UC Davis MBA: Take A Deep Dive Into Industry Immersions

What’s an industry immersion?

It’s a unique learning adventure pioneered by the Graduate School of Management at UC-Davis. These year-long immersions are deep dives by students to engage in some of the world’s major challenges in food and agriculture, biotech, energy and sustainability.

Every immersion is composed of workshops, classes, field trips, and ultimately, competitions along with internships in a particular industry that’s central to some of the world’s biggest problems. No less important, they leverage the school’s location and the university’s expertise in California by tapping into core industries that define the area.

“UC Davis is number one in the world in food and agriculture,” notes Dean Rao Unnava. “We are in the top five in the country and sometimes, number one, according to various rankings on sustainability and clean energy. We are very highly ranked in biotech. So we thought, why not actually deal with specializations in the industry where we seem to have strengths? And so a student coming here has to take advantage of that.”

What also makes the immersions unique as an MBA experience is the fact that Unnava invites PhD and master’s students from other schools and departments at the university to work side by side with MBAs. So they gain the skills and knowledge of those in food science and technology, molecular biology, nutrition, and other fields to tackle challenges.

Emily Steliotes, a PhD student in UC-Davis’ Agricultural and Environmental Chemistry areas, sings the praises of the immersion experience. “It’s really, really cool to learn from the business students because I think they have a really different way of thinking than Ph.D. students, and scientists and researchers,” says Steliotes. “And I think both are equally valuable.”

Adds MBA student Nathaniel Morrison: “Being able to check in on some of the ideas and understand some of the technical feasibility behind different business initiatives is really helpful to have that other voice come in. It’s easy for us to see a revenue stream, but you have to be able to actually execute on it.”

Watch our video presentation to find out more.

Read the transcript below: 


Julie Morris: What’s true is the expertise because everything we talk about is pretty much current, like what’s happening now.

Hemant Vaidya: There are a lot of opportunities evolving and we want to prepare the students for them.

Emily Steliotes: Get stuff out there, make it happen.

Shreyanshi Khan…: You’re learning how to align value and profitability.

John A. Byrne: Hi, I’m John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to the campus at UC Davis. We’re outside at the Graduate School of Management. We’re here to explore a unique aspect of their MBA program, its year-long immersions that students engage in to address some of the key challenges in the world in food and agriculture, in biotech and in energy and sustainability.

Leslie Nelson: This course, the Sustainable Energy Immersion course, is well known to be one of the best.

Hemant Vaidya: We bring in people from UC Davis, or from industry and say, “Tell us about what’s happening and will be happening in the next five to 10 years.”

Jack Clare: I’m very impressed with their engagement in big problems.

Speaker 9: The sentiment of the market. What are people thinking? What are they afraid of?

John A. Byrne: The school is known for its immersion programs. These are year-long, deep dives into a given industry, the challenges it face, and the future it has.

Benjamin Finkel…: The Graduate School of Management’s immersion approach is a key differentiator. This is this opportunity to get their MBA skills, but also really be immersed into this field, and I think that’s exciting.

Teghpreet Ahluw…: They have pushed me. They’ve encouraged me. They’ve helped me get to that next step.

John A. Byrne: This is truly an incredible experience of workshops, classes, field trips, and ultimately, competitions along with internships in a particular industry that’s central to some of the world’s biggest problems.

Nathaniel Morri…: Food and ag really stands at the intersection of solving the human need to feed the growing population.

Benjamin Finkel…: We believe we can capture these lost sales. If I was getting my MBA now, I won’t wish I had a course like this when I was getting my MBA.

John A. Byrne: So Rao, what a pleasure it is to be on campus here again today. One of the cool things I think about UC Davis Graduate School of Management is its location. You are a little more than an hour from San Francisco. You are two and a half hours from Lake Tahoe. You’re about an hour from the wine country, Napa and Sonoma. You’re three hours from Yosemite. You’re in an ideal spot.

Rao Unnava: And the students love it. Not only because they have things to do during the weekend when they come here, but also because there are educational experiences coming out of these locations.

John A. Byrne: When many people think about California, they think about tech, and they think about Hollywood in LA. But what they may not know is that California is the number one agricultural state in the United States, and fifth in the world. So you’re leveraging one of the great industries in your immersion programs?

Rao Unnava: That is exactly correct. UC Davis is number one in the world in food and agriculture. We are in the top five in the country and sometimes, number one, according to various rankings on sustainability and clean energy. We are very highly ranked in biotech. So we thought, why not actually deal with specializations in the industry where we seem to have strengths? And so a student coming here has to take advantage of that.

John A. Byrne: I know that another differentiator of the program is something that you created, these immersions, and they tackle some of the big world problems that we have out there. Tell us a little about how they’re structured.

