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At Ross, MBA Students Take Companies’ Reins

The new class at Ross was piloted with Shinola, a Detroit-based bicycle, watch, and leather goods manufacturer, as a Multidisciplinary Action Project in spring 2017

It’s common, in fact nearly universal, for MBA capstone projects to send students into the “real” business world to work for companies as consultants or in other capacities. It’s not so common — in fact it doesn’t occur at all, outside of one new course at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business — to effectively give those students the reins of a company and say, “Have at it.” But that’s just what they’re doing in a new elective course at Ross that Dean Scott DeRue calls part of a “mission to reinvent the student experience.”

The course, Living Business Leadership Experience (LBLE), was piloted last spring as a MAP, or Multidisciplinary Action Project. But even before that, it began in DeRue’s mind as an essential bridge from the classroom to the boardroom.

“We’re preparing our students for a world where they have to be able to thrive in the context of ambiguity, they have to be able to work across organizational boundaries to create value, they have to be able to mobilize a group of people to move in the same direction and deal with the sort of organizational complexities that come with building businesses and running them on a day-to-day basis,” DeRue tells Poets&Quants. “And I’ve always believed that the best way to do that was to close the gap between the learning of business and the doing of business.”

DEEPER LEARNING ‘IN THE CONTEXT OF RUNNING THE BUSINESS’

Scott DeRue on the Ross LBLE course: “We’re on a mission to really reinvent the student experience”

In the LBLE class underway this fall, MBA and undergraduate students are running businesses, starting businesses, and vetting business ideas for three major companies: Detroit-based luxury goods retailer Shinola, Ford Motor Co., and The NRP Group, a real estate developer in Cleveland, Ohio. Three more companies will be added to the course in the winter-spring session: Ookla, an Internet testing and analysis firm; Daily Fuel, a digital media and news site/service; and as-yet-unnamed third company.

LBLE students are involved in every aspect of company decision-making, from strategy to leadership to product launch. At Shinola, for example, four LBLE groups work in finance, e-commerce, marketing, and supply chain, and all recently worked in concert to help prepare a major business expansion in the form of a new product.

So far, DeRue says, “the companies are ecstatic, because what they’re getting is access to talent in a way that they’ve never gotten before. They’re getting to see how folks perform and how they’re able to learn on the job, and they’re also getting to build a business that they might not otherwise be building at the same rate or move as fast as they’re moving.

“Our faculty are really engaged because they’re getting to connect the concepts, the tools that they’ve given to students as part of the core curriculum. They’re getting to work hand in hand with the students to see how those apply in the context of building these businesses and leading the different functions. For example, if it’s a marketing function that the students are running, we’ve got a marketing professor in there who is able to reinforce the concepts they’re learning in class and deepen the learning that’s happening around the marketing skill set in the context of running the business.”

LEARNING ON THE FLY — JUST LIKE AT A STARTUP

And what about the students? At Shinola, a four-year-old company that manufactures watches, bicycles, and leather goods, students work as employees to help expand the business — a very real mission given Shinola’s plans to launch a new, finished product in coming weeks.

“Since my acceptance into the LBLE course, my team has experienced a fair amount of … well just about everything, but nothing has been more challenging than the ambiguity of the course itself,” writes Aaron Schmit, Class of 2018, who likens the course to an entrepreneurial enterprise because of its newness and the demand for adaptability. “Because this class is so new,” he writes, “our teams have had to be adaptive, process-oriented, and committed to learning on the fly with Shinola. In many ways, this is exactly what it’s like to work at any strong startup. …

“One thing about LBLE that I find very attractive is the opportunity to work with companies at different stages in their strategic processes. While Shinola is launching a new, finished product, teams working with other companies are earlier in the development process. By having the variety of stages, the course can appeal to many different students that are looking for specific skills to sharpen.”

THE LIGHTBULB GOES OFF

The LBLE course has been a few years in the making, says Dean DeRue, who was named Ross’s dean in May 2016. And he couldn’t be more excited about the direction it’s taking.

“We’re on a mission to really reinvent the student experience,” DeRue says, “to be much more experiential, hands-on, fully embedded in the curriculum — because we feel that that’s going to prepare our students for the world that they’re going into, which is certainly defined by dynamism and change and the need to be adaptive and thrive in the context of ambiguity.

“The students’ feedback the first week of the course was: ‘This is really hard. It’s really ambiguous, it’s not structured, the company isn’t doing everything that we want or expect.’ All of the stuff that you would say, ‘Yes, that’s what running a business is actually like.’ And then in week two or week three this lightbulb went off, where they actually began to see that they can make progress and begin to build the business. At the same time they began to see how much they were learning. And so right now the feedback across the board is really positive.”

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