Business school electives have taken a turn for the creative, tackling everything from New York City’s problems to health care to humanitarian relief
After a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, MBA students at Wharton launched a course designed to apply business principles to humanitarian crises.
Many an MBA student has sighed with relief when completing core requirements and moving on to electives. After all, electives are a chance to explore the subjects that interest one most and will be most relevant in one’s future career. Where the core curriculum tends to be rigid and structured, the electives can be whatever professors and students want them to be. Says Benn Konsynski, a professor of information systems and operations management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, “Electives are a venue for experimentation.”
Indeed, professors at top business schools say electives are their opportunity to help business students see beyond the numbers, grow personally and professionally, and even wax philosophical. Electives, adds Konsynski, are a chance to do something a little out of the ordinary. When done well, say professors, electives can get students to work in ways they might not have imagined. There are a slew of MBA electives being offered at top B-schools—too many to name, in fact—that are designed to do just that, and make the world a better place in the process.
At top MBA programs, leadership is the means to that end. While all of today’s top business schools address leadership in one form or another, some of them take a unique approach. For instance, in the Leadership Out of the Box elective offered at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, students analyze Disney’s The Lion King, write letters as an 8-year-old to their adult selves to connect their hopes and dreams from then and now, and consider the journeys of such pivotal figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring is widely credited with launching the global environmental movement.
“This course allows us all to take a time-out in a very hectic curriculum, take a breather from the quantitative work of business, and recapture ‘What’s the dream? How can I be the best self I can be?’ ” says Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell, the associate professor of management who teaches the class.
While Bell’s students are contemplating how The Lion King’s Machiavellian Scar character represents the dark side in all of them, students in the Leadership Immersion course at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School are participating in Apprentice-like challenges, such as coming up with a new food item to sell in the school’s cafeteria and creating a marketing plan for it. There are winners in the challenges, but on the flip side nobody gets fired by Donald Trump. Instead, everyone, including executive coaches, participates in conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of each team. Two challenges like this, a business simulation, and a customized Outward Bound experience are the highlights of this elective, says Mindy Storrie, director of leadership development at Kenan-Flagler.
Developing the leader within is not always accomplished through the artifice of challenges and simulations. Sometimes it takes place in the muck and mire of real life.
In the case of the Fundamentals of Quality Improvement in Health Care elective at Vanderbilt University, students from the Owen Graduate School of Management join nursing and medical students to focus on process improvements at the university’s hospital. The students track events at the hospital, such as the process of taking umbilical cord blood from newborns to harvest stem cells or the process for discharging patients, and then offer recommendations to make everything run more efficiently.
Similarly, Columbia Business School students in the elective, NYC: Innovative & Entrepreneurial Solutions to the City’s Complex Challenges, spent the fall of 2011 in teams working closely with senior executives in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office to offer recommendations for solving some of the city’s problems. They tackled subjects such as education and economic development, and their aim was to help the city implement changes to curb costs and offer a better quality of life to residents.
Just as capturing the hearts of people is an important aspect of leadership, so is creating progress by advancing technology. In his App-cology course at Goizueta, Konsynski gives MBA students the chance to develop four smartphone apps. The students have to decide how the apps will be used, and what design elements to incorporate. Venture capitalists and media representatives are among the judges who vote on whether to invest an imaginary $10 million in their technologies. “They leave the class with a portfolio and not just a certificate,” says Konsynski. “Students will accomplish something they think is beyond their technical skills.”
Technology is not the only hot topic for MBAs. Businesspeople can’t stop talking about digital strategies, sustainability, and emerging economies. In the Digital Strategies for Sustainability in Global Emerging Markets elective at the USC Marshall School of Business, students learn about all three while working on projects for five companies in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. What makes the course unique, says Omar El Sawy, professor of information systems at Marshall, is its focus on all three of these trendy MBA topics, the interactive aspect of working on real-world projects, and the chance to help companies in a part of the world that’s relatively untouched by MBAs.
Greater society is top of mind for most of today’s MBAs. So it should come as no surprise that after a major earthquake pummeled Haiti in 2010, students at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School initiated a special course designed to apply business principles to humanitarian crises. In the Management of Crisis Relief elective, students hear from outside speakers and discuss subjects, such as supply-chain logistics and pricing commodities, through the lens of disaster relief. The class has led to the creation of an executive program for Haitian cabinet ministers who want to reconstruct the educational system in their devastated country.
Keith Weigelt, professor of strategy at Wharton, says more business schools should offer this kind of course. “Businesses have lots to offer in terms of care after disaster hits,” he says. “They can help improve the efficiency of relief efforts.”
Di Meglio is a reporter for Businessweek.com in Fort Lee, N.J.