Rao Unnava: Sure. The students don’t sit in the classroom just as MBA students. They have students coming in from STEM programs. So if you think about the food and agriculture immersion, they’re sitting in classes with PhD students and masters students from food science and technology, molecular biology, nutrition and so on, and they tackle these problems being thrown at them by executives who come and tell them, “This is an issue that we are dealing with. How would you go about taking care of that?”

Speaker 13: Do you think in 2021, the retailers are just gaming the system?

Speaker 14: Yeah, and I think that also is addressed by this reduced growth.

John A. Byrne: So we are here at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. We have three MBAs, two full-time, one part-time, and we have a PhD student. Wow. And a master’s student from LA. And we want to talk a little bit about the immersion program here. Tell me about what it’s like to work with an MBA student on a team in an immersion project.

Emily Steliotes: It’s really, really cool to learn from the business students because I think they have a really different way of thinking than PhD students, and scientists and researchers. And I think both are equally valuable.

John A. Byrne: And you’re earning your PhD in?

Emily Steliotes: The graduate program is Agricultural and Environmental Chemistry. I’m specializing in food chemistry and I work in the Food Science Department.

John A. Byrne: So the beauty of this is having someone with that incredible deep expertise on your team. Now you’re the MBA in the immersion and ag and food. What’s it like to work with a PhD student?

Nathaniel Morri…: Being able to check in on some of the ideas and understand some of the technical feasibility behind different business initiatives is really helpful to have that other voice come in. It’s easy for us to see a revenue stream, but you have to be able to actually execute on it.

Teghpreet Ahluw…: When the MBAs, when we’re coming up with strategy or financing ideas, it’s helpful to have that knowledge to be like, “Well, hydrogen, in order to transport it, we need to create completely new pipelines. You can’t just do the same ones.” Whereas we’re not as knowledgeable about those things because we’re still learning. So that was really great to have a good mix of two or three MBAs, two or three energy students in each group, which was very beneficial.

Jack Clare: What we see out of the school here is they’re drawing not only on the business school, they’re bringing a cross-functional academic set of skills together. That’s how business leadership in the future will have to solve problems. You’re going to have to bring these cross-disciplinary teams together with different backgrounds and experiences to solve problems.

Leslie Nelson: Our ways of enhancing or expanding our current services, but also looking for new revenue opportunities.

Nathaniel Morri…: They’re able to achieve a 100% market share in everything they’re capable of delivering. That share will be $140 billion.

John A. Byrne: So tell me, what’s the essence of the immersion experience? Give me a sense of the structure of it, what you’re hoping to achieve. What students really experience.

Julie Morris: The immersion experience is a way of introducing students to a specific focus area within our MBA program. And it provides a variety of experiences for the students to be able to connect with leaders in industry, be exposed to business problems, where they get to go out and really see businesses in action, see what’s happening out there either in the field, or in the factory, or in a retail outlet, and perhaps even in an innovation scenario where they’re creating new products as well.

John A. Byrne: The newest immersion is biotech. Why biotech? Why UC Davis?

Hemant Vaidya: The main objective of the program is to prepare the MBA students to lead and manage the biotech industry. They learn the fundamental technologies involved in biotechnology and so forth, and then immerse them, interact with the biotechnology leaders and understand what it takes for a concept in biotechnology, the financials, the marketing, the strategy, and all those things that they’ve learned in their core curriculum and bring it all the way to the commercial phase. And when you hear from the executives of companies like Amgen and Genentech talking about where this biotechnology field is going, it blows up their mind.

Benjamin Finkel…: We’re one of the few universities that has not only Genentech in our back backyard, but we also have a med school and a vet-med program.
Now the amount of research that we’re doing on the energy side as well as a sustainable transportation side is really unparalleled. We’re number one sustainable school in the country, in the world and different rankings, and so the type of innovation that’s happening on campus that’s around here is really brilliant.

John A. Byrne: Some of the biggest challenges in the world involve food and agriculture, energy and sustainability, and the future of biotech and how it can cure diseases. UC Davis Graduate School of Management is on the cutting edge of these three key challenges, leveraging the core competencies of this great university.
These are one year immersions filled with workshops, classes, field study trips, mentoring and internships in key challenges the world is facing.
Now, you’re our biotech immersion person. I wonder what importance, the fact that UC Davis has this immersion program. Was it to you in deciding to come here for your MBA?

Shreyanshi Khan…: I was very impressed with the way the immersion program was structured and be able to understand the business challenges within the biotech industry from the commercialization introduction of the drug. And to be able to recognize what are the business challenges and have leading executives come and discuss those challenges within the different functional areas was very interesting. And we also did have many PhD students and scientists in the program.

