Dean Q&A: MIT Sloan’s David Schmittlein

The campus of MIT’s Sloan School of Management

Another thing we are pretty proud of in this program is driving our students pretty hard with respect to analytics. We’re not apologetic about that. If all of management education is, as the headline says, from the gut then we lose. We’re not going to run away from the value of smart from the way that understanding complexity provides opportunities. That has to be a cornerstone of what we do and what we do well.

A third piece besides the experiential learning and the content you’ll be proud to know twenty years from now is inventiveness. This is a place where, all around us, people are proving the existence of gravitational waves. They’re at the leading edge of fusion energy or they’re measuring blood pressure in your brain not invasively for the first time. All of that is right here within three blocks of us at MIT. Inventiveness is seeing what’s not there now in terms of organizational and technological opportunities and creating it. That’s a part of who we are.

And let me do a fourth. It is really a consequence of the small size of our program. It is a grounded community. It is an open community. It is a supportive community. It is a community of megalomaniacs, but cooperative ones. It’s not like any other community.

Take Melissa Korn, who is a writer for the Wall Street Journal. A couple of years ago, she came to campus to meet the students and myself. She had asked me, “Tell me about your students.” “Rather than tell you about them,” I said, “if you think they are different, I’d like you to send me an email telling me how they are different. That night, she wrote me an email (I still have it) and said, “While many of your peers talk about how their students are humble and grounded, that was really palpable at Sloan.” There’s something about choosing to come to MIT that puts a demand on yourself. It’s not like choosing other business schools. I’m not saying there aren’t other great business schools. I’m not saying that some of them don’t choose a culture deliberately (Harvard and Booth, for example, choose a culture). We choose a culture and I’m proud of the culture that we have. If you don’t come here and meet the students, you won’t see it. You’ll think, ‘It’s just a dean talking.’ When people come and meet our students, they see them as being humble and grounded and about the work. You have to see that it is real.

P&Q: If you had to describe the MIT culture in one or two words, what would they be? What are some of the traits and backgrounds of students who fit and flourish at Sloan?

Class in the MIT Sloan School of Management – Ethan Baron photo

DS: I’ll give you four words that come in two pairs. The thing I noticed about our student culture is that it brings together certain elements that people think of as a bit opposite of each other. Smart and inventive aren’t two things that people necessarily put together. Smart can be chess playing smart or star gazing smart. Smart isn’t always inventive, but here at MIT it is.

The other two that are interestingly paired here are open and grounded. The grounded part is knowing what you’re talking about, being humble about it and being about the work. Open refers to being open to people, possibilities, the world, five different ways to solve a problem or five different ways to learn about something, not just simulations, ventures, experiences, or cases. It is an openness to what works, but grounded in that you should really know what you’re talking about.

Most schools can tell you a story about social entrepreneurship. Here, if you look at the students who are heroes in community, one of them is the group who started the firm Sanergy a few years ago. They turned human waste into energy. It’s incredible, wonderful, profitable dealing with human challenges and using a lit bit of MIT technology as well. Having the bravery and courage to go and try something different is really admired here.

A couple of years ago, I was having dinner at the end of the spring semester with some students who were being recognized. Two were sitting next to each other at my table and one said to the other, “What are you going to do after graduation?” He goes,” I’m starting a new business in Kenya.” The other replies, “Don’t be a jerk.” He said that because he too was starting a business in Kenya. One was salvaging and the other was a telecom startup. Now, it is not in fact the case that all of our students go off and start businesses in Kenya.  But, you know, how cool to have this coincidence!

P&Q: You’re also part of MIT, one of the most renowned educational institutions in the world and known for its prowess in engineering and physical science. Talk to me about Sloan’s relationship with other schools at MIT along with some examples of how that has been benefited your MBA students.

Dean David Schmittlein

DS: It helped me to come from another university – to have experienced the challenges that most universities have in cross-campus collaboration.  And of course business school deans talk to each other with some frequency, and I am able to see the struggles that they have, innovating across a large university.  All to appreciate that at MIT the boundaries are lower…if for no other reason than the need to work together, across social and physical science and engineering and business, to solve the very big problems of the world.

Remember the thing I said about megalomaniacs? MIT is a place where people want to solve really big problems. Really big problems do not have as their answer, by itself, a single device, germ, new nano-material, or computer program. Yes, in many cases, science and tech are key to finding solutions, but so too are economics, sociology psychology, politics — the people side. If you are going to be serious about solving the biggest problems — and we have the megalomaniacs who’ll take on nothing less — it requires that they actually work together across schools. It’s not a structural thing. It’s a cultural thing. That element of culture is very much alive at Sloan and MIT.

Looking more specifically at opportunities for students, we, not surprisingly, have students who are interested in innovative enterprises and (in some cases) startups as well. One of the things that is quite distinctive about entrepreneurial startups out of MIT is that a third are based on innovative technology developed by MIT students while they are students (that could be inside the lab or outside it).  If you include other companies that are technology-enabled and often use data analysis done by MIT students it would be well over 50%.

That’s a real benefit for our students. The way that happens is through the entrepreneurship courses, which are taken by people all across campus. So you’ll have postdocs in a chemistry or electrical engineering lab who have created something new and don’t know whether it is a business idea or not. So they come into an entrepreneurship course to see whether they can get anyone to take up the idea and flush out a business plan for it.

There’s a great example that has to do with power converter technology that came out of engineering at MIT that led to a company called FINsix. The CEO of the company is Vanessa Green, an MBA student, and all the technology people with the technical ideas came from MIT engineering. That can happen anywhere, but it doesn’t happen as often or with the kind of technological innovation that you get here. MIT technologies tend to be about robotics, aero and astro, and life sciences. They are in stuff that’s in the real world. We have innovation in computer science and a lot more areas than that as well. There’s really not a place that competes with MIT with that kind of opportunity. If you’re interested in being an entrepreneur, that’s one of the sources of entrepreneurial ideas that you’re welcome to take advantage of here.

Second, a lot of our graduates in the MBA program go out not only to work in consulting firms, finance or pure entrepreneurial startups, but they work for small- to mid-sized, rapidly-growing, innovation-driven companies. Some of those companies themselves were built off MIT technology and they’re looking for the management talent to take that company to the next level. As you know, for a lot of MBA graduates, that’s where they would like to go — an opportunity like that where (on the one hand) it has more of a revenue-base and a trajectory than a pure startup, but it’s not like working for your grandmother’s electric company or something like that.

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