Challenge Accepted: Experiential Learning for MBAs

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Tuesday, February 13, 2024
By Vivek Choudhury, Lowell Valencia-Miller
Photo by iStock/SeventyFour
At the University of Denver, students advance through a series of challenges that prepare them to solve problems in the real world.
  • Students at the Daniels College of Business undertake four increasingly complex consulting projects in partnership with businesses and nonprofits.
  • The projects focus on four distinct areas: entrepreneurship, social good, corporate issues, and global concerns.
  • Because each challenge increases in difficulty and rigor, students bring the skills they learn in one project forward to the next one.

At the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business, we decided to revamp our MBA program in 2016. We knew it would be a major undertaking, but we viewed the challenge as an opportunity to create a learning journey that would give students more real-world experience than a standard internship or capstone project.

First, we went directly to those who best understood the needs of the business world. We talked with business leaders within the Denver community and across the U.S. to learn what skills they wanted their workers to possess and what skills recent graduates lacked. These executives made it clear they needed managers who can solve problems and motivate others—managers who can, quite simply, get things done. Their input led us to rethink our program and adopt a “learning by doing” model.

Next, we engaged with alumni, consultants, and faculty to gain their perspectives on how our program could create market-ready leaders. Consultants helped us rebrand the program as the Denver MBA to make it more attractive to incoming students. Faculty suggested we opt for shorter course lengths so we could fit in more material, much of it designed around the research efforts and expertise of our professors. The faculty-governance structure of our school ensured that our professors fully vetted all proposed changes before these changes went into effect.

Last, we committed to improving our pedagogy so we could meet the pressures and complexities of business. We knew there were no better classrooms than the businesses and nonprofit organizations around us—so we took our students off the campus and into the real world.

Building Blocks of Growth

The new Denver MBA curriculum divides our 21-month program into four challenges that focus on four distinct areas: entrepreneurship, social good, corporate issues, and global concerns. During each 10-week session, students spend half of their time in immersive business experiences as they work directly with businesses or nonprofits to solve current problems.

To find partners for these challenges, we often turn to businesses that already have relationships with our university and that have upcoming projects our students can work on. We’ve also secured partners by reaching out to alumni and local businesses.

Together, the four challenges form a scaffold that enables students to layer what they learn.

The four challenges are designed to increase in difficulty and rigor. Each one teaches similar skills in areas such as critical problem-solving, executive communications, teamwork, and the art of asking for help.

Yet, together, the challenges form a scaffold that enables students to layer what they learn. Students take the skills they acquire in one challenge and build upon these competencies in the next. Here’s a look at what each part of the program entails.

The Entrepreneurship Challenge

In the U.S., two-thirds of net new jobs are created by small businesses. We want all students to have the experience of starting their own businesses, using creative thinking and problem-solving strategies to design something that didn’t exist before.

In this challenge, students journey through the initial stages of creating their own startups, learning the latest concepts in design thinking, ideation, and innovation. The experience culminates with a presentation to a panel of potential investors, who provide valuable feedback.

The Social Good Challenge

Denver is home to more than 17,000 nonprofit organizations. We want our students to approach business like our school’s namesake, cable television executive and philanthropist Bill Daniels—with the mindset of making a positive impact on their communities.

Since many nonprofits are strapped for resources, our students play integral roles in addressing real problems. Past cohorts have worked with organizations such as the Colorado Veterans Project, Every Child Pediatrics, and the Food Bank of the Rockies.

One of our most interesting student projects was with Mile High United Way (MHUW), which approached us with 10 initiatives it couldn’t accomplish because it didn’t have the staff. One problem was that it lacked an effective way to tell the story of its mission and vision. By conducting primary research and gathering insights about relevant business practices, Denver MBA students developed a Storytelling Roadmap that outlines a data-backed storytelling process. MHUW has used the roadmap to tell stakeholders about its activities and successes.

