MBAs Find Careers Outside of Corporate America

While earning her Master of Business Administration degree at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Bridgette Young hoped her concentration in human resource management would lead to a lucrative career in corporate America.

When she graduated in 1985, Young went to work for Baxter Healthcare Corp. as a human resources manager. Three years later, she moved on to become a human resources manager for Taco Bell, where she oversaw the restaurant chain’s staffing in North and South Carolina.

In 1990, just five years into her career, Young became ill and was diagnosed with lupus. After a year on disability, she was able to return to work and was offered a position as a human resources director with Coca-Cola in Atlanta. But Young decided to change her direction and chose not to take the job. Instead, she opted to enter the ministry and use her MBA training for the church. After obtaining her Master’s of Divinity in pastoral care and counseling, she went on to oversee the ministries and staffs at Cascade United Methodist Church and, later, Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church. Both are “mega-church” congregations in the Atlanta area, with a membership of about 7,000 each.

“I realized I no longer loved what I was doing and it was no longer consistent with what my value systems were,” Young says. “I wanted more than just working 12 hours a day for a big paycheck.”

Now assistant dean of chapel and religious life for Emory University, Young is among the growing number of MBAs who are taking their degrees and training with them as they leave corporate America for nontraditional fields. These men and women found that using their MBA degrees need not mean working 12- to 14-hour days in a corporate office or cubicle. Instead, many are finding new careers outside the traditional workplace, choosing such alternatives as non-profits, arts organizations, government jobs and (one of the biggest draws lately) churches.

David M. Porter, Jr., Executive Director at Walter Kaitz Foundation and former director of Howard University’s MBA program, says that as churches expand, purchasing businesses, apartment buildings and other assets, many churches are aggressively recruiting individuals with business degrees.

And it’s not just religious institutions tapping MBAs. Howard offers a joint program with its medical and pharmacy schools for those who want to move into the business side of health care, in positions such as hospital management. Porter said he has seen an increase in the number of nurses returning to business school to obtain their MBAs in hopes of returning to their health care systems as managers. And a growing number of students who majored in various arts now are pursuing MBAs so they’re better equipped to run their own entertainment companies.

Local, state and federal government agencies and other entities also are looking for individuals with the leadership skills fostered by MBA training.

“It’s not what career you go into with an MBA, but how you apply the skills that you have learned and developed,” says Nicole Chestang, a Vice President with The American Council on Education (ACE).

“Getting an MBA is not just about getting a corporate job,” Chestang says. “This education prepares you for so many things. If you want to run a dance company, a health care organization, if you want to be in public service or want to be involved in education, these skills will prepare you to lead a school and manage it or a program.”

Some overlap surely exists between nontraditional career paths and the entrepreneurial spirit. Currently 1,992 two- and four-year colleges and universities offer at least one course in entrepreneurship, up from about 300 in the 1984-‘85 school year, according to a recent survey by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship education.

Graduate business programs also teach students advanced skills in particular subject areas, from accounting to human resources. And that’s a necessity, whether these students are climbing the corporate ladder or starting their own business.

As MBAs know, the degree — no matter where it is applied — pays off. As industries and organizations outside of corporate America increasingly try to woo MBAs, they are being forced to match corporate America’s salaries, bonuses and other perks. “The gap in pay is closing,” Porter says.

Non-corporate organizations, he says, “have to be competitive to attract these people with MBAs. These people are not going to take large pay cuts.”

Despite a trend toward unconventional job choices, though, the fields chosen by MBAs still reflect, to some extent, a more traditional gender division. A recent survey of MBA graduates by the Graduate Management Admissions Council indicates that women were significantly more likely than men to work in the health care, pharmaceutical, non-profit and government industries. But women were less likely than men to work in consulting, technology and energy/utility industries.

Developing so-called “soft skills” such as nurturing employees, organizing under deadline pressure and listening to and trusting those gut instincts are skills that many executives say are becoming more sought-after in nontraditional arenas.

That’s what Young says has helped her in her various church positions. “It’s about managing relationships. That HR function works so well for me in the church because I’m managing relationships and helping other people manage relationships,” she says.

Anne Coyle, director of admissions and interim director of career development at Yale University’s School of Management, says she has noticed an increase in the number of graduates who are taking their degrees and signing up for the Peace Corps, Teach for America and even the military. Some call these BOP, or “bottom of the pyramid” positions, in which managers with MBAs seek to improve the lives of the less fortunate, either within the United States or in other, emerging countries.

Coyle has also noticed more MBA graduates being named to head colleges and universities, positions that were once held by academics with doctoral degrees. In 2004, for example, Boston’s Berklee College of Music named Roger H. Brown, a graduate of Yale’s School of Management, as its leader. And Lafayette in Easton, Pa. named Daniel H. Weiss, another graduate of Yale’s business school, president.

The non-profit sector, Coyle says, has also increasingly sought MBAs to work in museums, public radio and television, and even park services. Coyle says Yale’s MBA program no longer considers jobs outside of corporate America “nontraditional,” especially when non-corporate organizations are expanding their resources and endowments.

“MBAs are option-enhancing degrees,” says Coyle. “These companies need good managers and the skills they provide. Those skills that have built corporate America are now fueling the growth of non-profits and other sectors.”

“It’s all about business,” Chestang agrees. “The MBA provides a tool set — a real grounding in finance, marketing and management – that’s needed in all sectors, regardless of the setting. And various sectors are recognizing that and compensating for that.”