BY KEVIN MOE
The Enterprise programs have had a long and successful tenure at the Carlson School. These programs assemble MBA and select undergraduate students into small teams to tackle real challenges for real companies. Associate Dean Raj Singh hopes to replicate their success at the undergraduate level through “In Action” courses.
“When I walked into this job, our school was pushing experiential learning a lot,” he says. “We had a hard time replicating that experience for our large undergraduate program. When we do it in MBA, it’s high-touch and very expensive. So, we wanted to give students experiential learning in a way that could touch a big fraction of our 700 students who graduate every year. My goal is to reach at least two-thirds of them each year.”
There are five In Action courses so far: three new ones are Finance, Marketing, and Management Accounting. Finance In Action and Marketing In Action began last fall with Management Accounting In Action to be rolled out next year. In the finance course, students learn how to build financial models by studying real-world organizations. Then, they develop a live financial analysis and a risk/reward investment recommendation to present to a real client organization. In marketing, the students create recommendations for real-life marketing problems by analyzing business models, sizing new markets, drafting a brand promotion plan, and pricing a product. The courses take their cue—and their name—from the school’s successful Entrepreneurship In Action course run out of the Holmes Center. In the last 11 years, this course has launched 25 businesses and generated more than $400,000 in revenue. There is also an MIS course that has been taught under different names for many years. Last fall, it was rechristened MIS In Action. In this course, companies provide students with an IT challenge. The students then work in groups to propose solutions to present to senior company executives. Singh is hopeful the new In Action courses will be as successful as these existing ones.
“My view is that when we teach academic knowledge, it sometimes doesn’t penetrate,” he says. “It’s useful information, but until you internalize it and until you really live and breathe it, you don’t get it. These courses, I’m hoping, will help students internalize knowledge much better. All the skills—team building, working on a long-term project, using skills from different areas—these are skills that leaders need.”
Like the Enterprises, the In Action courses will acquire outside projects from companies and corporations. “We have students divide up into teams, and all teams work on the same project,” he says. “The difference from the Enterprises is the scope of these projects is smaller and instead of having one team on one project, we can have five to seven teams work on one project. So it’s like a competition. Whoever comes up with the best solutions gets graded accordingly.”
Another difference is that In Action courses won’t charge their client companies. “We’re hoping that we develop the projects and they’ll support us in various ways,” Singh says, adding that companies already have an affinity for Carlson School students. “The reason they love our students is because when our students are working outside the companies, they don’t have group think. They are independent. They come up with ideas that are wonderful because they come from outside.”
Right now, Singh says there are no plans to make the In Action course required, and he likes it that way. “My own intention is to stay away from requirements and make classes that students want to take,” he says.
The Carlson Global Institute’s Global Business Practicum provides experiential learning cross-culturally. Students work with partner schools overseas on issues facing real businesses. It’s a good deal for both parties as the students gain invaluable experience with international business and the companies receive important feedback to their global challenges.
Hormel Foods is one company that has found value in the program—it has participated on three separate occasions so far. “The first was about developing processed meat snacks in China,” says Tim Barinka, Vice President of Hormel Foods International. “The marketing involved the U of M team and its partner university in China. We had an intro kick-off session describing the goals and core of the project to students here and then fed to their partner students in China. The project also included a visit to China where they met with their counterparts and some of our management team.”
The second project was looking at an entry into the Russian market, which included partner students from the Vienna University of Economics and Business. The most recent project was in Brazil with partner school Fundação Getulio Vargas and dealt with Muscle Milk. “They did a feasibility study with the brand and product line and studied the category and consumer segments to see if it was attractive for Hormel Foods,” Barinka says.
Although the projects had different products and goals, the common denominator was having a team comprised of many functions, such as marketing, accounting, and supply chain. “It’s a good functional mix of students. That is one of the benefits from our standpoint,” Barinka says. “Not only the local U of M team, but its counterpart in the foreign market. There’s a good mix of eyes looking at the project. They have a cross-functional expertise they can bring to it.”
What’s the value for the student? Barinka says you can sit in a class and look at case studies from a textbook, but that can sometimes be pretty static. “Interacting with a company is live and vibrant from a student’s perspective,” he says. “The interaction with a live case and company just brings higher interest and more real-time value to the project.”
Also students get valuable experience in working within groups and building interpersonal relationships. “When we hire students, those are the kind of skills we look for in leadership,” Barinka says. “We look at communication skills, we look at decision-making, and we look at strategic thinking.”
Barinka says a testimonial to the whole Global Business Practicum program is that Hormel Foods has done three of them. “That’s a sign of success, that we’ve been happy with the work and the collaboration,” he says. “It’s giving back to the U of M, but it’s also getting something in return.”
Michael Yost, ’16 MBA, was one of the students taking part in the Brazil experience. “I wanted to work on a real-life consulting project for a sponsor company,” he says. A deciding factor for him was that it was in the food sector, an industry of interest as his family owns a farming and commercial real estate development business.
