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A Jesuit's MBA Studies

by Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ

What's a 40-year-old Jesuit with an English degree doing in an MBA program? I've asked myself that question more than once, and each time the answer is the same: "I know it's what I'm supposed to be doing." I've come to believe that God is guiding me toward something new.

I was ordained in 1986 after a fairly typical twelve-year formation. That summer, I responded to a clear call in my life: to learn Spanish. I spent six months in Cochabamba, Bolivia, learning the language. By accident and good fortune, I was then assigned to Dolores Mission Church in East Los Angeles, located in the middle of Aliso-Pico, a huge concentration of public housing. My roles there ranged and changed from coordinator of an English as a Second Language program, to associate pastor of the church, to executive director of Proyecto Pastoral (Spanish for "pastoral project"), a nonprofit organization Jesuits had set up to help immigrants and refugees in L.A.

Jesuits there worked hand in hand with community members to start a number of still-ongoing projects: a shelter for the homeless, cooperative child care, a job program for gang members, and the "Comité Pro Paz" (Committee for Peace), among others.

Then came April 1992, and the Rodney King verdicts. East L.A. suffered little damage, but from there we saw the smoke rising from the south and west, and children were asking, "Padre, is it going to come here?" The uprising had exposed the desperation of South Central L.A. and the lack of a sense of community there.

We had community at Dolores Mission, and we went to work. Various donors helped us start Homeboy Industries, a for-profit business that hired and trained gang-involved youth. We relied on the expertise of volunteers to get the program off the ground, and I, as executive director, learned from them about running a business. We started manufacturing tortillas with donated equipment, and we raised money to purchase and renovate a local bakery.

I learned three things as Homeboy's director: running a business is different from running a nonprofit organization; mistakes cost money (tortillas are a tough market in which to compete out here, while gourmet bakery goods such as garlic and olive bread offer better margins as well as skill development); and someone on staff needs to know the ins and outs of management, especially in a church-based group where "the vision" often has precedence over the bottom line.

On the personal level, I learned that I liked and could understand the world of business; I also realized I had a lot more to learn.

More important, I joined these insights with the call I experienced for the next step in my life: a desire to do community development in neighborhoods like Aliso-Pico and South Central L.A., and to work with groups that see spiritual and economic development as two sides of the same coin.

Business school was the tool I needed for that next step. When I passed a self-imposed hurdle--UCLA's pre-MBA math class, where after twenty years of avoidance I finally learned calculus--I knew it was the right move.

I have not been disappointed, even though my first quarter in business studies at Stanford University was a workout. Because of a schedule conflict, I could not take "Economics for Poets," and I was reading more spreadsheets than I'd ever imagined existed. After so many years out of school, my brain was just plain rusty.

But it has all been worth it. I learned the basics, from the supply-and-demand curve to the things Homeboy Bakery's accountant looked for when he went over our balance sheet. And I have also had the chance to reflect on my own management style, learning why some things I did worked and why others did not.

During the second quarter I helped develop a plan for family apartments in East Palo Alto, a poor community near Stanford. That experience whetted my appetite for learning more about affordable housing as an economic generator, so for my summer internship I worked at Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition in Redwood City, Calif., learning about the process of developing and rehabilitating affordable housing units.

I am tackling such issues as cost-and-benefit analyses of rehabbing run-down apartments, working with banks for short-term rehab loans, and rolling over that financing into long-term mortgages for rehabbed buildings. This fall I will be taking more courses that deal with economic development issues and management in nonprofit and start-up businesses.

Stanford challenges me on many levels, not the least of which is "the vision thing." Business school brings together the best and brightest, those for whom the system will work well in the future. It can be a seductive environment where "what's right for business is right for the world" is an underlying theme. I sometimes need to remind myself why I am there and for whom I am studying--those the system sometimes finds it easy to ignore. There are times when my background and experience give me a different perspective, and I find that my comments are generally heard and appreciated.

As in any academic program, people make the difference. I am grateful that another Jesuit, Fr. Dan Lahart, from the Maryland Province, is a classmate. It's been great to share experiences and occasional beers with him after long days of study groups and library searches. Even though our classmates' average age is 27 and I am the third oldest in the class, I feel like part of the group, and I enjoy the camaraderie and new friendships.

Business school has also been an opportunity for ministry. For many of our classmates, Dan and I are the first priests they've met who don't wear clerics or have gray hair. Both of us are involved in Stanford's liturgical life, and we really enjoy preaching to a congregation that includes our classmates! One of the highlights of the year was a liturgy with business school students and staff at which Dan and I presided. We had an overflow crowd--many of them graduates of Jesuit universities and colleges--and all of us welcomed the chance to come together as a Catholic community.

I feel confirmed in coming to business school. I am hopeful that this training I receive will be used in new ways for the service of the Church and the poor. Most of all, I am grateful for the chance to finish my education in a way that I never would have thought of not so long ago.

Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ, is taking a break from his community-organizing work to complete an MBA at Stanford. The degree will give him the ability to represent the realities of business and finance to economic development organizations.