Ashley Jablow graduated from Boston University's School of Management with an MBA in CSR Marketing, Communications and Strategy in May, 2010. In a wide-ranging interview with Vault's CSR Editor Aman Singh, she discussed her motivation behind business school, why she picked Boston University, how her focus shifted to corporate responsibility, and how her summer internship search made her determined to pursue a career in corporate sustainability. She actively engages in discussing CSR through Twitter and on her blog, The Changebase. Currently, Ashley is looking for a fulltime job in corporate responsibility in the San Francisco area.
Business School: What motivated your interest in CSR while pursuing an MBA at Boston University?
I started out my professional career in nonprofit fundraising for a couple of organizations out in the Bay Area. I have always gravitated towards what some call mission-focused work. I knew that I wanted to be involved in giving back to the community, so the nonprofit sector was the obvious first step for me. I first worked in fundraising for Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, and later went to a children's entrepreneurship organization called The BizWorld Foundation. When I worked at BizWorld, we were teaching children as young as eight years old how to start a simulated business and the basics of financial literacy. I really felt like these eight-year olds were getting better financial and business training that I had ever had access to! That's when I thought about going to graduate school.
I never really considered going to business school, but it was while at BizWorld that I realized that there was an entire side of my toolkit that was underdeveloped, especially around leadership and quantitative analysis. I was drawn to Boston University specifically because they have a very strong Public and Nonprofit Management Program. While I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with my MBA, my initial thoughts were in the direction of corporate philanthropy. I really liked the idea that at BU, there was a community of people who understood what I had done before school – and who would support my choice to pursue a career with a social or environmental purpose.
I went in anticipating that I would want to work in corporate philanthropy—which I did pursue through my MBA internship over the summer—but it was really through all of the core classes and the business training that I started realizing that CSR is an incredible opportunity for there to be alignment between business, community and environmental goals—that there really are opportunities to create those win-wins, where a business can be about making money and be a good corporate citizen.
Now, two years later, CSR has completely become the space I live in, but it was a gradual transition in the beginning.
Internship: How was your experience working as a corporate philanthropy MBA intern?
I don't know if other people looking for CSR work have said the same thing, but when I was looking for an internship, I had a lot of trouble. I wanted to get a CSR internship, but I didn't have any relevant experience, so I didn't get any bites when I was applying for jobs that said 'CSR intern' in the title. I was lucky, though, to have a background in philanthropy which helped me get some traction with corporate philanthropy internships specifically. I understood it and also had a year of business training under my belt.
As an intern for a large consumer goods company, I was actually embedded within the corporate communications program. The company has been active in giving back to the community throughout its history—it's an agricultural co-op, so being part of the community is very much part of its DNA, but their formal corporate giving program is still relatively young. My job was to help formalize the communications around corporate giving and to engage employees and other internal audiences in a conversation around why corporate philanthropy is relevant to their job and good for business. So I had a number of projects and philanthropic initiatives that I worked on and helped roll out, but at the core it was about employee engagement and building a case internally for corporate philanthropy.
CSR in course curriculum
It's been interesting being at BU the last couple of years, because I've really seen a shift in the course offerings since I started there. BU has been incredibly responsive to student interest in these topics. There are a few key faculty champions who have taken this up and turned it into course content very quickly. So I actually think BU has done a good job of teaching CSR, whether it's talking about global sustainability challenges—water, food, energy—or corporate engagement.
We also offer a field seminar trip to Brazil to learn about social enterprise and CSR. There are a number of clean energy and technology classes that touch on sustainability issues. So, while it's not necessarily formalized into a CSR research center, like you might see at other business schools, I think BU has done a really good job of being quick to respond to student interest.
That said, could there have been a lot more discussion of CSR in our core classes? Yes, absolutely. And I know that BU and many other schools are working to better integrate CSR concepts into the core curriculum right now.
Given the financial crisis of the last few years, I think MBAs in general have been given a bad rap recently. Personally while in school I have really worked hard to refute those claims, because I take this very personally and I have chosen to go to business school so that I can create change and be an ethical and responsible contributor to business.
Job hunting for a career in CSR
Unfortunately right now there seems to be a disconnect between what CSR work MBA students are looking for and what opportunities are actually available. Among my friends—including me—who are looking for CSR jobs, the topic of the lack of openings for us is a constant discussion. There seem to be many more opportunities for senior CSR professionals to move around within the field, but for new MBAs who want to do this work, it’s tough to find a way in.