For the project, Yost and his classmates developed the market entry strategy for Muscle Milk. One of the noteworthy aspects of the experience was the countless interviews he had with gym-goers and store managers of athletic clubs and nutritional shops in Brazil. “This provided us with fascinating perspectives that allowed us to better understand and market the specific product attributes toward our targeted audience,” he says.
An unexpected challenge was the cultural attitudes revolving around any product label that included the word milk. “Through our conversations, we quickly realized many Brazilians, despite consuming cheese on a regular basis, avoided consuming milk due to perceived digestive issues that caused many to view themselves as lactose intolerant,” he says.
Yost says that personally teaming up with Brazilian students on the project while also being exposed to the country’s businesses and consumers, was something that no classroom could replicate. And the end result was not lost on Hormel. “Throughout multiple conference calls and during our final presentations to company leaders, we knew our end product was something that Hormel truly valued and was important in its examination of potential growth markets overseas,” he says.
The experience of being exposed to new environments when you need to perform under tight deadlines helped shape and refine his skill-sets, Yost says, adding “It allowed me to be in a position to succeed in similar challenging environments.”
Leah Larson, ’07 MBA, found the school’s Vienna and China practicums particularly valuable. “Both provided a richness to my education that I could not have achieved in the classroom alone,” she says.
She has had a passion for learning about other cultures from a young age—she lived in Spain twice, once during a summer in high school and again for a semester in college. “I’ve always been someone who learns best from experience, so I always seek out opportunities to immerse myself into new experiences,” she says. “The global practicums offered by the Carlson School provide an incredible opportunity to learn new cultures and provide firsthand experience into doing business globally and working with diverse teams.”
Her team-building skills were honed while partnering with students from Vienna University. “We approached the case, and business in general, very differently,” she says. “It helped me learn the importance of relationship-building and how to leverage unique perspectives and approaches.”
During the China practicum where her team worked with a restaurant company, she gained a fresh insight into cultural differences. “At that time, China was very unknown to me, aside from its large size and opportunity,” she says. “In this program, we spent a lot of time in the market and I’ve always remembered the extremeness of the high and low ends of the market and the cultural challenges associated with taste and customs.”
After graduating, Larson began her career with Ecolab and her practicum experience served her well. In her last role at the company, she was globalizing a $3 billion product portfolio. Currently, she is leading the global marketing function for a $650 million division of the company. “Both of these roles have highly leveraged both the skills gained during my MBA and the global mindset I was able to develop through the global practicum,” she says.
Larson, who recently joined the board of advisors for the Carlson Global Institute, continues to be a huge advocate of the global enrichment programs and encourages every student she meets to take advantage of the opportunity. This year, Ecolab is sponsoring the Vienna Global Business Practicum and will provide the case for the students to work on. “It’s been fun to come up with business challenges that will be interesting to the students, but will also encourage them to get out and immerse themselves in the culture,” she says.
Bryana Mayer, ’15 MBA, is a senior oncology specialist at Merck as well as an adjunct faculty member at the Carlson School. She participated in three Medical Industry Leadership Institute (MILI) Global Medical Valuation Labs, starting with an inaugural course in Sao Paolo, Brazil, led by MILI Director Stephen Parente. The program is designed to give students a better understanding of how to evaluate a new technology from a global perspective and increase their ability to work in cross-cultural teams.
She worked on a healthcare strategy project with Johnson & Johnson Brazil where she presented a marketing sizing analysis and strategic recommendations to the president. Her second course was a Global Valuation Laboratory course with a partner school in China, the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology. The third experience was with the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship in Sweden.
“The MILI global courses provided the opportunity for me to work in cross-cultural teams, performing rapid market analysis to determine a product’s potential for success in global markets,” she says. And when Mayer says work, she means it. Her team researched intellectual property rights, sized up potential markets, completed written and verbal investment analyses, and made recommendations to clients and investors on whether to move ahead.
The MILI experience offered Mayer educational opportunities she could not have received either in a classroom in Minnesota or in a conference room at the multinational company she works for. “The opportunity to work beside and learn from Chinese inventors, investors, healthcare providers, medical industry executives, and students through the course greatly increased my value to current and future employers,” she says. In fact, she was able to demonstrate her learnings while interviewing for a new position at Merck last year. “I truly believe my international experience was a differentiating factor that led to my offer of the position,” she says.
MILI Director Parente says these kinds of student experiences, especially when they involve travel, get people out of their comfort zone. It is one thing when you are in a classroom, but when you are in a completely different location, such as China or Sweden, different parts of your brain are firing. “You still have to do a task, but you are immersed in a whole new set of challenges,” he says. “The students and the instructors share in the adrenalin of such an intensive experience and it makes for a better education.”