A Peace Corps for MBAs

Roberta Giassetti of Axé Italia Onlus with “street children” in Brazil.
Source: Roberta Giassetti
Roberta Giassetti of Axé Italia Onlus with “street children” in Brazil.

If you had told Roberta Giassetti that, after graduating from business school with a well-paying job at consulting giant Bain & Co., she would abandon corporate America to make 60 percent less working with "street children" in Brazil, she probably would have said you were crazy.

That's because when the native Italian arrived in the U.S. in 1999, she had only one goal in mind: to conquer the business world. It was what she had groomed herself for most of her adult life.

After spending her first few years in the U.S. working for companies such as Benton and Snaidero, she did what many ambitious young people do: She applied to some of the best business schools in the nation. She was excited on being accepted into the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. She was on her way, she thought. One step closer to achieving her dream.

That's when an odd thing happened, and Giassetti made an abrupt U-turn. She became involved with a number of activities and groups on the Wharton campus—itself an unusual experience for her.

"Coming from Italy, it was a really different kind of approach to giving back to society," Giassetti said, admitting that, previously, she rarely had been interested in social issues and had not been the sort of person to volunteer.

But the camaraderie and diversity of views at school inspired her, resonated with her. "Wharton changed my way of thinking and behaving," she said.

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Groups such as the Wharton International Volunteer Program (WIVP) introduced Giassetti to a host of people and issues she never would have come in contact with back home. Working with WIVP also offered "a great opportunity to better understand the economic development situation all over the world," she said.

While a member of the group, Giassetti was part of a team that worked with the World Wildlife Fund to develop a marketing plan for an eco-tourism center in Vladivostok, Russia, that would bring much-needed financing to the fund's efforts to protect the region's endangered tiger population.

"It was a very, very enriching experience," Giassetti said of her time in Russia.

Wharton International Volunteer Program in Ghana 2012
Source: Wharton International Volunteer Program
Wharton International Volunteer Program in Ghana 2012

An Ethic of Service

Founded in 1988 by a group of students, WIVP has become a core facet of the Wharton experience for students like Giassetti and current co-president Taylor Valore, who said the program is "pretty unique among business schools."

In fact, Valore, who majored in computer science and international relations at Carleton College, said Wharton's focus on global engagement, coupled with the opportunities offered by groups such as WIVP, was a big part of why he applied to the school in the first place.

"It's been a fantastic experience getting other Wharton students to put their skills in consulting and investment banking to good use in developing countries," he said.

WIVP sends groups of three to five students to small nongovernmental organizations (called "clients") in developing countries for two-week stays in winter and summer.

The organization subsidizes 30 percent of the cost of travel, room and board through its $80,000 budget—which Valore said is derived from donations from other MBA students—with the group members footing the bill for the other 70 percent.

While on-site, the group works to help clients "figure out what their strategic planning objectives are," Valore said.

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"These organizations are usually very resource-strapped," he added, pointing out that one of the most valuable skills WIVP members bring to the table is the ability to help answer a question fundamental to virtually every business: How do you make the biggest impact with limited resources?

"The WIVP team was exceptional and delivered beyond my expectations," Scot Frank, co-founder and CEO of One Earth Designs, a client, said in an email to CNBC. "They took the time to understand [us], our stakeholders and the challenges we faced."

"I like WIVP's systematic and analytic approach, combined with a professional rigor you don't often find in the social enterprise or nonprofit sectors," said Frank, whose organization designs solar-powered living products for rural communities in Asia.

Though WIVP is run by students, they are quick to go to professors who have particular expertise, such as one faculty member they consulted about financing in sub-Saharan Africa, Valore said.

'No Regrets'

Of course, as with programs like the Peace Corps, not every WIVP member goes on to make a life-altering choice, as Giassetti did. By her estimates, only about 10 percent of the nearly 700 Wharton graduates in her class of 2002 are working in the nonprofit or public service sectors.

Recently graduated, Valore will be going to work at a Palestinian venture capital firm, combining his passion for international relations with his computer science and business degrees.

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Valore said he is proud of WIVP's accomplishments, noting that the program sponsored 17 projects in the 2012-13 academic year, versus 10 the year before. "That's a huge increase for us.

"WIVP is by far the most rewarding experience I've had at Wharton," he added.

Frank said he hopes to maintain the strong partnership that One Earth Designs has established with the program. "We believe WIVP can bring us some of the best business, marketing and finance minds in the world," he said.

And Giassetti said she wouldn't change a thing about her career trajectory. "It's a completely different life, but I have no regrets," she said.

As a managing director at Axé Italia Onlus, an organization based in Brazil that works to empower poor children through arts education, she said she couldn't be happier. "It's the feeling you get when you see that you can help other people," Giassetti said. "It's something that I never experienced when I worked in the for-profit sector."

It appears the young people she's come in contact with on the streets of São Paulo and other cities across Brazil have already struck a nerve.

"I would love to do the same for children in Italy, as well," she said.

—By CNBC's Jermaine Taylor. Follow him on Twitter @J_D_Taylor.