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D’Amore-McKim Dean Raj Echambadi On The Latest MBA Twist: MBAx

The architect of the first truly disruptive online iMBA program at the University of Illinois, Raj Echambadi left the school in 2017 to become dean of Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Now the business education innovator has come up with a new and unique idea in reimagining the school’s full-time MBA.

It’s called MBAx, a way to provide business school students with the business basics but also leverage the skills and talents of other parts of the wider university. The new degree program puts interdisciplinary learning front and center. It begins with one semester of MBA foundation courses and a career management course. In the second term, students choose one of four concentrations in computer science and another in one of nine business disciplines, such as finance, entrepreneurship or supply chain management. Your second and final year includes a paid corporate residency that lasts for 3-months, 6-months or up to 12-months, in addition to earning your remaining credits towards your degree.

D’Amore-McKim is collaborating on the program with other professional colleges at Northeastern, such as The Khoury College of Computer Sciences, the College of Arts, Media and Design (CAMD), and the College of Science. In computer science, for example, a business school student can now take a deep dive in such topics as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, data science, or software development.

With the new program, Echambadi is breaking down traditional university silos to give students deeper expertise in discrete areas of emerging technologies. Dean Echambadi met with Poets&Quants Founder and Editor-in-Chief John A. Byrne to discuss the new innovative program.

John A. Byrne: Raj, you did something incredibly disruptive at the University of Illinois, launching a $22,000 online MBA. And now you’re about to unleash your innovation magic at Northeastern with something called the MBAx. What is it? And why are you doing it?

Raj Echambadi: So when you think about the future for business, if you think about fintech, of course, it’s going to be the combination of finance and computer science and technology. Or do you think about accounting analytics? It’s going to be accounting and data science. And in our traditional MBA programs, D’Amore-McKim graduates are expected to do two concentrations in business. People typically do marketing and supply chain, or accounting and finance. And what we did was we relaxed that assumption so the student could do one concentration in business and a second concentration in a non-business area, if they’d choose, like computer science or artificial intelligence.

By virtue of bringing in, let’s say, a college of science, we now have a concentration in bioinformatics and one in biotech. By virtue of going to computer science, we have four different concentrations there: computer science, artificial intelligence, data science, software development. When you go to the College of Arts, Media and Design, you have the option of taking experiential design. And this is, I think, the secret sauce. We have moved from teaching these literacies in silos to integrating these literacies. And we call it “humanics” within Northeastern, which is the integration of three different literacies: technology literacies, data literacies, and human-centered literacies.

Byrne: What’s motivating the change?

Echambadi: We need to create a newer generation of managers that are extraordinarily conversant in this era of digital convergence, which means some paradigm shifts, going to an ecosystem view, and understanding that there are new literacies that you need to have. So that’s basically what we did with our MBAx.

Byrne: What I like about this, Raj, is that it’s an idea that allows the business school and its students to leverage the university’s expertise in different areas.

Echambadi: Yes. And that’s how digital convergence affects us. Because it’s going to affect the world in terms of how we live, how we learn, how we produce content, and how we consume content. And it’s not just for the outside world; it is also for us inside D’Amore-McKim.

Byrne: Did you gain corporate buy-in for this change?

Echambadi: We reached out to about 400 hiring managers of companies with revenues over $250 million. And they basically said to us, “We need students and learners who are conversant in multiple disciplines, people who can navigate this world of digital transformation. I would say the MBAx for us is a step in that direction. Companies are struggling with their talent strategies. They are not getting enough people. And if they have people, they are struggling with rescaling and upscaling. This effectively means we, as business schools, need to radically rethink how we prepare professionals for those roles.

Byrne: One of the distinctive competencies about Northeastern and its business programs is experiential learning. In your undergraduate program, your co-op experience is legendary; it really gives students real learning that sets them up for full-time jobs, which is why your career outcomes are very good. And then in your MBA program, you have a corporate six-month residency. How did Northeastern get the lead on that? And how has that been refined or changed through the years?

Echambadi: Our experience is in undergraduate education. We have about 10 combined majors where we take the undergraduate curriculum, divide it into two, give it to two different colleges, and ask them to integrate. So we have 10 different combined majors in the undergraduate curriculum. And as a university, we have about 3,000 partners in over 100 countries. Every year, and I say this to people, Northeastern undergraduate placements in a co-op are about 11,000. D’Amore-McKim is about 25% of that. That is the kind of placements we provide across the world.

Byrne: And you have 30 full-time people in the undergraduate school alone managing the logistics of these partnerships?

Echambadi: Correct. You can’t just take these students and send them off to corporate partners. You have to train them, and they get these jobs. These students come in and they can raise their hand and tell the faculty member, “That’s not what I saw at Salesforce. That is not what I saw at Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan.” So two-thirds of our students at D’Amore-McKim get a job with their co-op employers. And when they graduate, they are absolutely prepared for the real world because they’ve worked in it and know exactly what they want to do.

Byrne: Now, Raj, we’re here in San Francisco in the heart of the city. You have students in this building. Tell me what they’re doing here.

Echambadi: If you want to learn entrepreneurship, which is the best place to learn? You come and learn in Silicon Valley, which is what our students are doing here. We have campuses right now in Charlotte, Seattle, Vancouver, and Toronto. We have a presence in London and, obviously, the Boston campus. We are using these campuses as innovation hubs, if you will. And then we feed the experiences along with the network.

Byrne: How distinctive is your approach to entrepreneurial education?

Echambadi: In the last three years, John, 64 ventures have been launched at Northeastern. They are sustainable for future funding, or they have revenues to the tune of $200,000. Our alumni can come back and say, “I want to start a new venture,” and we let them go through our accelerator if you will. So this has been a very unique asset such that, last year, the Deshpande Foundation awarded us the top entrepreneurial university for our entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Byrne: Congratulations on that.

Echambadi: Thank you.

Byrne: So Raj, as we wrap up, let’s pretend I’m a potential learner and I’m looking at your school. Convince me that I should go.

Echambadi: Very simple, John. We prepare you for the future of work. I want all our students and learners to be CEOs, chief entrepreneurial officers. The future of work in this era of digital convergence is going to be very different compared to the past. At a very broad level, the human-centered skills are what is going to take you to the top and enable you to be robot-proof.

Byrne: Well Raj, thank you for the really interesting insights.