John A. Byrne: Now, it’s interesting to me that all three immersions are in relatively niche areas for MBAs. When you think of MBAs, so many of them are funneled into consulting jobs or in finance jobs, very few in food and agriculture, very few ultimately, in biotech and very few in energy and sustainability. Is that a plus or minus?

Julie Morris: I think it helps Davis stand out because we’re leveraging not just the MBA curriculum, we’re leveraging these connections that you can make into the greater university.

Shreyanshi Khan…: I wasn’t really expecting to have such a broad understanding of different fields, industries, and working interdisciplinary with so many other departments and programs.

Leslie Nelson: The students who have a specialty, like for me in energy, there’s many different ways that energy can get from a power plant to your house, and we got to understand the business structure of each of those different groups.

Benjamin Finkel…: For the Graduate School of Management to tap into that expertise really does set us apart so that if you are going to get your MBA, this is their chance to deepen those skills and at the same time, spend it in this ecosystem which is right in the middle of their field. Or it’s somebody wanting to do a career shift. This is his opportunity to get their MBA skills, but also really be immersed into this field. And I think that’s exciting.

Leslie Nelson: Now, another immersion you have is tech for finance. Why?

Rao Unnava: Many companies, of course, they start out as some startup and everybody has this romantic image. They are growing fast. They have so many things to take care of. And the CEO, typically in California, of many companies happens to be a technology person.
What is really missing is a person who understands that my role is not just money, but how to keep the board happy, how to keep the investors happy, how to keep the consumers happy, and then how do you really guide it towards an exit that’s beneficial to everybody? That skill is what is taught in this tech finance immersion.

John A. Byrne: When most people think about California, they think of tech or they think of Hollywood. But in fact, California is the largest producer of agricultural goods in America and the fifth largest producer in the world. And the number one university in food and agriculture is right here at UC Davis. What the Graduate School of Management is doing is leveraging that expertise into an immersion that explores the food and the agriculture industry.

Julie Morris: I was able to organize a trip to Taylor Farms, which is a $4 billion company headquartered in Salinas, California.

John A. Byrne: Make lettuce, right?

Julie Morris: They were making salad kits. They do it for consumer retail. They do it for food service. We followed that visit with a trip out to see a strawberry grower and understand what some of the pressures are on California labor and the whole immigration process. And so when they think about operations management or operations research, they have this vision now.

Rao Unnava: They’re sitting in classes with PhD students and master students from food, science and technology, molecular biology, nutrition and so on, and they tackle these problems being thrown at them by executives who come and tell them, “This is an issue that we are dealing with. How would you go about taking care of that?”
And because of the multidisciplinary nature of the teams that we have, the solutions often are richer than what would be possible with just a team of MBA students.

Speaker 19: Which is what this move from current revenue to sum is all about…

Nathaniel Morri…: The company was challenging us to come up with a way that they could make more environmentally friendly food products. And I think having people who were from agriculture, from environmental chemistry, they had a better background and better idea of the types of technologies that are in the pipeline in the scientific literature right now. We were able to bring some of those ideas forward. The executive who came to class was actually pretty impressed by some of the ideas that our classmates came up with.

John A. Byrne: What I like about this is that there’s a real connection to practice.

Benjamin Finkel…: It is this theory and practice that you’re talking about that’s really kind of valuable so that they can take the skills they’re learning in the classroom and then now they’re forced to apply it.
Actually, in the immersion course itself, we give the students a chance to put them in the executive shoes for a moment and have to make a decision. They don’t have perfect information, just like the executive doesn’t have perfect information, but they’re forced to make a decision.

John A. Byrne: So today there’s a big case competition here involving a multi-billion dollar food company. There are student teams from all over the US competing. They’ve been up all night long in little rooms, planning their presentations, digging through the data to come up with a solid plan to solve this company’s problems.
Let’s go inside and take a look.

Speaker 20: Good luck, guys.

Natalia Ribeiro: We got it.

Rao Unnava: The sponsoring company is United Natural Foods, which is a $30 billion company.

Jack Clare: Obviously, as the sponsor of the case, we’re very excited about the real solutions here.

John A. Byrne: So, you’ll actually be able to go back to headquarters and say, “Hey, here’s some things we should be thinking about.”

Jack Clare: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Speaker 9: The important formula of services.

Jack Clare: Consumer surveys with Amazon Turk to gauge the sentiment of the market.

Benjamin Finkel…: You have the executive in the room and they’re-

John A. Byrne: Grappling with a problem on that very day that they have to deal with, and now sharing it with a group of students.

Speaker 14: Of course, the giant decrease in employment over the pandemic.

Jack Clare: It’s very exciting that it’s a real current case and problem for us.

