Teaching the Value of Tri-Sector Leadership at SBSI 2015

Mary O’Donnell, second year Duke MBA student and CASE Fellow, wrote this post in April 2015.  Mary also served as Co-Chair of the 2015 Sustainable Business and Social Impact (SBSI) Conference.

When I started my MBA at Fuqua, after seven years in the international development and nonprofit sector, I did not know how I would fit in with my fellow business students who came from Wall Street.  Would I understand what they said in class? Would I have the same approach to solving issues? Would my opinions matter?

The answer, of course, was yes. At Fuqua I have had the opportunity to build on my previous experience in the social sector and also develop new skills and perspectives from other sectors. As a result, when I graduate this May, I feel that I will be better equipped to collaborate, solve problems, and grow professionally as a Tri-Sector Leader.

As silos are broken down and cross-sector integration is required, the next generation of leaders must be prepared to approach problems through a multi-sector lens. As stated by “The Impact Investor” authors, “It isn’t enough to deeply understand the needs of people with no access to water in Africa, and it isn’t enough to be a hotshot asset manager with 20 years of Wall Street success, or a connected policymaker who understands how to get things done in Washington. The core practices that lead to success in [business] are inherently cross-sector and complex.” In order to succeed in our complex, globalized world, leaders should have the ability to approach problems from multiple perspectives: business, nonprofit/philanthropy, and public policy. For more information about tri-sector leadership, read CASE Executive Director Erin Worsham’s excellent article.

With this focus on Tri-Sector Leadership, I worked with the CASE team to develop a session during the SBSI Conference that would focus on cultivating participants’ knowledge about how to approach problems from a tri-sector lens. We developed an interactive workshop for students and professionals, titled, “Tri-Sector Leadership: Creating Solutions through Collaboration.”


During this workshop participants gathered to learn about tri-sector leadership from moderators Cathy Clark and Ben Thornley. Participants later broke out into three classrooms based on their own self-declared “weakest sector.” The nonprofit sector breakout was co-facilitated by Jeff Stern, Director of Business Operations at TROSA, and Mark Hecker, Executive Director of Reach Incorporated. The policy sector breakout was co-facilitated by Bonny Moellenbrock, Executive Director of Investors’ Circle, and Ed Skloot, Nonprofit and Philanthropic Consultant. The business breakout was co-facilitated by John Buley, Professor of the Practice of Finance at Fuqua, and Beth Bafford, Strategic Initiatives Senior Officer at The Calvert Foundation.

All of the groups were given a short case on the social enterprise Embrace and a sector-specific issue the organization faced as it scaled. After a morning full of inspiring speeches and discussion at SBSI, it was invigorating to see the participants and facilitators interact as they debated and problem-solved issues related to foreign government subsidies, funding tactics, and rapid expansion.  Participants brought in their range of professional experiences to propose solutions as well as ask their peers and facilitators general questions regarding the sector and the unique perspectives and motivations each sector represented. At the end of the breakout session each sector chose one group solution to present to the larger group audience. After each group presented and discussed, the moderators brought the session to a conclusion with the Embrace case wrap-up and next steps for participants to continue to grow in their tri-sector leadership.

At the beginning of the session, there were others that felt the same way I did when I entered my first finance class in business school. By the end, their approaches to problem solving had been broadened and they had begun to learn how to engage with professionals from other sectors, better understanding their perspectives, language, and motivations. CASE’s focus on tri-sector leadership has been eye-opening for me as I have learned about the strengths that I bring to complex problem solving as well as the areas where I still have to grow. It’s been exciting to explore these issues at Fuqua and I look forward to integrating this tri-sector approach into my professional life beyond Fuqua.