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Dean Q&A: Rice MBA’s Peter Rodriguez

Dean Peter Rodriguez

Big things come in small packages.

Talk about a great brand promise! The positioning is perfect: Don’t overlook us because we can compete with anyone. That’s a high bar to set and no school quite delivers on it like Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business.

No question, 2016 was a breakthrough year for the Rice MBA. Already renowned for hosting a top accelerator program and the world’s largest business plan competition, Jones vaulted into the top ten in Bloomberg Businessweek’s annual business school ranking, buoyed by high survey marks from students, alumni, and recruiters alike. Don’t expect Peter Rodriguez, the school’s new dean, to rest on its laurels. Coming from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he was senior associate dean, the native Texan is looking to build on this momentum while maintaining the school’s signature academic rigor and welcoming culture.

AN INCLUSIVE CULTURE WHERE EVERYONE PULLS THEIR WEIGHT

You’d be hard-pressed to find Jones alums who came away dissatisfied with their experience. For one, the program focuses on perks (such as close parking) and personal touches (like embedding downtime into the schedule) to keep students fresh, relaxed, and connected. Indeed, you could describe the Rice MBA as the Texas Tuck, with a student body that is unusually close and collaborative. For Rodriguez, the school’s intimate size, where everyone gets to know each other, plays a major part in that.

“I believe they are more thoughtful about including each other because absences are more significant,” Rodriguez muses in an interview with Poets&Quants. “I believe they are more thoughtful about their own reputation and social capital because everyone will know them. So you’ll have a team experience, but you will probably be on a team with everyone in your class before it is over. Early on, there is a recognition that you will be known and you will know everyone. I think that makes them want to be more inclusive in all that they do, whether it is a weekend event, travel or the clubs that they promote. It also means that they have a small pool of people rely on, so there is this norm of everyone pulling their weight and everyone being more included.”

That doesn’t mean that Rice is seeking out scholarly and sensitive souls who know how to sublimate their egos. In evaluating candidates, Rodriguez harkens back to the hardscrabble history of Texas in identifying one of the key traits of a Rice MBA student: Boldness. “It takes some boldness to venture around the world and tackle the Texas landscape such as drilling for oil in certain places,” he explains. It is a place where being ambitious and willing to look at and do the hard things is valued. It is an echo, if not a precursor, of a more entrepreneurial spirit that says it is more important to try than to worry about failing a couple of times. You have to be the one who is taking the lead and smart chances. That comes out in the experience. We have a lot of students who see themselves as soon-to-be and current leaders. They want to have a big impact on the world and the companies that they found and lead.”

ALWAYS SOMETHING TO SEE AND DO IN HOUSTON

Jones graduates have plenty of opportunity to make an impact in Houston, which boasts two dozen Fortune 500 firms and a bustling middle market and entrepreneurial scene tied to the city’s historical roots in energy and technology. As a result, the program draws heavily from the area’s c-suite royalty in both partnerships and even classroom teaching. At the same time, Rice MBA candidates get a strong does of what it is like to be a community business leader during their two year stay. The majority participate in a board fellows program that exposes them to both non-profit work and gives them, in Rodriguez’s words, “a sense of how the community thinks about the shared ownership of the space they live in.” Even more, the school has no shortage of area movers-and-shakers who want to contribute to the students in any way they can.

Downtown Houston

“Many of the business people who spend time and get involved may not be Rice graduates (or have children who are Rice graduates),” Rodriguez notes. “They just feel this is one of the key institutions in the city and we’re a place where they want to make a contribution to the livelihood of the city in the same way that the museums or performing arts companies do. That’s great for us. It means that we’re part of the broader community and there’s a sense of having to live up into that expectation in a productive way. It means something to be a Rice graduate, especially in Houston. Our students take up that mantel with some pride.”

At the same time, Houston has transformed into an amazing place to live. During the school year, the weather can be downright tropical. Forget Houston’s “Bubba” stereotype. The city features world class theater, ballet, and symphonies (not to mention great pro sports team and the world’s largest rodeo).   “There’s always something to see and be stimulated by. It’s almost tiring, but in a good way,” Rodriguez cracks. At the same time, the city has emerged as America’s answer to Toronto, with a rich mix of nationalities and cultures (not to mention cuisine).

MBA PROGRAM PLANS TO GROW IN SIZE AND ADD A GLOBAL EXPERIENCE

“People may think of Texas as Western culture, but it is a really distinctive city culturally,” Rodriguez emphasizes. “It is really good for how we think about each other and emphasize the ability to live and work around the world. We’re just a great immigrant community in that way and that helps our students think about their place in it and appreciate the opportunities that we have in a city like Houston and in the fields that are predominant here.”

You can expect the Rice MBA program to match Houston’s brisk pace and growing opportunities in the coming years. Next year, the school is poised to launch a required global experience. In addition, Rodriguez is working on plans to add another section to increase full-time enrollment. That may create buzz, but for Rodriguez the real strengths of the program are its strategic foundations and readiness to taking big steps. That’s a setup that’s hard to find and the reason why it was so easy for Rodriguez to uproot his placid life in Charlottesville to return to Texas.

“it was obvious to me that the school had been on the rise and had been making the right investments to prepare it to be part of a very distinctive list of top schools in the country. They had added the Ph.D. program not too long ago. They built a very lovely building. They’ve emulated the very best pedagogical characteristics of top programs. And they made the tradeoffs to scholarships in a way to begin to get some of the very best students too. It was clear to me that the ambition was there and the foundations were strong enough that we could really make this school excel and also continue to thrive in the rankings.”

Why have recruiters grown increasingly enchanted with Rice MBAs? What tweaks has Rodriguez made to the program since he arrived? Why has OwlSpark become the go-to program for aspiring entrepreneurs? Find out in our in-depth sit-down with Rodriguez.

P&Q: Each year, Bloomberg Businessweek surveys students and alumni about their satisfaction with their respective MBA programs. In recent years, Rice Business has generally finished near the top in satisfaction for both students and alumni? What have been some of the things that your program has done to produce such an upbeat vibe among both of these constituencies?

PR: Some of the things we’ve done in the program, though they may go unrecognized a bit, are just natural to the university. Let me give you an example of that. People might not always make the association, but Rice students, at the undergraduate and graduate level, rate really high in any sort of happiness ranking. It’s an unusual thing to call out, but it tells us about the environment. What tends to work in keeping the students really happy — and it shows a bit in the surveys — is that we’re a lovely, large green pastoral setting in a very big and diverse city. Coming into this very comforting place and having a good academic experience with lots of choices around them is always inviting and exciting. At the same time, it is a relief from the scale of the city to go to the smaller scale of the university and our program.