Speaker 14: And want to emphasize that communication and build on it. So now it unifies notified at what’s coming in, how much lead time they have with this inventory they’re receiving, and they’ll also be able to forecast their transportation needs. So, that’s the first step of the system.

Speaker 16: Is the issue data collection, the systems to collect data, or is the issue the analysis of data?

Speaker 14: We wanted it to be something that you’re able to input data, is in real time. Because you’re one of their large partners…

Benjamin Finkel…: Putting them in that situation makes them respect and understand more intensely the type of dynamic that they’re going to be facing in the real world.

Speaker 14: It was probably one of the toughest cases I worked through in grad school.

Speaker 17: Building a framework out of something where you don’t necessarily understand.

Speaker 14: There was a lot of data to process through and it was finding the scope that we wanted to focus on was really difficult.

Natalia Ribeiro: Coming up with ideas and then trying to organize them, implement internal algorithms so we don’t lose ourselves in the meantime. And then taking action.

Nathaniel Morri…: Part of the goal of being in an MBA program, especially coming from a technical background like myself, was to be someone who could impact the business strategy of cutting-edge companies in the food industry.

Hemant Vaidya: They had to dig out their understanding of financials, the marketing, the strategy, and all those things that they’ve learned in their core curriculum and use that knowledge to come up with a plan.

Nathaniel Morri…: To get to the sum, would take a longer amount of time in and continue to build on these procedures. I think having a year of experience with some of these predictive analytics, with that having time…

Jack Clare: And we didn’t know. We were blind to who came from where, but we had the exact same experience. Those who after the fact, we found out were in fact from Davis and from food and ag immersion environment, clearly understood the problem and relevant solutions to it far more than maybe some of the others.

Speaker 21: The first place of $2,500 it goes to Team G, UC Davis.

John A. Byrne: Now, how often do students who go through an immersion ultimately end up working in that industry?

Julie Morris: I would say at least 50%. Oftentimes, those are people that are already in that field and they’ll go back into that field, but they’ll go back with a broader understanding and also these management skills that they’re learning in the general MBA program.

Hemant Vaidya: If you look at the biotech industry now, it is a $757 billion industry that is evolving rapidly. The employment growth rate is about 5% on an annual basis between now and 2029.
With that kind of statistics, I think preparing students for that particular industry is our obligation, I would say.

Rao Unnava: One of the things that people don’t know is that in the US News and World Report, they also do an ROI ranking. In the last two years we’ve been in the top 15. And I’ll tell you another example.
In the online MBA program, we launched something called Deferred Tuition Program, and that’s where a student can defer 50% of their tuition to after graduation and pay over the next 10 years with zero interest. And that’s a fantastic opportunity.
But when you really think about it, we are reducing the cost of education and increasing access, which is the fundamental reason why we wanted to do this.

John A. Byrne: You have to make education more accessible.

Rao Unnava: Yes. Right.

Hemant Vaidya: I was just wondering that we should…

Speaker 23: [inaudible 00:20:00] So how’s the quarter going so far?

Hemant Vaidya: When you hear from these executives from Amgens and Genentechs of the world, they’re talking about the future and they’re talking about how cancer is going to be treated five years, 10 years, 15 years from now? And what are they doing to get there? That’s when they realize that these immersion courses is going to help them to build their career in the future.

John A. Byrne: One of the things about these three immersions, in many ways, these are the roads less traveled for MBAs, because so many MBAs are basically siphoned up by consulting and finance. And not a whole lot by, how do you feed a growing population in the world? How do you create clean energy that’s sustainable and doesn’t dirty up the environment? How do you solve cancer? Are some of the other big challenges in life sciences. Do you all feel a part of a bigger purpose?

Nathaniel Morri…: I would say absolutely. And I think that a food and ag really stands at the intersection of solving the human need to feed, as you said, a growing population. But finding a way to do that in a way that doesn’t degrade the environment over time.

Shreyanshi Khan…: One intersection point between all of these immersion programs is to be able to visualize creation of value for organizations for the better good of people and the society.

Leslie Nelson: I worked in the energy immersion, which is very climate-focused, and I was so pleasantly surprised to see these potentially profit-driven only folks get really on board with climate solutions and advocating for the best solution for our world.

Rao Unnava: So any company who comes to recruit at UC, Davis and the GSM should know that that person carries with them a collaborative spirit. And there are four tenets that are there. One is that they inspire other people to do great things. Second is that they help other people succeed in their jobs. Third is that they build trust and bring positive energy, and the fourth is that they stay humble and keep learning.
These four are the things we tell them will lead you to collaborate with people.

John A. Byrne: These are so-called soft skills that are quite hard.

Rao Unnava: Yes. That’s correct. Yes.

 

Comments or questions about this article? Email us.