UVM to replace traditional MBA with sustainable entrepreneurship program
- By Hilary Niles
When Sanjay Sharma took the helm of the University of Vermont’s business school in July 2011, he saw that the Master’s of Business Administration program had faded to a shadow of its former self.
Absence would be preferable to mediocrity, he figured. As dean, Sharma created a special committee and gave it “free rein” to do with the MBA program whatever needed to be done — including killing the program, if need be.
Associate Professor William Cats-Baril recalled the moment of truth Tuesday afternoon at a reception in the Billings Student Center on the UVM campus. The occasion celebrated the committee’s ultimate decision: to resuscitate the school’s MBA by transforming it into a whole new business animal.
Professor William Cats-Baril will direct the new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA program at the University of Vermont. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
“This had become a program of convenience for Vermonters, not a program of excellence,” Cats-Baril said to an audience of about two dozen Tuesday afternoon. He will not only teach but also be in charge of the new program as director.
UVM’s Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA will launch in fall 2014, completely replacing the traditional program. The program is accepting applications until Jan. 1, looking for 50 to 60 students to launch, and planning to establish its SEMBA as a world-renowned program in just a few years.
In addition to business school faculty and prospective students, the reception was attended by representatives from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Vermont Energy Investment Corp., Forest Savers and Tetra Tech, among other local businesses and nonprofits where Cats-Baril hopes students can fulfill the practicum portions of the curriculum.
He thinks those hands-on opportunities will help distinguish UVM’s program. They also are part of what makes the sustainable entrepreneurship a great match for the state.
This redesign likely would look a lot different were it not for a preponderance of sustainable entrepreneurial businesses within commuting distance from campus.
“We could not in Vermont be credible and say we offer a master’s degree in financial management (that’s) competitive with any such program in New York,” Cats-Baril said. The same goes for health care management. “We have one extremely successful hospital, Fletcher Allen, but it’s one. You go elsewhere, and you have 10 Fletcher Allens, and the pool of expertise and understanding in that area is much deeper.”
By choosing sustainable entrepreneurship, Cats-Baril said, the committee chose to build on Vermont’s own area of expertise and the characteristics that already distinguish the state in the national sphere.
“Vermont is a brand, and this is how people around the country understand what Vermont is about: It’s a small state extremely energized by a few very well known entrepreneurs.” He listed Ben & Jerry’s, Otter Creek, Dealer.com, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Magic Hat as a few of the state’s flagship entrepreneurial enterprises.
In addition to that kind of notoriety, Cats-Baril thinks Vermont is known for its values. “A lot of what Vermont is about is sustainability,” he said, describing the concept as respectful and harmonious interactions with surrounding communities.
The switch to a sustainable entrepreneurship MBA, then, is the business school’s own best shot at building a sustainable master’s program.
In the mid- to late-1990s, employees from area businesses like IBM, General Dynamics and General Electric filled the school’s MBA ranks, explained graduate programs coordinator Amelia Coleman.
But as those companies contracted in Chittenden County, enrollment waned. At the same time, more MBA programs in the region took root, and many schools morphed into low-residency programs that further eroded the business school’s base.
A once-vibrant opportunity for both full-time and part-time students devolved to a degree of convenience, populated mostly by university employees and young students, with little cohesion among them.
Students engaged with the program at different paces, some graduating in two years while others took five. Few graduates finished with the same people they had sat with during orientation.
All that will change next fall.
Instead of a two-year program that could be stretched out for part-time students, the SEMBA is 12 months long, full-time only and designed for students with three to five years of business experience under their belts.
And instead of stopping at the core business functions, such as accounting, finance, marketing and strategy, the sustainable program will integrate those core principles with studies in sustainability, entrepreneurship and global business.
That makes it right up Courtney Mercier’s alley. The Vermont native returned home recently after extended travels and business adventures in Europe, Thailand, Cuba, Utah, California and North Carolina.
She’s started or co-founded at least four businesses — a snowboard distribution company, social marketing firm, freelance photography business and frame shop. The SEMBA program sounds “amazing,” she said, eyes glimmering.
Mercier said she especially likes the opportunity it would afford to develop and refine plans for her next possible business venture, an international philanthropic social network focused on outdoor recreation and action sports. She’s started small, and is ready to work with larger companies and make a bigger difference.
The fact that the program is consolidated into one year is a bonus, Mercier said. “It can be intimidating to take so much time out of your career path and your life.”
The curriculum will keep all students in lockstep formation as they take classes, gain practical experience and understand “who they are and what it means to be an entrepreneur,” as Cats-Baril described the program’s deeper goals.
That “being” aspect of the profession is not explored in traditional MBA programs, he said. But Peter Hetz, a vice president with Tetra Tech and an expert in international development, thinks it’s crucial.
“Unfortunately, the prevailing business model that’s predominated in the world since the industrial revolution is growth,” Hetz said.
But he sees the business mentality shifting to consider not just profit margins, but also “the impact that making that money has on the earth.”
Hetz doesn’t pretend that sustainable entrepreneurialism’s “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profit is an easy balance to strike. But “the world has many MBAs that don’t make a difference,” he said. He’s “totally supportive” of a school willing to try.