Chinese MBAs: The Kindness of Strangers

Until recently, most charity was reserved for family and friends. Now, B-school students are acquiring a gift for giving

Inner Mongolia, for most Chinese, is nothing but sheep. The woolly animals represent this northern province in nearly any photograph of its vast grasslands. For Song Qi and six of her classmates at Shanghai's China Europe International Business School, however, these sheep mean more than just scenery -- about $100 million more.

That's how much the seven executive MBA students plan to invest to create Inner Mongolia's first economic empowerment zone by the end of 2005. At this price, their company, Inner Mongolia Mengyang Meat Co. should be able to slaughter 1.5 million sheep and goats this year. In return, the products generated will likely net the joint venture about $60 million annually in sales, all of which will go into the pockets of local farmers in this poverty-stricken region.


  The majority of the money for the project is coming from either the students' own pockets or from the companies they own or work for. Outside investors are raising the rest.

"We wanted to develop a small project as a way to keep in touch after we left CEIBS," Qi says. "We were all already very successful. We're not looking to make any money, so we decided it should be doing something where we could give back to the community."

This story sounds familiar to Shen Jia, another recent CEIBS graduate. When Shen and his EMBA classmates wanted to ensure they would keep in touch after their 2004 graduation, the usual alumni happy hours and family picnics didn't seem like enough. So the group raised $56,000 and built an elementary school in nearby Zhejiang province instead. "This is an area that doesn't even have electricity. Our school will give its kids their only chance at a quality education," Shen says. "It's something we can look at and be proud of."

In their zeal to copy the American MBA model, the Chinese have adopted its notion of B-school philanthropy. At many B-schools, students contribute in myriad ways to the needy, part of a concerted effort to produce graduates dedicated both to business and the social good.


  Qi and Shen, with their words and actions behind them, have achieved the highest goal Neng Liang sets out for the EMBA program he directs at CEIBS. The school consistently recruits students from among the top echelons of China's business elite, allowing Liang to concentrate on a loftier purpose than just grooming students for promotions, as many EMBA programs do.

"At CEIBS we're preparing our students to be the next leaders of China," Liang says. "True leadership is seeing how to use your success to serve others."

At the Beijing International MBA program at Beijing University, run by a consortium of Jesuit universities including New York City's Fordham University, students are expected to make a big commitment in time and effort to helping the underprivileged.

It's part of BiMBA's effort to instill integrity and a social conscience in the next generation of Chinese leaders. MBA students contribute to a scholarship fund for those who cannot afford tuition. Part-time students have organized an auction that raised 20,000 yuan -- nearly $2,500 -- for the poor in rural areas of China. And a group of 30 former students spent the last four years mentoring individual students at once-a-month meetings.


  "You can have all the competence in terms of knowledge, but that's not enough," says John Yang, BiMBA's U.S. dean. "If you are a person without integrity, if you are a person without certain values, you're useless. Period."

Charitable giving remains a foreign concept to most Chinese corporations. The Chinese traditionally give generous financial support to family or friends, but donate little to strangers. The country's largest altruistic agency, the China Charity Federation, estimates that less than 15% of the money it receives annually comes from domestic businesses, a figure that pales in comparison to the charitable giving from foreign entities.

But domestic corporate giving could quickly increase as more-recent MBA students, schooled in the necessity of philanthropic giving, come to occupy senior management positions at Chinese companies. Liang and CEIBS are certainly not alone in their embrace of social responsibility in China. Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business requires all of its students to involve themselves in a community service project while at the school.


  Following the example of its founder, Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing, and the high value he places on education, MBA candidates regularly visit local schools to tutor elementary and middle school students. They also provide business consulting to nonprofits. Every year, Cheung Kong awards scholarships to students who demonstrate a commitment to social causes.

"We're presented with an opportunity to take what's worked best in business in the West," says Jean Lee, associate dean at Cheung Kong, "and make sure China can provide for even the poorest of our citizens." As the gap between the Chinese rich and poor steadily grows, the actions of Lee's students could prove louder than her words.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.