Viva Bartkus

Mendoza College of Business

Associate Professor of Management

We use the phrase “as American as motherhood and apple pie” to describe our national character.

For Viva Bartkus, growing up in a close-knit Lithuanian community in northern Indiana, the phrase was more like, “motherhood, faith and self-determination.”

Bartkus, a child of immigrant refugees from war-torn Lithuania, both of whose grandfathers fought for independence during World War I, was impressed early on with the enduring drive for a people to maintain a sense of independence and identity.

“We should never underestimate the human dignity associated with a good day’s work, particularly for those who have come through conflict.”

Her interest in Lithuania’s geopolitics and heritage shaped her outlook on life, her education, her doctoral research and eventually her career as associate professor of management at Mendoza College of Business, broadening into a provoking question: Why do communities pick up arms to fight for independence?

Bartkus pursued answers through her undergraduate studies at Yale University and doctoral research at Oxford. She spent four years “traipsing around with insurgents and guerrillas in all the places you can think of,” as she puts it, following the data that led her to rethink her long-standing assumption that one particular political solution such as independence or autonomy was the solution to self-determination.

“I ended up finding that communities don’t actually care about the political configuration as much as they care about enabling them to raise their children within their own values,” she said. “The same stories you will hear from the Tamils in Sri Lanka, or the southern Sudanese or the Kurds, is less political as it is much more of valuing of the community’s own traditions, linguistic values and the desire for their children to be able to have economic opportunities within their own language, culture, religion.”

After finishing her Ph.D., Bartkus joined the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., spending 10 years working with clients in the health care and high-tech industries on strategy, organization and operations challenges. Her work took her to New York, Washington, D.C., London, Vienna, Los Angeles and Chicago. “From the last four years working as a partner of the firm, serving really quite extraordinary companies, I learned firsthand of the genuine power and dynamism of business,” she said.

The realization that business could have significant impact on societal problems would have long and deep implications for the work Bartkus would eventually do as a teacher and researcher after joining Mendoza College of Business in 2004.

In 2008, Bartkus and then-Mendoza Dean Carolyn Woo conceived and launched the MBA course Business on the Frontlines (BOTFL). “Bot-ful,” as pronounced by those familiar with it, is a signature course of the Notre Dame MBA that has a unique goal: to examine how to harness the dynamism of business to rebuild war-torn societies as a means of bringing about peace. BOTFL teams work on a project presented by an outside partner, such as an international humanitarian organization or multinational corporation.

In the spring semester, the students fan out across the world to conduct fieldwork for two weeks, meeting with everyone from government leaders to street vendors. After the teams return to campus, they spend weeks putting together detailed, in-depth recommendations outlining sustainable solutions to the targeted problem to share with the partner.

In its 10-year history, BOTFL teams have participated in more than 40 projects in 20-plus countries. By one estimate, as many as 10,000 people now earn livelihoods who would not have had jobs had it not been for BOTFL projects in the field. 

When asked about the impact of the projects on women in particular, Bartkus pauses. She’s careful in her answer because she wants it understood that empowering women is important to her. But within the context of establishing peace or political stability in these post-conflict areas, one finding in all of her research stands out: The key to stability is to provide jobs and growth opportunities for military-aged males, for they are the ones most likely to take up arms and engage in future conflicts.

“Much of what we’re trying to do in this race to build stability is to provide opportunities for work with dignity to young men as a viable alternative to fighting. For such opportunities, societies need to create markets and businesses.”

The course has proved to be a profound educational experience for the students, with many returning after graduation to serve as advisers and mentors.

Bartkus continues to evolve BOTFL. The course’s enrollment will expand from 25 to 50 in 2019-2020, and eventually up to 100 students will be able to participate. Notre Dame economics professor Joe Kaboski also has worked with the teams in two countries — Colombia and Brazil — to launch randomized control trials in order to determine under what conditions building businesses can provide increased social welfare in terms of income, safety and security.

For Bartkus, though, BOTFL closes a circuit, from her heritage to her professional life to her faith.

“Business on the Frontlines is, in many ways, very much drawn from my Catholic faith that came from my grandparents and parents and community,” she said. “We should never underestimate the human dignity associated with a good day’s work, particularly for those who have come through conflict.”  

Written by Carol Elliott