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

Olin MBA students in Shanghai on part of their global immersion


Not surprisingly, there was a spirited debate among faculty about the changes. “There was healthy skepticism and debate and a very critical thought process over whether the benefits of this were in line with the costs,” recalls Andrew Knight, a professor of organizational behavior who taught in the global immersion. “There was healthy skepticism over the school’s ability to execute on the logistics. But there was also tremendous excitement that the school was doing something that was big, bold and transformational that other schools weren’t doing.” Ultimately the faculty vote was nearly unanimous, with just one objection.

Bolting onto the program a global semester during the summer was a major change that would add considerable expense to the program, roughly an additional $20,000 per student and putting newly enrolled students into consulting projects when they hadn’t yet had the benefit of core courses in business basics. “We were putting the students in real-world situations with significant business challenges and asking them to come up with original solutions,” says Kadan. So during an orientation on campus before the entire cohort took flight, there were a series of crash courses in basic concepts in marketing and strategy as well as leadership and teamwork. After all, students would not merely be studying in a different location; they also would be working professionals in a different country.

“If we want to get the students traveling around the world, the best time to do it is the summer before they start,” explains Kadan. “Otherwise they are always searching for jobs, whether internships or full-time positions. So the only time you could take a full class is before they even start. That was a constraint. But we sent them off with concepts that allowed the students to cope with problems at a basic level. The idea is you can cope in an experiential way and do it relatively early. Once you are struggling with a problem, we make sure we close the loop with core faculty. We just moved everything early. Nobody is doing this. It’s really hard to replicate.”


Knight, who taught principles of teamwork to the newly arrived students, found the experience highly satisfying. “It was one of the most meaningful teaching experiences that I have ever had because I was working arm and arm with faculty from other departments,” he says. “It led to a level of collaboration that drove a lot of the learning and the rapid acceleration of our student interpersonal and leadership skills. The immersion helped to get them dramatically up to speed before they show up doing interviews (for summer internships) in early September and October.”

The school sorted students into five-person teams, with both functional and geographic diversity, so that each team had expertise in core disciplines like finance and marketing, along with quantitative skills to make up the fact that the MBAs hadn’t yet had the core courses in the program.  Olin also rotated the formal leadership roles of each group by location. “We really wanted to cultivate a sense of resourcefulness in our students,” adds Knight. “It comes from simple things like if you have never been to Shanghai how do you navigate the experience where you are essentially blind, deaf and dumb because you don’t know the language or the culture. The consulting assignments really stretched the students. And because we are staying together in hotels, we are having breakfast and lunch side by side with the students so there is a more intense support structure than in a typical class schedule. In fact, it was very intense. Yet, I was able to develop a stronger relationship with the students because we were all in it together, sharing a lot of time and space together. I came out with a far stronger sense of connection to my school and the people in it.”

Not only was student reaction highly positive, but many of the MBAs chose Olin because of the new experience. “The immersion tipped the scale for me toward Olin,” says Mike Haueisen, a 27-year-old who had worked in advertising and marketing before joining the program. “There are a whole bunch of personal and professional advantages. “We came together quickly and you now have more than 90 good friends when you get back. Everyone is much more collaborative. The world is more global and data-driven today. To really understand that, you actually have to go and experience it, talk with executives and see how they think and why some products could be a huge hit in Spain or China yet flop here. You would never get that until you are there.”


Among his assigned team members was an accountant from Los Angeles,  a woman from New York who was an entrepreneur and had worked with Amazon as a logistics coordinator, an entrepreneur from Vietnam who had launched a chain of coffee shops in his home country, and another woman from India with a background in technology. “The teams were purposely designed with backgrounds to cover everything,” says Haueisen. 

Zach Frantz says he turned down acceptances to the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California in favor of Olin due to the new program. Frantz, 29, who had lived and worked in China for five years and is fluent in Mandarin, believes that the global immersion was a major attraction.  “I like to think of myself as a global citizen so I wanted to go to an MBA program that was globally focused,” says Frantz, who had earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois.  “Every school as some sort of immersion program but Olin is the only one that I researched which has an entire semester abroad where you travel with your entire class.”

Despite his earlier experience in China working as a math teacher and in educational consulting, Frantz says the experience changed the way hew views the world. “Business school is supposed to give you a different framework,” he says. “Every first semester has its core courses and what surprised me is how my viewpoint changed in just a short period of time. The first time I looked at an income statement it was for a winery in Barcelona. The first time I learned about pricing is from our assignment for a company going to market in Shanghai. We did industry analysis and market and customer research and scouted out potential locations for the company. So there was another layer to all the decisions you had to make. The first time I learned operations was through an apparel company and a Nike fulfillment center in China. Even though I lived there, I had never been exposed to these more traditional business experiences. it gave me a more complete view of the country as a whole. ”


Kendra Kelley, a 30-year-old who had worked in marketing in Atlanta, was surprised by her sense that she was not merely a student in another country. “I realized I felt like a businesswoman working abroad and not a student. I was expecting to feel like I was in the midst of a study abroad experience but due largely to our consulting projects, we grappled with the challenges these businesses were facing.”

In Washington, where students engaged in discussions of values, economics and public policy with a series of thought leaders, the cohort was given a health care assignment. “We had to grapple with what it means to tackle a big policy challenge. It was pretty lofty from a policy perspective. It was a tough week but a good way to start off the experience. We also had prep sessions to help us understand the economic and cultural climates we were walking into, including thought leaders from Brookings who spoke to us on trade relations in China.”

One enduring takeaway for her? “What will stay with me is I cannot shake this feeling that I have to work abroad in the future,” says Kelley. “It is something that I absolutely want and need to do. Now that I had a taste of what it is like, I just can’t let that go. It was incredible to understand the juggling and balancing act of having to be cognizant of so many cultures at once and how that impacted the way business was conducted. I had never looked at a balance sheet before and never crafted an income statement and had no exposure to operations or distribution channels. The real exposure to those things was so helpful for me. It allowed me to have a real frame of reference in the classroom.”


All in all, Dean Taylor is more than pleased with the first iteration of the new curriculum, which also includes new elective courses that feature seven-to-ten day immersions in Israel, Germany, and South Africa. “There were a few wrinkles but the students were very enthusiastic about it,” he says. I’d say we got about 95% right. We increased cultural awareness, deep bonding among the students, faculty, and staff, added a lot to our soft skill development and really accelerated the personal development of the students.  If you just did the eight weeks anywhere in the world that would itself lead to accelerated development. Given the additional cultural experience on top of that gave everyone added value.”

Asked to assign a grade to the new curriculum, Vice Dean Kadan says he would give it an A. “I’m not saying it was perfect, but it was so complicated on so many dimensions and it was a success,” says Kadan. “Can we improve? Yes. Some live cases needed to be improved. Some turned out to be adequate but less useful. And we are working on the sequencing and coordination. But the level of complexity is like gymnastics when you take a very difficult maneuver and get points for that. So the level of complexity justifies an A. It was collaborative and different and exciting.”

Tyler Edwards, a 27-year-old lawyer who wants to use the MBA to transition into consulting, agrees. “I wouldn’t take this back for anything in the world,” he says. “It’s a blessing. I don’t know how I got so lucky.”


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