The Corporate Challenge

Many MBA programs require students to complete internships with local businesses. But we want our partner companies to see our students in action before bringing them in as interns or even employees. Therefore, for our third challenge, we have our full-time MBA students serve as consultants to businesses both inside and outside Denver.

We want our partner companies to see our students in action before bringing them in as interns or even employees.

Working with companies such as Charles Schwab, Aramark, and Ball Corporation, students tackle real-world problems, helping companies refine human resource recruitment efforts, devise corporate social responsibility strategies, and conduct market feasibility analyses. For 10 weeks, our partners treat students like members of the team as they work hand in hand with managers. At the end of the quarter, students present their solutions to company executives in boardroom settings.

Relationships frequently continue well after the meetings adjourn. For instance, students stay in touch with company representatives as they undertake internships, receive mentoring, and network with alumni.

The Global Challenge

This culminating event raises the bar even higher, pushing students to deal with new complexities such as differences in time zones, languages, beliefs, religions, and cultures. In the global challenge, students work either with a U.S. company looking to do business abroad or with an international company trying to break into the U.S. market.

Students travel to places such as South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Cambodia, Israel, Norway, and Kenya. There, they tackle projects related to new market entry, corporate social responsibility, and new product development. In the process, they learn that solutions that work in Denver might not be appropriate for Nairobi.

Each year, one group of students works with Bona, a Swedish flooring company that sells and operates around the world. Our students have become the sole market-entry strategy team for the company. Each year, students research and analyze whether Bona should enter a new market. Every single country that our students have studied has become a new market for the company.

Skills That Transcend the Classroom

As students progress through each challenge, our faculty step back. Professors are always there to provide support or guidance, but we believe our students will gain more confidence in their abilities to solve complex problems if they have opportunities to do so on their own.

The most important skill our students walk away with is critical problem-solving. No matter the setting or scenario, they learn to accept and overcome the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity they are all bound to encounter in their careers.

We believe our students will gain more confidence in their abilities to solve complex problems if they have opportunities to do so on their own.

During the challenges, students also form meaningful relationships with the faculty, peers, and corporate representatives who will help them jump-start their careers. Employers get to know our students on a personal level, and this familiarity is a great asset when it comes time to hire.

One student participating in a global challenge in France established such a good relationship with her company that it was willing to create a new office in Canada just to hire her.

Measuring Success, Setting Goals

At the end of every project, we don’t just give each student a letter grade; we ask each partner to fill out a survey evaluating the student’s work. We want to know if the student solved the problem, if the solution was reasonable, if the company implemented the solution, and if the company would hire the student. These evaluations help us determine how well students understand classroom lessons and can apply them in real scenarios.

We also judge the success of our program by another measure: the number of our graduates who are willing to pay it forward. There is no greater testament to a good educational experience than alumni who support the next generation of students. We are incredibly grateful for the graduates who donate their time and talent to enhance the experience for subsequent cohorts by facilitating introductions, mentoring students, and developing ongoing relationships. One alumnus, who was hired by the partner company he worked with as a student, now sponsors students for projects at his company.

But the Denver MBA cannot sit stagnant. To teach flexibility, we must ensure our program is flexible. To prepare students for the complex problems of tomorrow, we must address those issues in the classroom today. Therefore, we constantly are updating courses and looking for new partners so we can meet the upcoming demands of the business world.

Currently, our curriculum includes lessons in how the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math will shape business fields such as finance, marketing, and accounting. This spring, two of our projects will include components of artificial intelligence technology. As the world changes, we will continue to evaluate and innovate our program.

For the past seven years, we’ve seen our full-time MBA program transform students into leaders who think critically and are prepared to handle any problems thrown their way. We will continue to mold and shape our program to meet the needs and demands of business leaders—today and in the future.

Vivek Choudhury
Dean, Daniels College of Business, University of Denver
Lowell Valencia-Miller
Assistant Dean of MBA Programs and Teaching Associate Professor, Department of Management, Daniels College of Business, University of Denver
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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