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MBAs Take on Board Leadership: Innovative Group Pairs Students with Local Nonprofits

Board Fellows Nick Eyer and Annie Buckley with Matthew McConaughey

Before they even graduate, McCombs School of Business MBA students are getting the chance to contribute their talents as board members.

The student-run McCombs Board Fellows organization has been placing MBAs on local nonprofit boards since 2010. Over one calendar year, selected students act as non-voting board members, working with and learning from experienced professionals. Participating organizations, meanwhile, gain the talents of McCombs MBAs who take on mini-consulting assignments.

For MBA students, serving on a board may seem years away where they currently are in their careers, says Board Fellows President Ann Montgomery, MBA '18. But students who apply and are chosen as board fellows can interact with community leaders who otherwise might not be accessible. 

"The opportunity to see board governance in action is a rare and precious experience for young professionals," says Amy Leff, MBA '18, a board fellow at media organization the Texas Tribune.

Boards Fellows offers an excellent segue into social impact careers. "You get to sit in on board meetings, which is an amazing opportunity because most people do not have that experience unless they're in a senior management role," says Divya Subramanian, MBA '18, the organization's vice president of student outreach. "Plus, you're actually going to consult on projects, and your business views and solutions are being used."

Currently, there are 42 board fellows — MBAs in the full-time and evening programs — placed at 23 partner organizations (which accept one or two MBAs, depending on their needs) from the local Austin community. New boards seeking to participate first complete a short application. The requirements? Participating nonprofits must let fellows sit in on board conversations, must have more than three employees, and outline in advance a project their board fellow can address over a semester or year.

The organization will host a Board Fellows Summit on Nov. 9, thanks to a donation from the MBA Alumni Endowed Excellence Fund. Mission Capital, which provides consulting and training opportunities to nonprofits, will offer its board essentials training to fellows and community members, followed by a networking happy hour.

Looking ahead, Montgomery says Board Fellows wants to add an academic component, such as a five-week boot camp or semester-long course, so fellows can earn course credit. "Then students have a tangible asset they can put on their resume and are better prepared for board participation in their professional lives," she says.

The organization is also seeking a more diverse group of fellows. "We're trying to get first-year MBAs who aren't necessarily the traditional nonprofit or social impact students to come get involved and see the benefits they can provide to nonprofits — and what they get out of it, too," Montgomery says.   

Below are a few of the nonprofits where Board Fellows are lending their efforts.

Divya Subramanian

Divya Subramanian, MBA '18

Placement: YMCA of Austin

Project: "Along with my co-fellow Ufot Umana, MBA '18, we are working on identifying strategies to increase millennial involvement at the YMCA and spread the message that the YMCA is more than just a gym.  

"We're putting together a toolkit that would help the YMCA recruit a young professionals board — involving younger people doing more hands-on jobs —so that our onetime activity can be continued going forward."

McCombs skills applied: "My MBA+ project for McCombs was on developing strategies to increase millennial engagement with a social cause. My experience working on it was quite useful while addressing the YMCA's project given the similarities. Also, being involved in the social impact space through various opportunities at McCombs has helped me identify key value propositions for millennials to stay engaged with social causes and, in turn, with the Y." 

Amy Leff

Amy Leff, MBA '18

Placement: The Texas Tribune

Project: "Working as a Board Fellow with Jenny Jacobi, TEMBA '18, we have completed research and data analysis surrounding the Texas Tribune's audience and the future of digital media. This has and will continue to inform the organization's strategic planning process this year."

McCombs skills applied: "For our project we used online databases that I did not know existed before the MBA program — Statista, SimplyAnalytics, and Mintel, just to name a few. During my time at McCombs I've come to realize that the amount of high-quality market research we all have at our fingertips is pretty remarkable."

Erica Hoffmaster

Erica Hoffmaster, MBA '18

Placement: Austin Pets Alive

Project: "I developed a financial reporting dashboard for the board to use in its monthly meetings, in order to improve the flow of meetings and reduce time spent on interpreting financials. The dashboard has been implemented and the board is happy with how meetings are flowing now."

McCombs skills applied: "Research and financial reporting: I researched best practices at other organizations and developed a financial and operating statement. I also wanted to involve the different stakeholders to make sure I was providing a useful product for them, and addressing their key needs and concerns throughout the process."

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