Some MBA students spend their year or two on campus poring over textbooks on financial engineering and supply-chain management. Bryan Fedorak pondered those topics too, during his MBA at Wilfrid Laurier University, but his real focus was on cocktails. Single-serve cocktails, to be specific—cosmopolitans and other popular drinks that could be mixed and poured at the push of a button, much like the way a Tassimo machine doles out individual cups of espresso.
A friend of a friend came up with the idea and recruited Fedorak and another acquaintance to help develop it. The trio were sure that a countertop cocktail mixer would be a big hit among young 20-somethings like themselves, so they enrolled in Laurier’s LaunchPad program, a course meant to help students start businesses. Billed as the only program in Canada designed for students who want to earn their MBA and launch a new venture at the same time, it takes degree candidates through startup basics and lets them grow their business ideas while they study. “[LaunchPad] counts for course credit, but you don’t really take it for the marks,” Fedorak says. “You take it to start a business.”
The program’s hands-on approach helped Fedorak and his fellow students soak up business basics fast—and learn from their mistakes. While testing their idea by talking to prospective customers, for instance, they discovered they weren’t envisioning the right target market for their product, called Max. “We thought it was going to be people our age, 20 to 25, and students, but we discovered it’s probably going to be more older, working people with a little more income, and they’re probably going to give it as gifts.” The Max team is currently designing the proof-of-concept prototype for their product and has adapted its features based on that feedback.
The chance to gain real-world insight from real-life business experience used to be rare in MBA programs. Now it’s the new mantra. Institutions such as Queen’s University, York’s Schulich School of Business, the University of New Brunswick and UBC’s Sauder School of Business are offering a growing number of entrepreneurship options, while others are adding work placements and consulting gigs to push students out into the here and now to learn for themselves.
The roots of the trend date back to the 2008 financial crisis, when the value of the MBA was being challenged, says professor Karl Moore of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. “There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about where business schools should go, and there’s a concern that business schools are disconnected from the needs of business—have we become too academic, too theory driven?”
Theory is important, of course. All MBA programs involve courses in subjects like accounting, marketing and strategy, but classroom teaching may not be enough to prepare students for the world of work, says Carlos Cabrero, a business analyst at Telus and a graduate of the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. “You can learn as much as you want from a textbook of theories, but the second you step into an office, everything is real,” he suggests. “You have to be able to think on your feet—you need the experience of mistakes and lessons.”
That’s why Kaleigh Brinkhurst found herself researching how much it costs to feed a reindeer. It’s a question you might expect to hear in Santa’s workshop, not at one of Canada’s top business schools. But Brinkhurst needed to find the answer as part of her MBA at Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business—she was under pressure from her clients, farmers in Quebec who were considering raising reindeer but wanted to see a feasibility study first. “It was a big learning curve because it’s a unique industry with not a lot of research available, especially in Canada,” she says.
Hands-on consulting experiences bring theoretical concepts to life, turning academic jargon into concrete examples and experiences. Take, for example, the Founder’s Dilemma: a notion that suggests a company’s success is partly determined by how aware its creators are of their personal faults. Sean Weir, the CEO of eCycle Solutions, encountered the theory in action during his mandatory field work at Schulich: “[It’s easy] to say to a CEO, ‘You need to be more focused on marketing.’ Well, she doesn’t like marketing, she doesn’t think about marketing, so that recommendation is useless. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”
Weir also appreciated the chance to turn academic theory he earned in the classroom into understandable outcomes for clients. “You’re talking to a business, and they have to know, ‘What’s the problem, and what do I do different on Monday?’” he suggests. “You have to go all the way through to give them something actionable, rather than telling them that, say, the supply chain is an issue.”
And when the problems are authentic, the stakes are “way higher,” adds Cabrero. “If it’s a case that you’re doing in class, you could propose the most absurd things and it doesn’t affect anybody. This is real, so you have to be careful that what you’re proposing has a lot of thought and effort in it, because it could have an actual impact.”
Unlike many other schools, HEC Montréal charges companies for the on-site consulting services its students provide. Knowing firms are shelling out an $8,000 fee for their work raises the stakes for students, who undertake the mandatory five-week real-world project at the end of an intensive one-year MBA.
Mathieu Renou, who now heads vinyl floor manufacturer Gerflor’s central European operations out of Poland, says his work with a Québécois nutrition company was a valuable return to reality after months of classes. “With someone actually paying for you to do this presentation and the report, and all the VPs are in the room listening to you, it’s a different kind of pressure to presenting to the professor and other students [in a case],” he explains.
The pressure created by the price tag attached to their consulting services transforms students into professionals, according to professor Michael Wybo, MBA program director at HEC. “[Consulting students] get so wrapped up emotionally in these projects; they feel responsible, they want to succeed, they have real people counting on them, and they’re accountable for the deliverables.”
This year, HEC also revamped its teaching and course structure in an attempt to reflect reality more effectively. Rather than taking separate courses on accounting, finance, marketing and strategy, HEC students will now study a set of seven models that integrate the different strands of management knowledge. “We’re trying to give students a more holistic and, we think, realistic perspective on how managers really think, not in little pieces or silos, but a global perspective on what organizations are doing,” Wybo says.
Of course, real-world experience can also lead to real-world job offers. Cabrero got his present gig because of an opportunity provided by the DeGroote School of Business A.T. Kearney Lab, which pairs teams of students with companies in search of solutions to existing problems. Cabrero wound up with a procurement supply-chain-type case with Telus. “It was very different than doing a [classroom] case, because our stakeholders were real business people who were experiencing this problem, and we had to work with them to find a solution. So they were using us as horsepower, and they were giving us their knowledge, their data and their experience.”
The Telus executives working with the team were so impressed with Cabrero’s work ethic and skills, they offered him a position after he graduated, one that includes implementing some of the solutions he proposed as a student.
Schulich grad Weir says he’s planning to offer up his own company to a team at his alma mater this fall. “I almost view the strategy study, quite frankly, as free consulting,” the eCycle CEO admits. “I could hire Deloitte to do it, or Monitor or someone like that, or I can allow a group of MBA students to do it and get, from my personal viewpoint, more actionable, real results.”
For Keagan Marcus, there’s no question about the value of the hands-on experience his MBA at the University of New Brunswick offered. Before he enrolled and participated in the Fredericton campus’s Activator program, which partners a group of students with a company that’s trying to get off the ground, he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with his own fledgling business. He and his friends had found a non-invasive way to test for the possibility of organ rejection after transplant surgery. But even though it eliminated the need for biopsies, major biotech companies like Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb showed no interest.
“We felt as though we had something revolutionary, but nobody was listening to us,” Marcus recounts. “We had to ask ourselves what we were doing wrong.”
At UNB, while working with a doctor who had a potential blockbuster proposal for bone regeneration, Marcus discovered the problem with his own business model.
Now his company, Biovialife, has switched its sights from biotech giants to doctors. “We had to go to the doctors who would be using our tests,” he explains. “Now we have doctors coming on board in different parts of the world who are working with the tests, in France, in Dubai.”
The company would not have gotten this close to commercialization if he had not learned the skills of entrepreneurship during his MBA, Marcus says. “I’ve been shot up the learning curve because of programs like Activator,” he says. “We made one failure, and we learned from that. Now if I’m doing it again, I have a better understanding to do it differently.”