Academics

Business School with a Purpose

Jennings Brooks (M.S. in Commerce '22) explores what operating a purpose-driven business means, with the help of UVA McIntire faculty.

Note: This post was written during the 2021-2022 academic year.

Arriving at McIntire as a Journalism undergrad, I was already fairly skeptical about the whole “business thing.” I had spent the past two years in my capstone studying how to report on, and even sometimes expose, businesses for how they often negatively shaped our world. I had witnessed the responsive nature of business, not a proactive one. My year in the M.S. in Commerce Program, however, taught me that business is not responsive to an environment, as I once thought, but has the power to shape it.

I came into business school unprepared to learn a new definition of business. While the newfound abilities to read a balance sheet and calculate cash flows were definitely part of it, I’ve learned most importantly how understanding these hard skills enables you to conduct business with a purpose.

What does operating a purpose-driven business mean?

Before McIntire, I didn’t truly understand what operating a purpose-driven business meant. Mission, vision, and purpose statements were one thing, but weren’t they all just a compilation of values and trigger words in order to align an organization’s culture? How did this play into everyday actions? Call it either cynical or naïve, but I had assumed the purpose of a business was to make money, to increase revenues, to increase shareholder value. This question was, how could this be done in a different way? How could value increase in the nonmonetary sense?

Determined to find out, I ended up conducting a few interviews with different McIntire professors about what it means to conduct business with a purpose. I first spoke with Professor Robert Patterson, who teaches Business Communication in the M.S. in Commerce Program, about his experience in the discipline. Professor Patterson has had experience in the nonprofit and public sectors, as well as experience in the corporate profit-driven sphere.

Fellow student Elizabeth Robertson and I met with Professor Patterson over a Virginian brew at Kardinal Hall, a German-inspired beer hall; we discussed the idea of the double bottom line—doing well by doing good. So often the business world gets stereotyped as greedy, pushing consumers to purchase for the sake of increasing their bottom line. But what McIntire really impresses upon its students is a holistic view to understanding business. How can we do well by doing good? How can we invest profits in impactful ways? Our people? Our environment? How can we scale our business and find partners that value the same?

Do businesses have a greater responsibility to consumers?

The answer comes down to profit motive, or viewing social problems as a business opportunity. I had the opportunity to further discuss the relationship between consumers and businesses, and whether businesses have a greater responsibility to consumers beyond that of just providing a product or service, with Professor Peter Maillet of the M.S. in Global Commerce Program.

Maillet stated, “Most of human activity is intermediated by businesses, broadly defined. And so it’s a myth to think of consumers [in one dimension] and businesses [in the other]—business only exists if there are consumers. And they are the creators of the products. They are the creators of the dependencies on energy. So honestly, as consumers, we have very little choice.”

This dependency on business creates an ethical dilemma for companies. If we as consumers are reliant on businesses, therefore reducing our choice, to what extent should a business capitalize on or mitigate this?

Professor Maillet commented on this issue, arguing that serious business practices (e.g., production and resourcing raw materials) should be thoughtfully executed by companies, even at the expense of their own profits. For a company to really do its part, it has to sacrifice short-term results for long-term solutions.

The McIntire faculty and the M.S. in Commerce Program really challenged me to think beyond the transactive level of business, and dive into its transformative nature. Purposeful businesses not only need to understand the implications of every decision they make, but consider how they can use them to architect a more positive and purpose-driven environment.

Learn more about the M.S. in Commerce at UVA McIntire.

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