A New B-School Startup From MIT Sloan Reinvents The MBA Experience

MBA curriculum reviews are a dime a dozen. Every few years, just about every business school forms a faculty committee, convenes focus groups of students, alumni, and employers, and then rolls out a series of changes with some fanfare. The result: some minor tweaks that improve a program but are more likely to be incremental to the MBA experience. Rarely are the changes radical.

Not so for long-time MIT Professor Charles Fine, who was asked three years ago to lead an unusual business school startup in Kuala Lumpur. Fine, president and dean of the newly created Asia School of Business, a partnership with Bank Negara Malaysia, the country’s central bank, literally took a blank sheet of paper and, with no legacy or politics, crafted the shape of what he believes is an ideal MBA program for the times.

Roughly a third of the 20-month MBA curriculum is comprised of required experiential learning. Every MBA candidate has four team-based projects, one each semester, plus an individual project in the summer. That’s five major projects in five different countries with five different companies.

AT LEAST A THIRD OF THE MBA EXPERIENCE IS DEVOTED TO ‘ACTION LEARNING’

mit sloan curriculum changes

Long-time MIT Sloan Professor Charles Fine is the founding President and Dean of the Asia School of Business

“We felt that action learning, clinical work and interaction with companies, was central to where business education was going,” Fine says. “And the Sloan School does a lot of action learning projects. But by being able to take a clean sheet of paper, we were able to design a curriculum around action learning right from the start. So we built our curriculum around MIT courses and projects with companies in Southeast Asia every semester.”

For the school’s inaugural class, which entered last fall, there was an assignment for a clothing factory in Vietnam, a retailer in Thailand, a telecom company in Malaysia, a marketing strategy brief for a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary in Thailand, and several product development projects in Myanmar for Procter & Gamble. Each project, moreover, involves working on-site with the company for four to five weeks over the course of a 14-week term. And all that experiential learning doesn’t even include the full week the entire class spent in a Boeing plant in Malaysia, working side by side with teams of Boeing employees, or a manufacturing course, or a six-week immersion in the U.S. in Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., New York, and Sloan’s campus in Cambridge.

While more schools are putting greater focus on experiential learning, it’s often built into elective offerings and not required. More importantly, such project work tends to remain a peripheral part of the typical MBA experience. In MIT Sloan’s curriculum in Cambridge, for example, students can sign up for action learning courses in three of four semesters, spending two weeks on site for each project, or a total of six weeks if an MBA candidate took full advantage of those electives.

INAUGURAL CLASS: 47 STUDENTS FROM SIX CONTINENTS AND 12 COUNTRIES

That radical redo of the MBA experience, along with extremely generous scholarship money, has allowed Asia School of Business to attract an exceptional inaugural class of 47 students from 26 industries, six continents and 12 countries, including 10 from the U.S., seven from India, five from Africa, three each from Europe, Latin America and Russia, and a pair of students from Australia. That kind of international diversity is extremely rare for Asian business schools, which have found it difficult if not impossible to draw students from outside their regions or home countries.

The first class includes a U.S. Marine captain, professional musicians and athletes, a spiritual adviser, community volunteers, successful entrepreneurs, and Ph.D.s in computer science and physics. The students entered the program speaking more than 20 languages. “The class is highly multicultural, and part of the education is working with other students from all over the world and learning about how business and cultures work around the world,” Fine says. “It’s a very different education than being in a school where everyone is from the same culture.”

In creating the school from scratch, Fine had a unique advantage. He was able to dip into the stellar MBA applicant pool of the Sloan School to recruit candidates who just missed an admit from Sloan for its MBA program in the U.S. Some 40% of the students already had master’s degrees before coming to the school. Roughly 40% are women, and the average age of an entering student was 28 years.

‘WE MARKETED TO RISK TAKERS AND RISK SEEKERS’

“We marketed to risk takers and risk seekers,” Fine says. “We said we are going to be about change. We are going to change you and teach you to be a change maker. A certain kind of risk-seeking student took us up on that. Our students are savvy, with high emotional intelligence. A lot of them are extroverts. They want to talk, they want to get involved, they want to produce, and they are fun to be with.”

Fine’s fellow professors at Sloan have been uniformly impressed with the first cohort. “The overall intelligence and leadership potential is among the best I have seen in my 30 years of teaching MBA students in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world,” says S.P. Kothari, an MIT Sloan finance professor. Nabil El-Hage, a former senior associate dean at Harvard Business School, goes so far as to say that he believes at least five of the inaugural class of 47 students would easily earn Baker Scholar recognition at Harvard. Only the top 5% of HBS graduates are awarded Baker Scholar distinction.

The curriculum is meaningfully different in another way: The entire class is also given an all-expenses-paid immersion to the United States during the program. The six-week stint features a week in Silicon Valley, a week in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and four weeks on the MIT campus in Cambridge. “So they get some exposure to the MIT entrepreneurship eco-system and the MIT culture first hand while they are in the U.S.,” Fine says.