MBA Students Give Career Services a New Assignment

When the University of Chicago Booth School of Business first contacted Groupon in 2009, the school had no idea that the startup, then a year old, would later be valued at $4.75 billion. Booth's career services department heard about the coupon site from students and alumni and contacted Chief Executive Officer Andrew Mason to make the case for hiring business school graduates. This year the company interviewed students from Booth and six other MBA programs for summer internships.

Once upon a time, B-school grads were happy to land a job on Wall Street or at an S&P 500 company. Now, a growing number are setting their sights on less conventional careers. That has schools reaching out to startups, nonprofits, and other employers that don't traditionally recruit on campus. Career-services officers are spending more time networking and accompanying students on treks to visit companies. Many B-schools are hiring additional staff dedicated to identifying potential employers. "We have to be much more proactive," says J.J. Cutler, who manages career services at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "I need to have thousands and thousands of relationships with these small firms around the world."

The shift is driven by students, Cutler says. "Part of this is a reaction to the financial crisis, part of it is a generational shift, part of it is that they are coming from much more diverse backgrounds."

Amit Koren, a 29-year-old student at Booth, interned at Groupon over the summer and is working there while he completes his MBA. He didn't meet with any of the big employers recruiting on campus last year because he wanted to work at a young company. "I was looking for a place where I could have an immediate impact and grow with the company," says Koren, who before starting business school worked at the Monitor Group, the Cambridge (Mass.) consulting firm co-founded by management guru Michael Porter. "The opportunities are so much greater. You can get your hands dirty, you can learn so much more."

Come September, Neeraja Bhavaraju, a 29-year-old student at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business in Hanover, N.H., will start work at the Boston offices of FSG, a nonprofit firm that works with charities and companies on building corporate responsibility programs. Bhavaraju, who worked at McKinsey before going for her MBA, says a job at a for-profit company no longer appealed to her. "I realized that doing that type of work wasn't quite enough for me," she says. "It was intellectually challenging but not fulfilling for me."

Wharton, where 250 large firms recruit on campus, has reorganized its 25-person career-services office; there are now six staff members who call on small employers. Says Cutler: "We used to have to play one game and now we have to play two." The Tuck School at Dartmouth has staff stationed in San Francisco and Montevideo, Uruguay, to identify potential employers on the West Coast and in Latin America. Booth has built up its outreach team to seven, from two, since January 2009.

Business schools are investing in career services because they want to keep their graduates happy. Placing newly minted MBAs in the ideal job is "probably the biggest driver of their satisfaction, which translates into alumni giving and involvement down the road," says Scott Shrum, director of MBA admission research at Veritas Prep, a provider of GMAT test prep and admissions consulting services based in Malibu, Calif.

Unlike large corporations, who hire dozens or even hundreds of business school graduates every year and make job offers six months before the position starts, small firms often don't make offers until right before graduation. That creates anxiety for students waiting to hear from startups while their classmates are accepting jobs at blue-chip companies, says Rebecca Joffrey, co-director of the career-services office at the Tuck School of Business. "It takes a certain amount of risk tolerance to really pursue what they came in wanting to pursue," Joffrey says. "The activity that surrounds MBA recruiting is very loud and very prevalent."

For Jacqueline A. Wilbur, director of career development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, seeing graduates chase employers rather than the other way around is a welcome change. "It's an unhealthy dynamic, where just because you're admitted to a certain set of schools, companies come to find you," Wilbur says. "This isn't the way the world works."

Groupon, which now has about 5,000 employees, has been besieged by inquiries from students, according to Halle Jensen, who heads up MBA recruiting at the Chicago-based company. "There's been a scarcity of opportunities like Groupon in the last couple of years," Jensen says. "Students are excited."

The bottom line: Placement offices at B-schools are staffing up as they work to develop relationships with employers that don't traditionally recruit MBAs.

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