It’s interesting because I've done numerous informational interviews over the last couple of years with CSR leaders at different companies, and their advice has always been to go get functional business experience. Go work in marketing; go work in finance; go work in strategy; and from there, after two or five or 10 years, create internal change and move into a CSR role internally within the company.
And while I think that's valid advice, because when you're talking about sustainability you need to understand the business that you're in, it's really challenging for MBAs like me, who have immersed themselves in this field and have functional experience in CSR. This is what I know. This is what I can speak to. And as a career-switcher, I have a really hard time making the case for why I'm qualified for a corporate marketing job, for instance, without formal corporate marketing experience.
So yes, there is a disconnect between what students want and what CSR recruiting opportunities are available on campus, even between what students want and the job postings you find online. It's definitely not easy to find those clear-cut CSR opportunities, especially for new MBA grads.
Role of Social media
Social media, in my opinion, is a perfect complement to and vehicle for CSR communications. It enables companies to start dialogues with consumers and other stakeholders across geographies and time zones. And it allows professionals in a constantly changing field to connect, share ideas, and ask questions. As a newcomer to the community, my goal has simply been to use social media as a tool for learning. And I’ve found that the CSR community online, especially on Twitter, has just welcomed me with open arms. I encourage everyone who wants to learn about CSR to get on Twitter ASAP!
Defining CSR: What is your personal definition of CSR?
Honestly, that's a tough question to answer. I go back and forth on it because I do think it is everyone's civic responsibility to give back and to participate in the community, and be a good steward for the environment. I balance that, however, with really understanding that the business of business is to make money. So for me it becomes an exciting opportunity to fulfill that responsibility while driving business and being able to say, "We can identify efficiency opportunities in our supply chain," or "We can engage and activate our consumers to vote with their wallets and to support us for behaving in a responsible way."
I would also say that I slightly disagree with the idea of delegating one department to be in charge of CSR. I heard someone at the Boston College Conference a few weeks ago talking about his role in CSR as a catalyst, saying that his responsibility is to have CSR principles trickle down through every business function so that business units have the autonomy to make decisions that are good for business, and good for the environment and the community.
And as much as I want a formal CSR job, ideally I think this work should be integrated into the rest of the business. It should be a part of what the company stands for. It should be written out in the mission statement. It shouldn't just be an add-on department that tells employees how to behave. Because unless you get that internal buy-in, from employees at the bottom of the ladder all the way to senior leadership, you're not going to be very successful.
This is the issue I deal with every day as I move forward in my job search. I don't have any expectation that my first job out of business school is going to be “the perfect job”, and so I try to think about what would be a logical next step in terms of trying to move through a pipeline. Sometimes I think about getting a more functional job in marketing. However, if I were to do that, it would really need to be at a company where CSR and sustainability were a part of their corporate culture. Given that I consider myself very mission-driven, corporate culture has been an important guide or compass for me.
I also know that I have a really broad set of experiences and skills, so figuring out how to position myself best has been a challenge because of switching sectors and careers. Going into the agency world could be a really good next step, because it's industry agnostic. If I have transferrable skills, they'll show up in agency work better than on the corporate side. At some point, though, I would like to work in-house, because there's a lot of value in knowing how to not only create a CSR strategy, but actually implement it and see it to fruition.
Overall I'm just trying to be more creative when it comes to where I go next, always asking myself what I can do that will not only provide me with the experience I'm looking for but also let me contribute the most value I can right off the bat.
Tips for other job seekers
If I could pick only one piece of advice, it would be to just talk to as many people as you can. It takes a lot of confidence to reach out essentially to strangers and ask to learn from them, but that's what makes the CSR community really unique compared to other industries. There are a lot of people who are still learning as they go, so the interest in networking is a lot higher. In fact I have had more success in getting informational interviews than some of my classmates who are going into other industries. The interest in sharing and learning from one another is so high in the CSR space—partially because the community is so small and tight-knit right now—that my best piece of advice to anyone who wants to work in CSR is that they start talking to people and keep asking questions and learning.
Networking is really an art, and you have to really remember to provide value to the group as much as you ask for help in return. Personally, I have just found that by asking questions from people in the field and learning from the choices they have made, I’ve gotten so much clarity around where I want to head next. So: network, network, network! Just start talking to people.
For more news and commentary on pursuing a career in corporate responsibility, visit Vault's CSR blog: In Good Company or connect with us on Twitter @VaultCSR.