Social Impact at Booth: Q&A with Professor Christina Hachikian

Social Impact at Booth: Q&A with Professor Christina Hachikian

Christina Hachikian is the executive director of the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, Chicago Booth’s research center for people committed to helping solve complex social and environmental problems. The Rustandy Center helps students and alumni gain hands-on experience in the social sector. The center also jump-starts nonprofit and for-profit ventures with social missions, advances social sector research and partnerships worldwide, supports an innovative curriculum, and convenes the world’s leading business, nonprofit, and policy minds at events in Chicago, London, Hong Kong, and beyond. Christina was recently named one of Crain’s Chicago Business 40 Under 40 leaders for her work leading the Rustandy Center, and I got a chance to sit down with her to learn about the work she leads at Rustandy, and the growing role of social impact within the Booth community.

DC: You are not only the founding director of the Rustandy Center, but you are also a Booth alumna. Can you tell us a little about your experience as a student and how it inspired your work today?

CH: I graduated from the part-time MBA program at Booth in 2007, while I was working at a community development bank called ShoreBank. I continued to work there until 2010, when I moved into a more traditional bank called Cole Taylor. Cole Taylor was a great organization, and I got to work with great people, but when I was about a year into my time there, I realized that I missed the social impact piece of the work I had been doing previously. I emailed one of my former professors, Rob Gertner, and asked if he knew of any job opportunities in social impact. We got together the following week, and it turned out that it was that very week that Rob had gotten approval from the school to start this center. I started this role in March of 2012, with just faculty co-directors, Rob and Marianne Bertrand, and me as the only staff member. One of the most exciting things for me in this role was the opportunity to build out a support structure for students interested in social impact that didn’t exist when I was a student. We are today a team of 22, with a huge range of support for students, alumni, and faculty interested in a wide range of social impact opportunities.

DC: How does the Rustandy Center work with students today to support their interest in social impact?

CH: When we started the center, we didn’t want to focus exclusively on social entrepreneurship as some other schools did, but instead to meet students where they were. And there is such a range of interests among the students, from basic human needs and homelessness to education and the environment. It has been fun to watch students take the skills they learn here and channel them to do something about an issue they care about. That can be philanthropic and volunteer-based, or career-oriented and even starting something entrepreneurially. There are so many avenues, and I think people underappreciate the range of ways to get involved. When we got started, business schools were so focused on social entrepreneurship and were not focused enough on this range, but we – from the beginning – have had this broader focus.

Some of our most prominent programs are our Board Fellows program, where we match students and alumni with nonprofit board and governance opportunities; the John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge, one of the first social venture competitions in the country (that happens to be celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year); and we’ve just launched a $1 million fund for students to get experience in impact investing. But there’s a whole range of resources for students here, and that extends to curricular and co-curricular opportunities for students to work on projects with nonprofit organizations and for-profit social ventures. We also run the “Perspectives In…” series, which is really about letting students know where in a particular industry they can plug in, with topics ranging from sustainability to impact investing. This series helps students understand everything from the latest news and what areas are growing most quickly, to what specific roles and job titles exist for them in each space.

Christina Hachikian, Executive Director of the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation

DC: In terms of the Rustandy Center’s research focus, how do we take the Booth approach to research and apply it to social impact?

CH: We really do two things to support social impact research at the Rustandy Center. The first is that we support faculty interests – like any of the research centers here. In this capacity, we provide funding, research partnerships, data support, and data itself to faculty at the business school doing research with a social impact angle of any kind. There’s a big barrier to more quality research on the nonprofit sector, and that is access to data – to quality data. We try to remedy that for the Booth academic community, through both purchasing and assembling existing databases, and also creating our own data, and thinking about what the data needs are across the whole academic community. To date, we have worked on about 30 different research projects, with almost as many faculty members, so there is a lot of appetite for this on campus.

We are also positioned to make matches between industry leaders and our faculty, to work on projects together. For example, one of our alumni, Mary Chandler, runs the Cummins Foundation (part of the heavy-machinery company Cummins Inc.) where she oversees the company’s giving and employee engagement programs. When I met her – at a student organized event in fact – she expressed the desire to better use data to measure the impact of their efforts. I knew that Professor Marianne Bertrand was interested in this as well, so I introduced the two of them, and they have worked together on research looking at the correlations – and hopefully causation – between employee engagement programs and employee outcomes such as performance and tenure. This was really the first research into employee engagement programs and we’ve found some encouraging correlative outcomes so far.

DC: How do you see the role of social impact evolving at Booth, from your time as a student here through to today?

CH: My time at Booth was during the early days for social impact in business schools in general, and I loved it. I loved every minute of business school. I think anyone who views the school as a finance school, for instance, is really missing the true nature of what the school is about, which is data-driven decision making, thinking hard about problems, and asking good questions. The school’s approach teaches students to have impact in the social sector, just as in the profit-maximizing sector. The skills translate because, at its core, our approach is about teaching frameworks and models for thinking about the world, and they apply across a whole range of things. I loved that approach when I was in school. In fact, there would be days when I would literally go home right from class to rewrite a presentation I was going to give the next day, because the tools that I was learning about here were so applicable to the day-to-day work that I was doing in my social impact context. 

And I think that in some ways what I learned in business school is even more important in a social impact context than it is in a profit-maximizing context. At the end of the day, in the profit-maximizing sector, you know exactly what you’re being measured on, but in social impact, you have to optimize against both financial and impact outcomes. And that’s actually what I teach now: how to think about optimizing. By definition, you can’t maximize two things, and so what we think about is how to optimize against impact and financial agendas. And we do it in a way that truly speaks to the Booth ethos, that you can approach social impact in a way that is rigorous and thoughtful and data-driven and doesn’t just accept beliefs. A lot of what we’re about at this school is not just accepting beliefs, but looking to data and knowledge to underlie the decisions you are making.

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