MBA Program Of The Year: Washington University’s Newly Revamped MBA

Olin in Shanghai

Olin MBA students in Shanghai

It’s a rare year when fewer than a dozen prominent MBA programs fail to review and update what they teach and how they teach it. Mostly, faculty reviews of MBA curriculum result in tweaks to update the program, with a bit more emphasis on data analytics, leadership and teamwork skills, and a touch of experiential learning. In other words, it’s catch-up stuff that should have already been part of the school’s MBA experience.

So when a school commits to rethink its entire MBA program and then has the courage to implement the radical changes that have come up, it’s something that deserves scrutiny and analysis. That is the case with last year’s revamping of the MBA program at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. Olin’s new MBA experience is one of the boldest and most innovative program changes any business school has made in many, many years.

At the heart of the new program is a required global immersion that takes the entire class of newly arrived students on a 38-day, round-the-world learning experience in Washington, D.C., Barcelona, Spain, and Shanghai, China. To pull it off, the school required some faculty and all the students to show up for the program a semester early in late June. What’s more, Olin did not increase its MBA tuition to pay for the immersion or the extra semester. Instead, the school ate all the costs, flying students to the three locales, putting them up in hotels, feeding them, and arranging meaningful coursework, assignments and projects in each location.


The result: A truly differentiated MBA program at a time when most MBA experiences are frankly commoditized. For both the bold vision and successful execution of the radical revamp, Olin’s new MBA has been named Poets&Quants program of the year. Olin is just the third school to earn this now annual distinction. Last year, the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School won the honor for gaining STEM designation for its entire MBA program, the first to accomplish such a feat (see MBA Program Of The Year: Rochester’s New STEM Play). Simon’s lead has been followed by a bevy of other schools, including Carnegie Mellon and UC-Berkeley Haas. A year earlier, Cornell University’s Johnson School won MBA program of the year for its highly innovative Cornell Tech MBA in New York City (see Program of the Year: Cornell Tech’s MBA).

Olin’s global immersion, coming at the very start before the core courses are taught, set the tone for the program and provided immediate insights into how business is done across different cultures, countries, and economies. “They are on the road for eight weeks, 24-7, traveling together and working together on tough deadlines,” explains Olin Dean Mark Taylor, a Brit who was hired in late 2016 with the expressed purpose of making the school more global. The Oxford-education Taylor has sent six years as dean of Britain’s Warwick Business School. “The dynamics of the group change. At some point, everyone is in a foreign country and that changes the leadership dynamics of the group. In China, the Chinese became the leaders and then it turned back when we came back to the U.S.”

The immersion began with a seven-day experience in Washington, D.C., at the Brookings Institution, the public policy think tank, then moved on to a 14-day excursion in Barcelona, Spain, where Olin partnered with ESADE for classroom space. Finally, the cohort shipped off to Shanghai, China, for the final 17 days of the experience. At each location, the school combined classroom learning, including case studies and external speakers, with hands-on consulting projects and site visits. In Spain, for example, teams of students focused on the wine industry’s challenges. In China, students performed a market entry project for Strange Donuts, a company based in St. Louis, that is considering an expansion into Asia. While traveling, students also met with career coaching, received career communication feedback, interviewed for internships and ultimately returned to St. Louis ready to begin internship and career planning.


One pleasant surprise from the experience: The deep relationships forged among the students as a result of the immersion. “We anticipated the bonding but that was something the students were particularly enthusiastic about and the faculty and staff also bonded with the students,” adds Taylor. “So building that sense of community was really important.”

Students consistently reinforce that view. “In a traditional campus setting,” says MBA student Zach Frantz, “you see your classmates a couple of times a day for a class or your cross paths on a project or in a club,” he says. “But it would take a much longer time to develop meaningful relationships. But creating those relationships was a byproduct of the fact that you eat three meals a day with the same people, you go to class all day, you are on ten-hour plane rides together, and you spend all of your time together over six weeks. People get tight really quick. That was probably the best aspect of the trip. We started our core classes on campus with six weeks of memories together that none of us will forget.”

Lungile Tshuma, a 28-year-old former professional rugby player from Zimbabwe, vividly remembers a nearly magical evening in Shanghai with his fellow students. “We all went out by the river and sat down in the night with new friends in another part of the world, experiencing this together,” says Tshuma. “It was quite special. We are all pretty close now. We experienced a crazy amount of things together and a lot of it tested our skills. Getting an opportunity to be tested and put outside my comfort zone built the self-confidence to even dare to think I could make a contribution.”


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.