means that, in true MIT spirit, we can be as crazy, out-of-the-box, and ambitious as our imaginations (and pockets) allow.
I recently met a Course VI alum with pockets as deep as his desire to change the culture and mindset of MIT graduates. He used an emerging catchphrase — "engineering is the liberal arts of the 21st century" — to stress the demand for technical competence in the business world. He pointed out that we have a leg up on our peers at esteemed liberal arts institutions. We have the technical know-how to back up our business aspirations. In an increasingly multidisciplinary age, technical degrees can provide us with the expertise necessary for communicating and effecting change at the interface of business, technology, and politics. We can leverage this unique vantage point to drive the change we wish to see in the world.
Only time will tell if social entrepreneurship models will be more than a passing fad — i.e., if they will register a meaningful and enduring impact. Sure it may be naïve to think we can win the race against global warming, pervasive epidemics, and increasingly dire levels of poverty. The odds may be against us. But I look at the passion, dedication, and ingenuity of my classmates, and I can't help but hope. Hope that we will use our network of far-flung resources to laugh in the face of the odds.
Yes, we may start off feeling like fish out of water in the business world. We may get lost without the familiar whir of a microprocessor to guide us. But I am confident we can't get too lost if we dive into the real world with global impact as our goal and the "Mens et Manus" mission statement as our compass.