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Indian MBA Program Offers a Minor in Empathy

RP Siegel | Friday June 29th, 2012 | 1 Comment

MBA programs in this country date back to the 1880s. They have grown steadily in popularity since then, with much of that growth occurring in the latter part of the 20th century. There is no doubt that they have had a tremendous impact on business today, providing valuable tools and perspectives. There are those who believe that they are not as valuable as they claim to be: for the candidates themselves, for the companies they go to work for, and for society in general.

Back in 1989, Management Psychologist Harold Leavitt, in describing business schools, claimed that “we have built a weird, almost unimaginable design for MBA-level education that distorts those subjected to it into critters with lopsided brains, icy hearts, and shrunken souls.”

Indeed, it’s hard to argue that these programs have not, to some extent, become a funnel for the most ambitious and aggressive individuals to find their way to the top, while inculcating a bottom-line, results-oriented culture that focuses on finding the shortest path to maximum salaries and company profits, with little consideration for anything else.

Clearly with the advent of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) these programs are now broadening their perspective, and softening their tone in response to market demand. Indeed, there are any number of admirable, well-designed CSR and Sustainable Management programs available today that you can read about regularly on these pages.

But few, if any, have taken their commitment to broadening perspective, increasing empathy and battling arrogance, to the level of India’s SP Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai. Responding to the backlash against the heartless arrogance of business leaders who took unconscionable risks in gambling away the life savings of ordinary working people, all in the pursuit of greed, SP Jain has adapted a very unique and innovative program.

Starting in 2008, each and every MBA student in the program (there are 240 enrolled at the present time) is required to spend several hours every week in the poorest sections of Mumbai, tutoring and mentoring school children.

Abbasali Gabula, deputy director at SP Jain, says that the program arose in direct response to the financial crisis. “People say that MBA students are arrogant, that they don’t want to dirty their hands, and only want to give their advice.”

Not so with SP Jain students. Not anymore.

The program helps the children to improve their grades, gain confidence and learn social skills, an effect which spreads to their siblings and neighbors. It also gives them ambition. One student mentee,  Chandrakala, age 13, who lives in a 10-by-6-foot room with her mother and brother, with no running water and sporadic electricity, says she wants to be an engineer and build bridges when she’s older. She claims the best thing about the program is being friends with the mentors, using SP Jain’s computers, playing chess, and learning English as part of the program.

But the MBA students benefit as well. According to Gabula, “The companies that take our students say they are humbler than other graduates, [and] that they roll up their sleeves and are ready to work from day one. They don’t want to just give advice to everyone, but to lead by example.”

The mentoring experience helps the MBA students to appreciate what they have to be grateful for in their own lives, and gives them insights into consumer behavior, particularly among those at the bottom of the pyramid, striving under difficult conditions. But perhaps, most important of all, it teaches them empathy.

[Image credit: Meanest Indian: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • StandInMyShoes

    Thankyou RP – this is so heartening to see. It is so important our new young  leaders have the skill of empathy to lead. I hope we get some profound leaders as a result – the ones who don’t live their ideals at the door in pursuit of the dollars. Life is so rich when you inspire others to lift themselves out of poverty or to pursue a dream or make changes in their community.