Scene Last Night: Ackman Boosts Oxford MBA Scholarship

Can’t get your arms around Bill Ackman’s bet against Herbalife? Now’s your chance to be one of the people for whom Bill Ackman pays tuition so they can change the world.

On Sunday night Ackman’s Pershing Square Foundation held a reception at the Park Avenue Armory to get the word out about its new scholarship at the Said Business School at Oxford University.

The event drew the kind of people that cluster around the Clinton Global Initiative: Ghislaine Maxwell, an Oxford graduate who’s making a CGI “commitment” on Wednesday concerning the oceans; Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, which recently built a teaching hospital in Haiti; and Adam Wolfensohn, son of former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who invests in renewable energy.

Also attending was Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone Group LP, who recently gave $300 million to send 200 master’s degree students a year to China.

The Pershing Square Foundation has made a $6.6 million gift, joined by $4.6 million from Oxford, to create the Oxford Pershing Square Graduate Scholarship. Starting in September 2014, as many as five students a year will have their MBA paid for, after they complete a master’s degree in a non-business domain that focuses on needs in poor areas of the world.

Dean’s Dreams

Peter Tufano, dean of the Said Business School, said he learned the value of this particular combination while running his own nonprofit, Doorway to Dreams Fund.

“The people I’ve hired at my nonprofit, they have domain expertise and most have some kind of management qualification,” Tufano said. “Not only do you need to understand the problems the poor face when they try to amass savings, you need to figure out process engineering, in order to create a system that will work with a set of banks, or regulators, to implement these things on a large scale.”

Tufano came to Oxford after 22 years teaching at Harvard Business School, and in just eight weeks created the 1+1 program. It pairs a one-year master’s with the one-year MBA that the Said Business School offers, unlike the two-year model found in North America.

Ackman, a former student of Tufano’s at Harvard Business School, and like him an all-Harvard-educated man, came on board after a few conversations.

“The problem with the traditional MBA is that after you’ve borrowed, you have to get a job to pay your loans back,” Ackman said. “Business training is valuable for social entrepreneurs, but they can’t afford it.”

Salty Water

Tufano wants to attract “Rhodes-like candidates” who are past the Rhodes scholarship’s age-cutoff of 25. One model is a 1+1 graduate who studied water policy, then wrote a business plan in his MBA year for a low-cost instrument developed in an Oxford lab that measures salinity. The market is shrimp farmers in Southeast Asia.

“He’s a very high performer, who in this case is bridging science, policy and management skills,” said Tufano. “He looks and feels a lot like a Rhodes Scholar.”

Of course earning the prestige of the Rhodes may take time.

“They’ll need several Nobel Prizes and some presidencies,” said Allan Goodman, president and chief executive officer of the Institute of International Education, which administers the Fulbright program.

Ackman said his foundation, which he formed with his wife, Karen Ackman, has given more than $200 million in the past five years.

He wants the scholarship recipients “to eliminate pyramid schemes,” he joked. “No, it’s whatever their passion is. There are plenty of problems to solve.”

(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine, Warwick Thompson on London theater, Martin Gayford on art.

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