Leaders outside the boardroom

MIT Sloan students, like social activist Kara Penn, MBA '07, develop the leadership skills they need to realize dreams in diverse realms

MBA student Kara Penn Photo: Kara Penn, MBA '07, who aims to use the power of business to make a positive social, environmental, and economic impact.

Leadership. It's not just for CEOs and politicians. More and more students are coming to MIT Sloan to develop the leadership skills they need to realize dreams in an infinite variety of fields. Leadership is a tool, say MIT Sloan students, and they're becoming increasingly adept at using it.

Leader as activist

Kara Penn, MBA '07, a social activist, says that business school was the last place she ever thought she'd end up. She entered MIT Sloan straight from “policy school” with considerable experience working for environmental and health care causes.

“I came from the perspective that social problems must be addressed by governments and nonprofits. At MIT Sloan I'm realizing that sometimes a for-profit or hybrid model is the most powerful.”

Penn spent the summer in Southeast Asia as an intern for the California-based World of Good Development Organization, where she led the product testing team.

At MIT Sloan, Penn is co-president of the Net Impact chapter, a network of young leaders who are using the power of business to make a positive social, environmental, and economic impact. She is also a core member of the Student Working Group for Sustainability at MIT.

“The role of any leader is to motivate, champion, and show potential where others do not see it — to inspire others to apply their skill sets to something that may seems risky, something that provides a very different kind of reward,” Penn observes.

“I've seen so many talented, dedicated students at MIT Sloan pushing the boundaries of what can be done, using models that haven't been tried before. For me, MIT Sloan has infinitely extended the idea of what's possible.”

Leader as educational entrepreneur

Like Penn, Erik Yazdani, MBA '06, wants to use his leadership skills in the nonprofit sector — in his case, education. Yazdani earned a joint degree from MIT Sloan and from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a program recently formalized between the two schools.

Yazdani worked closely with MIT Leadership Center faculty director Deborah Ancona while at MIT Sloan and found the idea of distributed leadership a revelation.

“One of the fundamental premises is that leadership is not a property of individuals, it's a property of systems. The culture within the organization is the leader with the greatest influence.”

With a dream of launching a school or educational initiative, Yazdani has been especially focused on leadership as entrepreneurship.

“Entrepreneurs have to lead innovation. They have to ask consumers to accept change in the form of the product they're introducing. Entrepreneurial leaders have to take a hard look at the psychology behind their product, behind getting it funded and making it a success in the marketplace.”

While he learned leadership at the Kennedy School, Yazdani also felt he wanted the MIT Sloan perspective and decided to pursue the joint program between Harvard and MIT.

“Because of its focus on entrepreneurship and the fact that it's an innovative place, MIT Sloan thinks a bit differently from other places. One of the things I've realized in my research is that the organizations of the future will look very different. They will enable new and traditionally unlikely collaborations and networks. That's going to change the social dynamics of organizations, and that's exactly what MIT Sloan's Distributed Leadership Model is all about. Like so much at the School, it's ahead of the curve.”

Leader as team builder

For Michael Fox, MBA '06, a Brit from London, leadership is about making connections. His modus operandi is integrating all the forces, all the contacts, all the knowledge at his disposal, and he's getting things done.

Fox is working with MEET, the MIT educational initiative aimed at creating a common professional language between young Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He is helping to develop a business curriculum that will help these teenagers build advanced technological and leadership tools as well as the resources to create positive social change within their own communities. And he's doing what he does best — bringing together dynamic teams of MIT Sloan faculty, corporate sponsors, and local leaders to get the job done.

Before coming to MIT Sloan, Fox worked at Morgan Stanley's London office in the Investment Banking Division. On Saturday mornings he would teach underprivileged children at a school desperate for supplies. Ever the matchmaker, he arranged for Morgan Stanley to sponsor the school so that they could purchase books. “Morgan Stanley awarded a grant to the school that enabled them to supply the classrooms on the basis that I was an active volunteer.”

In his Organizational Processes course (OP) at MIT Sloan, Fox worked with the nonprofit Everybody Wins. The organization brings local employees into the schools to help teach young children to read. Fox and the team he pulled together helped Everybody Wins find its professional legs and become an established entity in Boston.

In his Global Entrepreneurship Lab, Fox traveled to Uruguay to advise two tech start-ups. Working with Endeavor Uruguay, he convinced Microsoft to sponsor the project. In the end, he and his interdisciplinary MIT team recommended a new product alliance and helped to strengthen Uruguay as a technology hub. MIT Sloan faculty, Fox reports, were essential advisors at every step of the process.

“It's impossible to go to MIT Sloan and not get drawn into the MIT spirit of innovation, of finding creative solutions to the most challenging of problems,” Fox says. “Entrepreneurship is infectious here. You meet these amazing people who are looking for management, leadership, and business help, and before you know it, you're part of a start-up!”

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