Dean Q&A: Rice MBA’s Peter Rodriguez

The hallmark of the Rice MBA experience is an upbeat and team-driven culture

P&Q: Rice is located in Houston, Texas. You are blessed with a wide range of industries, a growing entrepreneurial scene, and 24 Fortune 500 firms. How do you leverage your setting in Houston to help your students gain invaluable experience and maximize their options after graduation?

PR: This is a fascinating place. I think it is an under-recognized city in many ways. The one that comes out a lot — and it surprises people a lot — is that it is the most diverse city in the United States when you look at an index of different ethnicities and nationalities. It’s extraordinary and it’s much broader than one would think with the presence of people from Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America and Central America. You feel it. It isn’t like these are subtle elements of the city. This is the natural way the city looks. I recall a recent article about the food scene in Houston. Someone described it as what they imagine the city in Blade Runner looked like. It has that broad and larger-than-normal mix of ethnic backgrounds. Food is not only a great way to get a handle into the cultural variety of the city, but also the comfort of it. People may think of Texas as Western culture, but it is a really distinctive city culturally. 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.

One of the fields that comes up a lot and matters to us greatly is healthcare. We’re literally across the street from the largest constellation of hospitals and healthcare centers in the U.S. It’s enormous and brings a lot of people in. That connects us to the natural sciences at the school and the opportunities that business people play in those very, very critical organizations in everything from healthcare delivery to entrepreneurship in healthcare. When you think about the impact that Millennials want to have, you can see great opportunities for presence and impact in healthcare here, which is something the city is deeply proud of. NASA is also associated with the city. We have a lot of entrepreneurial activities and technologies tied to space travel. We’re always looking for applications in Earth-bound technologies and those have a distinctive presence for us in Houston.

The city is really proud of its standing arts companies.  I think we’re one of five cities that have four of them. We have the Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet Company, and the Alley Arts Theater, all with great runs and great programs. There’s always something going on. I would tell you that the variety of things to do on your weekend is almost overwhelming. You have professional teams in basketball, baseball, football, and MLS soccer team. It’s incredible all the things you could do here.

If you want to get out, you go to the golf courses. There’s great fishing. In the next month we host the Super Bowl. After that, you have Rodeo Month, which is a series of celebrations and concerts around Houston. It’s  an incredibly large month-long series of parties and activities. It’s just loaded. This is actually one of the better times of the year for us, weather-wise. It’s more comfortable for us from mid-fall to later spring. You’re outside a lot. People eat outside. They run a lot. The city has been Investing heavily in the parks and railway systems. It’s been great for us. Living inside the loop, museums are free and they’re world class. There’s always something to see and be stimulated by. It’s almost tiring, but in a good way.

P&Q: Rice also ranks among the most generous MBA programs, with over 80% of your students receiving financial aid. In the process, you were able to boost your GMAT scores by 14 points in the 2018 class. Talk to us about how you are able to offer all of these packages and what the impact has been on your program?

PR: It’s a strategy born of at least two things. One of the things that matters a lot is the history of the university. The second one is a strategy to really improve our overall candidate pool, which is really getter better-and-better, year-after-year.

Rice students working together in the courtyard

The first part of the history is perhaps well-understood. Until the 1960s, Rice was free to all of its students. It was part of the desire of the founder of the university that it did not matter what station or financial resources one had. The school was built on the spirit of bringing in the top minds. That free tuition is hard to maintain, obviously. However, there has always been a high value that Rice could choose and be attractive to anyone. There’s a feeling that there’s probably lots of undiscovered talent among people who are watching their wallet and being very careful about debt. So there was always an ambition about being a heavily scholarship-laden program.

In the full-time program, I think a lot of it too has to do with us being a very young school. We were not really accredited until the late 1990s and early 2000s. So competing for the best students was always tougher. There was always a deliberate strategy, which we have accelerated recently, to use scholarships appropriately to make sure we could get higher-and-higher quality students. It goes with this virtuous cycle of quality that you could be happy to be part of this school among very smart, thoughtful, and capable people. It’s a little easier for us because, again, we’re small. It’s manageable, but we have to have the financial production in other areas of the school along with philanthropy to make it happen. So far, we’ve been able to manage that.

P&Q: Another defining feature of Jones is the Rice Alliance of Technology and Entrepreneurship, which has helped launch over 1700 firms and generated $3.3 billion dollars in funding for these firms. What are some of the programs and resources that you offer to prospective entrepreneurs (such as your highly-regarded incubator and your competition)?

PR: The Rice Alliance of Technology and Entrepreneurship, which is out here in the Jones School, is a collaboration between the Jones School, the School of Engineering and the School of Natural Sciences. Yes, we do have the world’s largest business plan competition. It’s a thrill. It’s so visible and we get recognized for it regularly. So many students from our school and other schools take advantage of it. But it’s only a part of what we offer. We also have things like OwlSpark, an accelerator program during the summer. So you can imagine that we’ll have students here (or from other universities) who have a great business plan idea and they come in and apply through a vetting process that looks for scalable and innovative technologies. We admit 10 (or maybe a few more) startup teams into a 12-week summer cohort. They’ll spend the summer getting mentored and supported by local entrepreneurs and angel investors, and venture capitalists to give them ideas not only on how they might take their next step in growth but also with each other. So it becomes another cohort of students, not just from our program but from other schools anywhere in the country.

We also do a lot of feed in processes during the year to help students develop business plans, decide on startup teams, and prepare them for the competitions, such as the business plan competition and getting into OwlSpark. Our aim is to have continuous activities that a student could, at almost any point in the year, enter themselves into a process so that they would be ready for these things at the end of a year.

Again, I find OwlSpark and the business plan competition bring in hundreds of people from Texas and the region who are not affiliated with the university but really want to be close to the students. These things have actually been a great tool for us to play large even while we’re not a very big school. So we can reach out to groups who are a bit distant from the school on one dimension, but could be close on this one. Even though we only have 6,000 alumni, we have a connectivity base that’s much larger. It’s strategies like the Alliance that helps us do that.

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