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Students explore career paths with a conscience

In the course “Organizing for Good,” Stanford students learn what they – as future employees – can do to contribute to a company’s efforts to do good.
An image of Stanford Professor Pam Hinds
“There’s this tension that students feel about this life choice that they’re making,” says Pamela Hinds. | Stanford Engineering

When advisees come knocking on Pamela Hinds’ office in the Huang Engineering Center for advice on their future careers, they admit to feeling caught in a bind. They struggle with the realities that they or their families need or want to earn a significant income once they graduate from Stanford, yet their social conscience to do good weighs heavily.

“There’s this tension that students feel about this life choice that they’re making,” says Hinds, a professor of management science and engineering who walks her students through the many ways for-profit organizations can have a positive influence on the world. “I wanted to develop a course that helped them to see it wasn’t a black-and-white choice, that they could really have both.”

The result is the popular seminar Organizing for Good, taught by Hinds again this spring quarter. In class, Hinds lectures on the complexities of organizing for good within a for-profit firm and the different models and approaches organizations adopt to benefit society. The course dissects the strengths and weaknesses of these different models with business case studies and hands-on engagement. Students learn what they – as future employees – can do to contribute to a company’s efforts to do good.

Hinds illustrates how they can go work for corporations and still make choices about their careers, the kinds of work they do, and the kinds of organizations they work for, to have a positive impact through that work. Along the way, she helps students hone their sense of purpose and navigate through potential career paths.

“There are quite a few students for whom this is a very different way of thinking about how they approach their career and how they approach their engagement with organizations,” says Hinds, the Fortinet Founders Chair and Professor of Management Science & Engineering.

Hinds spends much of the course highlighting nonprofits and corporations that are generating valuable results, both financially and societally. She shares a variety of business cases with the class to illustrate ethical issues such as shared value, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and employee activism, and how that works in an organization.

Those case studies inspired Monica Tavassoli, a junior majoring in management science and engineering who took the class last spring and is considering a career in real estate, to see the importance of values and how to analyze them in organizational contexts. “A company’s action toward good speaks much louder than a nice paragraph on their website’s values page,” she says.

To help students like Tavassoli visualize careers with both substantial paychecks and virtue, Hinds invites guest speakers who work at for-profit organizations and have a passion for having a positive impact. Guests have represented B Corporations certified to uphold higher standards and practices, while others discuss supply chains and the importance of thinking through what suppliers do and where the goods come from.

Other guest speakers focus on generating impact with their investments, and describe to the students how they weigh social, environmental, and financial returns of organizations that get funded.

Students spend another portion of the course working with Hinds through a curriculum developed by the impact investing firm Echoing Green, to figure out the kind of impact they want to have. Hinds complements the curriculum with an exercise from the University of Michigan, called the Reflected Best Self Exercise, where students poll roommates, high school friends, and their families on what they see as the students’ strengths and what they bring to the world. Hinds says this feedback reinforces a student’s own sense of purpose.

“That’s a critical piece of the process of figuring out how to have an impact,” says Hinds. “Because one needs to be clear about what it is they’re trying to do.”

The process left a lasting impression on Amay Aggarawal, BS ’21 in management science and engineering, MS ’21 in computer science, who co-founded an organization that matches student computer engineers with nonprofits in need of tech assistance.

“We could very clearly see how our actions left lasting impacts on those around us and spent some time identifying common themes in how we presented ourselves to others,” he says. “This exercise helped me home in on what qualities other people perceive to be my best, and make sure I make a more active effort to use them in my interactions each day.”

As a senior majoring in management science and engineering last spring, Casey Borovsky read through stories from her parents, high school friends, and college roommates about when they thought she was her best self. Their common threads helped her weave together her purpose. “It was really transformational for me,” Borovsky says.

In another exercise, Hinds has the students scour the news and identify real-life examples of purpose-driven teams creating positive results. Last spring, Borovsky reported on Uber and Lyft’s free rides for people on their way to vaccination sites. “It was really cool to proactively look for that in the news and be able to find it at ease, and to see that companies are moving in this direction and having a real impact while also still being prosperous and growing.”

Teaching the course has been extremely rewarding, Hinds says. “A lot of students rethink and reposition themselves in terms of where they want to go,” she says. “You’ve got a few students who have taken it in the past who are now out doing this kind of work in for-profit organizations. They’re doing exactly what we had hoped they might be enabled to do through this work.”

One day in class last spring, Borovsky was struck by one of Hinds’ lectures and wrote a quote in her course notebook. Hinds had said, “Each individual and organization has a responsibility by virtue of existing to do no harm, and to, in fact, leave the world a better place than if they didn’t exist.”

After graduating in 2021, Borovsky joined Makena Capital as an investment analyst, where she sits on the company’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) committee, and still refers back to Hinds’ lessons.

“It doesn’t have to be one specific social cause that you’re interested in – there’s no right or wrong,” Borovsky says. “It’s just doing good and leaving the world in a better place with everything you do.”