Stanford Ups Ante On Experiential Learning For MBAs

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business today (Oct. 30) upped the ante on experiential learning in its MBA program by adding three new ‘action learning’ courses that will debut this academic year. The classes are the first of what is expected to be a series of 10-week-long electives that will pair MBAs with Silicon Valley early-stage startups, innovation teams at Intel, and big data research projects

The new initiative comes after Stanford studied what other business schools, including the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and MIT Sloan School of Management, have done to put more emphasis on experiential learning. It is also the result of a long-range planning effort that GSB Dean Jonathan Levin put in place to address the changes in the business landscape and the future of management education.

Earlier this month, Stanford became the first major business school to publish what is expected to be an annual report on diversity and inclusion, also an outcome of Levin’s long-range planning initiative (see How Stanford GSB Is Tackling Diversity & Inclusion).


The first three courses leverage Stanford’s advantageous location to bring MBA students into contact with key players in the high tech ecosystem in Silicon Valley:

  • The Founder’s Right Hand: From Inspiration to Launch – This course will be taught by Stefanos Zenios, the architect of the school’s iconic Startup Garage course. It will involve projects where students work with startups to transform the visions of high-potential founders into actual ventures. The course will tackle issues like understanding founders, interviewing potential customers, analyzing the market opportunity, developing and testing a value proposition, generating and testing a go-to-market strategy, running and analyzing results from pilots, and providing advice to other teams.  This offering is set to begin in January 2020 with the start of the winter quarter.
  • The Corporate Entrepreneur: Startup in a Grown-up Enterprise – Students in this course, taught by marketing professor Baba Shiv, will work in teams to develop a proposal to start a new venture within a large organization. In the spring of 2020, student teams will work with engineers and entrepreneurs-in-residence in Intel’s Emerging Growth and Incubation (EGI) group to understand emerging technical capabilities, translate those capabilities to the language of business, and identify innovative business solutions to incubate within Intel. The Intel course, along with the following course focused on big data, will be offered during the spring quarter, beginning April 2020.
  • Data-Driven Impact – Students will work on projects to improve companies’ products or services using data and experimentation. The course, taught by economist Susan Athey, will cover key considerations for designing and executing high-quality research for product innovation to drive business outcomes and social impact. Topics may include designing research and experiments, data analysis, experimental and non-experimental methods for estimating the impact of product features, and management consideration for the delivery of actionable research. 

A fourth course is already in the planning stages and will likely involve project work in consulting.


Yossi Feinberg, former senior associate dean for academic affairs, is leading the action learning initiative at Stanford GSB

“The idea behind this is to create a learning experience for students where they learn in a real work environment but it is structured so that what you learn can be generalized for whatever your career path is,” explains Yossi Feinberg, the former senior associate dean for academic affairs who is leading the new initiative. “Students will work on a real project. It’s not an internship or a toy project. It has to be a real project that is meaningful for an organization. Then you have a team of students who are asked to invest time in it. The faculty member supports the learning and provides foundations that they need to execute and is also this leader who the organization would love to have as a consultant.”

While the new initiative significantly adds to Stanford’s investment in experiential learning, it does not go nearly as far as Michigan Ross which pioneered action learning years ago more than 25 years ago. Ross breaks its academic calendar, suspending regular classes for a full term in the spring semester so first-year MBAs spend their entire seven-week term on a required Multidisciplinary Action Project. Eight years ago, Harvard Business School Back in 2011, added a required Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD) experience as a required part of the first-year MBA curriculum. It culminates in a week-long global immersion project with a company.

The new Stanford courses will be limited to between 15 and 25 students in each class. “We will start pretty small with each course,” says Feinberg. “There is a lot of energy we need to put in each project. We are not doing cookie-cutter projects which adds to the complexity. It is different projects within each course. What we want to create is a platform, a situation where we look at our students’ career paths and needs and then create courses that serve a certain career path. Our students take internships in the summer and those internships rarely convert to jobs. It’s not because they don’t get offers but because the students use internships as a learning experience.”

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