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Leaving the classroom for a more hands-on experience

Learning by doing is a methodology many business schools here and across the country have adopted in their executive education programs to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. Colleges and universities in Rochester have found students eager to explore this type of hands-on coursework, which involves partnerships with alumni, businesses and community networks.

“We have two experiential learning opportunities exclusive to our executive education program,” says Carin Cole, assistant dean of students, at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School.

The two-year MBA program begins with a self-assessment and meeting with an executive coach as part of the students’ personal development, Cole says, and from there they design a personal leadership development plan. The executive coaches are business leaders with front-line experience running their own companies in Rochester.

“The students loved having the executive coaches more than anything,” Cole says. “They appreciate having that external resource with expert advice.”

As students progress through the program, they can take part in the yearlong venture development course and hone their entrepreneurial skills by developing an idea into a viable business or marketing plan. They work with faculty, alumni and outside resources, including High Tech Rochester, and then present the plan to faculty and investors.

“It’s amazing the resources we have here,” Cole says, adding that students also have access to funding after graduation through the Simon School Venture Capital Fund, which provides general investments up to $25,000 for new businesses. Funded by alumni, it is another benefit of working with former students through the MBA program.

Preparing students to seek funding is another real-world experience the MBA program offers. Participants meet with members of the Rochester Angel Network, a group of local investors that funds startup companies.

“They help students learn what they need to think about, what investors are looking for,” Cole says.

A key partnership with Excell Partners Inc. is underwritten through a three-year grant from the Farash Foundation. Simon School alum and Excell Chief Operating Officer Rami Katz oversees the program, which employs graduate students as analysts. They begin by shadowing senior analysts at Excell as they evaluate potential startup companies seeking funding.

“We are building on their educational background and giving them a real boardroom environment,” Katz explains. “There is no sugarcoating here. They must be able to validate their findings. If they can’t, we will eat them alive.”

The “no holds barred” experience pays off, Katz says, and he is proud that many of the students who have gone through the Excell program have placed in a top tier venture capital or private equity firm. Students also have gone on to positions at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and a $250 million state-owned fund in Connecticut.

The Excell Partners experiential program involves students from other schools as well, including Rochester Institute of Technology and Nazareth College.

Over in the School of Business at Roberts Wesleyan College, students work in cohort groups that pair them with small businesses for up to a year. The practice began eight years ago and has grown each year since, says Laura Falco, director of the Master of Science in Strategic Marketing program at Roberts Wesleyan College’s School of Business.

“It’s like an adopted model from student teaching,” Falco says. “It is a controlled, safe environment for learning.”

There is a textbook with an outline for a marketing plan, she explains, and face-to-face work with businesses was added to the curriculum to integrate more experiential learning.

“We’ve found the experience helps build portfolios and makes the students more marketable when applying for a job,” Falco says. “There is a benefit to clients as well. They’ve used our students’ plans and even hired our students to join their companies.”

Business and non-profit clients work with the students, while faculty review all applications and determine which businesses are the best fit for the students. Two adjunct faculty members manage the program: Susan Sullivan, director of development at the Charles Finney School, and Kevin Kearney, director of business development at D3 Engineering. They serve as mentors and a resource for the students.

As the students work with the businesses, they learn about the companies and their specific needs.

“I was blown away by how seriously they took it and the information they wanted to know in order to address the marketing concerns we had,” says Holly Van Putte Cirella, chief financial officer and vice president of finance of Van Putte Gardens in Rochester.

Cirella says she turned to the program for help in developing a new marketing campaign. She believed the students would have a fresh perspective.

“I wanted to tap into the millennial market. They helped us with reinventing our brand. Garden centers all say the same thing—quality plants, low prices, great staff,” Cirella says. “The students focused on our history. We’ve been here with a heritage in Greece for 67 years. We started a commercial campaign showing grandparents with grandchildren. We were making an emotional connection with customers.”

The campaign proved to be very successful, Cirella says. With that, she trusted additional suggestions from a student for the company website.

“That student taught us to reorganize our content based on what customers were using most, which was topsoil, stone and mulch,” Cirella says.

The experience was a mutual benefit.

“I think real-world learning gives them a deeper insight,” Cirella says. “They’re dealing with real clients, real money, real teamwork and developing social skills. They meet with me and take it back to their team to brainstorm ideas. That is essentially what a real account executive does in a firm.”

At St. John Fisher College there is a new effort to match graduate MBA students with small to midsized businesses to gain first-hand experience as they earn their degrees.

“It’s a separate, standalone concentration within the MBA program because small to medium-sized businesses are what our community is really made up of now,” says Raymond Shady, interim dean, School of Business, St. John Fisher College. “That’s what our students will likely work for, so we bring in those companies.”

The program gives students the opportunity to work with for-profit as well as non-profit partners.

“My best students are clamoring for real-world experience,” Shady says, adding that there are a variety of ways students and businesses can work together. “The Heart Association might need a campaign to reach out to schools, or a financial services company wants to do a financial research survey. There could be payroll projects or social media campaigns or a startup company with no marketing plan.”

Garrett Macdonald, a finance major at Fisher who will graduate with an MBA degree in May, says the experience he has gained through his paid internship at Pittsford-based financial firm Three + One Advisors has been invaluable.

“Students can go into the real world and start working the day after graduation. We have gained not just a theoretical understanding but a practical understanding, too,” Macdonald says.

He has appreciated the chance to work with actual figures, get his hands on real data and see the results of the analysis.

“There is a difference between sitting in a classroom and practicing what we’re learning,” Macdonald says.

Joseph Rulison, CEO and co-founder of Three + One, agrees.

“The education is critical and just as critical is the work ethic,” says Rulison, who oversees the work of Fisher interns. “It’s one thing being told. It’s another to experience. We’re seeing it with students coming to us. They have it with us, too, by seeing an early-stage company develop. There is a parallel.”

Students learn to develop their skills while working alongside experienced finance experts at the company. They attend staff meetings and are kept up to date on all internal knowledge, Rulison explains. So far, the firm has worked with 15 interns; four more start in January.

“We take interns through actual projects and have them do a simulation to see if they come up with the same results as we do,” Rulison says, noting that all interns are required to sign non-disclosure agreements to protect client confidentiality. “We can check their work against ours but also see if they have a different perspective.

“It’s tremendous to see how much the business program has grown. It’s fueling the companies of tomorrow, like mine. Fisher is a great feeder of talent to us,” adds Rulison, a former chair of the board of trustees at Fisher.

As business schools continue to develop more experiential learning opportunities for students in executive education programs, businesses and students alike stand to reap the benefits.

Macdonald is looking forward to applying the knowledge he has gained through his real-world experience while earning his MBA at St. John Fisher.

“Without the opportunity I’ve had, I know I wouldn’t be as much a value to future employers as I hope to be,” he says.

12/4/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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