Every Student Creates a Business Plan

Submitted by: Dawn Iacobucci (US), Vanderbilt University

Summary: Every student would write a fully detailed business plan to improve something in business or the world. The goal could be a social issue (e.g., CSR), or a proposal for quality improvement of basic business practice (e.g., operations, pricing, accountability); anything that interested the student. The thesis idea would be proposed early in the 1st year of the MBA curriculum, developed through their program, drawing from all students’ coursework, and delivered and defended before graduation.

Full Description: Life’s fixes are rarely rocket science. Often innovation that is less disruptive can be more widely dispersed and have more staying power. In addition, a fix is best if it addresses a known problem—so let’s first identify the issue that this proposal is intended to improve. Reflecting on the thousands of students I’ve taught over 2 dozen year at Kellogg, Wharton, and Vanderbilt, I would characterize most of them as smart. Many are nice. But few are hungry. The few memorable students I’ve had were the ones with a sparkle in their eye—they wanted to do something different.  What if schools required a “thesis” of sorts—a business proposal that addressed how to do something in the world better. This thesis idea would help induce a drive—if students knew they had to incorporate the concepts from their classes into a full, well-rounded proposal for a business idea, it very likely would motivate them to learn, to be able to apply ideas from all of their classes, well beyond earning points on exams. This idea would also be the ultimate in integrated learning, an increasingly important element in b-school education. A student’s idea doesn’t have to be “Peace Corps, touchy-feely, CSR,” although obviously such ideas would be welcome.  Frankly, there is much to be praised in pondering improvements in current business practice; e.g., “How might package delivery be improved? Et voilà, Federal Express.” “How might online customer service be improved? Et voilà, Zappos.com.”

This idea can have global impact. It would require little, if any, special training to implement. What’s particularly lovely about this idea is that even the most resource-strapped b-school can implement it; this is not a case of “to the victor go the spoils.” Would a student presenting his or her thesis at HBS be able to access alumni with greater resources for implementation than a student presenting at Joe Schmoe University? Of course, but so what! If the JSU grad had an impact on that school or community, it would still be an improvement and a wonderful thing for both the grad and the school. Imagine the results! We, the business education community produce some 500,000 MBAs a year. How wonderful it would be to produce 500,000 new ideas of how to make business and the world better, each year. Even if only 1% were ultimately implemented, those 5000 students and ideas would be a marvel to watch! Other students might choose the career path of entering established corporations, but even there, the student would bring their creative and integrative mindset to the job and the firm would be the better for it. As a final by-product, such a program may enhance the reputation that business, and perhaps by implication, the United States, has throughout the world.

Regarding implementation, schools might require deliverables along the way, to keep the students on track. Students could change their project if they begin to see that their initial idea is unworkable (better learn that now than later!), or if their interests shift (what’s the point of going to school if one doesn’t keep an open mind and be affected by new classes?). Of course, if there was a change, the student would have to go back and redo the previously completed thesis sections to relate to the new project. Students would be asked to define their project by the end of their first fall term. Classes might require assignments that contribute to the students’ business plan, but even if they do not do so explicitly, presumably the students would be extracting from all their classes something to use in their business proposals. In the spring of their second year, students would present and defend their thesis* idea to a panel of faculty and alumni (and local business people? some VCs?). Et voilà, business and the world are better for it. (*The title “thesis” first sounded too geeky to me, but it’s growing on me because it sounds scholarly and serious. It may also help outsiders’ think of b-schools as being rigorous.)