Program Of The Year: Cornell Tech MBA

The Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City

‘THE MBA PROGRAM WAS CONSISTENT WITH THE WHOLE CORNELL TECH VISION’

The city began a competition among universities and several, including Stanford University, tossed their hats into the ring. But ultimately Cornell University, in partnership with Israel’s Technion, gained the rights to the land, and Cornell opened the doors to its new campus in September of this year.

Doug Stayman, associate dean of the Cornell Tech MBA program

“Right from the get go, part of the application to the city was that the business school would be part of the campus and that we would combine business school students with engineering and computer science students,” says Doug Stayman, associate dean of Cornell Tech. “We’ve since expanded that to include design and law. So the MBA program was consistent with the whole Cornell Tech vision.”

The program, however, also was designed to fulfil a need. Bain & Co. and Deloitte Consulting were enlisted to survey and speak with would-be applicants and employers. “Companies told us that they can hire technical people and they can hire business people,” recalls Stayman. “But the way digital is going is that people who span both fields are needed and they are difficult to find. So training people to bridge the business and technical was one very important insight from the market. The other was the importance of digital product management. That is the heart of Cornell Tech and the MBA program. We are trying to train students to not only understand business but to understand technology and technologists.”

WHAT THE MARKET RESEARCH SHOWED

The market research convinced Cornell that employers essentially wanted MBA graduates from an MBA program. “They wanted them to have the business fundamentals, leadership training and maturity,” says Stayman. “So we partnered with Cornell’s Johnson School to do the business basics in Ithaca over the summer. Then, we bring the students to the Cornell TEch campus in New York to learn about new business models and disruption. And the third part of the curriculum is bringing the MBA students in contact with students from the technical programs to design and build things.”

Given the tech focus, slightly over half of the students have technical backgrounds, with the remaining students non-technical. “The balance works well,” says Stayman. “You need a lot of technical expertise to build these products. There was pressure for the MBAs to do some of the coding and that is not what we want them to do. We want them to do product evaluation, strategy and the go-to-market plan.”

By creating the MBA program from scratch, the school didn’t have to deal with legacy issues of any kind where invested faculty might resist dramatic change. “The idea that we were going to have a practicum curriculum has never been debated or pushed back upon,” says Huttenlocher. MBAs still take the recognizable core classes, but we then took what normally would have been the free electives said that is going to be studio here. So we do have a much more rigid structure than comparable MBA programs elsewhere. There are very few free electrives but the benefit they get is this unmatched experience building products.”

‘THE GOAL OF THE CAMPUS IS TO BE VERY INVOLVED IN THE STARTUP SCENE’

Cornell Johnson Dean Mark Nelson

Mark Nelson, dean of Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, points out that the NYC campus was specifically built and designed for multi-disciplinary collaboration. “So the idea of the campus being something that was looked at as a clean slate is unique,” he says. “From a faculty perspective, it feels more like you are walking into a large tech firm. There are no private offices. The faculty are out in shared spaces, and the students work in open spaces, too.

“The goal of the campus is to be very involved in the startup scene in New York,” adds Nelson. So in the Tata Innovation Center, one of the initial four buildings on the Cornell Tech campus, the top three floors are actually leased to companies, including Citigroup and Cigna. “So those firms are part of the campus. Being part of that community is fundamental to the experience and to the vision that Mayor Bloomberg had when he launched this whole process.”

The first Cornell Tech MBA class of 39 students began three years ago in 2014 in Google’s New York headquarters building in Chelsea. With this fall’s opening of the Roosevelt Island campus, the school moved its newly entered fourth cohort of 62 students into the modern classrooms and studios in late August. That’s up from the 53 graduates of the program this past July. Within five years, predicts Nelson, the Cornell Tech MBA program–which currently has a tuition price tag of $98,940– could enroll as many as 175 students, nearly three times its current enrollment. That compares with with the 277 entering MBA students in Cornell Johnson’s two-year MBA program this year.

‘MBA STUDENTS LIVE, WORK AND STUDY TOGETHER WITH CLASSMATES FROM OTHER PROGRAMS’

The first two master’s programs at Cornell Tech were in business and computer science. Now the school has seven programs, including operations research, electrical and computer engineering, law and design, the latter a partnership with the Parsons School of Design. Another 50-50 partnership with Israel’s Technion runs what is called the Jacobs Institute which helps PhD students commercialize research, largely in healthcare tech and connective media.

“All of those students from all those programs do studio together and that is very important for the MBA studnets,” adds Stayman. “Think of any other MBA program in business. It will not only be in a business school, it will be in a separate physical building. At Cornell Tech, that is not true and that is what is unique. Students live, work and study together with classmates from all these programs. But we are an entreprenurial campus, not an entrepeurship campus. We want to change existng companies and not only do startups.”

For MBA student Vivian Ho, who lives in the newly erected residential hall on Roosevelt Island with other graduate students, the experience has been a true eye-opener. Her product team, composed of students in law, computer science and connected media, as well as another MBA with a background as an electrical engineer. They built an augmented reality application for SAP for students to study astronomy.

A ROUGH START FOR A MULTI-DISCIPLINARY TEAM LED TO POSITIVE EXPERIENCE

“In the beginning, my team had a little bit of a rough start because we were getting used to each other’s cultural norms,” she says. “But the process worked itself out. We pivoted our product at least four or five times and finally picked one we liked, During our final sprint to develop the product, the lawyer actually coded half the app. If you want to learn more about tech and you don’t have a strong background in tech this is a good opportunity to learn with a team that will support you.”

She has been surprised by the number of relationships that Cornell Tech has with New York City companies and organizations even though it has been in the city for four years. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities to work with these companies through the studio curriculum and a series of ‘studio conversations’ with industry leaders, she says, citing two examples including Apple’s chief diversity officer and the White House’s first digital officer.

If anything, Ho has found the classes so compelling that she wishes they could have been longer. “I have really been surprised at the pace of the program. It’s accelerated, but we still have to take the same number of credits as an MBA from the Johnson School. These classes have been really interesting and I wished they were longer.” When she graduates in May, she expects to return to Deloitte, transitioning from consulting for the government to focus more on innovative industries. She’ll  be back with one of the most innovative and differentiated MBAs in the world, the 2017 MBA Program of the Year.

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