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The Idea That Won Funding for Three Innovations

When the GMAC Management Education for Tomorrow Fund posed the question, “What one idea would improve graduate management education?” M. Kendall Fitch had a simple answer.

M.Kendall Fitch

An MBA course called “Leading in a Civilian Context” could teach veterans to transfer the leadership skills they gained in the military to the civilian workforce, reasoned Fitch, a joint-degree student in Harvard’s MBA/MPP program. Depending on the veteran’s level and years of military experience, business schools could award course credit for up to three management classes, thus making MBA programs more attractive, speeding the time to degree completion, lowering the cost, and providing re-entry support for military veterans.

“My proposal focuses on the US military, however, the program could be replicated globally to design curriculums that recognize and reward other unique prior work experiences,” she wrote.

The idea won Fitch US$10,000 in Phase 1 of the MET Fund’s Ideas to Innovation (i2i) Challenge, which announced 20 winners in January 2011. An even bigger reward came in April when the Phase 2 winners were announced. Out of 12 schools and organizations that will share more than US$7.1 million to implement winning ideas from Phase 1, three are using Fitch’s idea:
  • The SUNY Empire State College Foundation, which will award graduate-level credit toward an MBA for relevant military training and replace a traditional introductory MBA course with one specifically designed to serve veterans transitioning to civilian life and business leadership
  • The Institute for Veterans and Military Families and the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, which will offer customized management certificate and degree programs for veterans and design MBA-credit bearing or certificate coursework tracks leveraging veterans’ technical training and leadership experience
  • The University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, which will offer veterans an expedited MBA program, emphasizing corporate social responsibility.

“It’s exciting, and I’m thrilled to be part of it,” said Fitch, who is getting degrees from Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government this month and returning to Bain & Co. as a consultant.

Fitch has a varied background in education, with work experience at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an after-school education program in Cape Town, South Africa, plus an internship with the US Department of Education last summer. She has no direct military experience, but she has been impressed with the leadership skills her military veteran classmates brought to the Harvard MBA/MPP program and appreciates the value they added to the MBA classroom.

The i2i Challenge format, separating the idea from the implementation, appealed to her. “As a student, I have these lightbulb moments because this is the time period when we have the most space and flexibility to step back and think,” she said. “But it’s also, ironically, at a point in time where you are removed from those people who are actually doing the hard work” and are in the position to turn ideas into innovations.

After her idea won, Fitch heard from the SUNY group and had her fingers crossed that they would win Phase 2 funding. When the grant winners were announced, she was even happier to hear that funding for her idea will go to not only the SUNY Foundation but also Syracuse and the University of South Florida, which are both combining her idea with other Phase 1 winners.

“I think the more that you can innovate and try to think in this space, the better,” she said. “Why not get a couple of models out there, particularly if they have the funding and they have the enthusiasm to put it together?”

Out of 20 winning ideas, why does she think hers ended up getting funding for implementation on three different campuses?

“Because it’s simple,” she said. “There’s a clear customer, a clear need. And perhaps my application gave them a sense that they could really implement this; it’s realistic.

“A lot of times, we tend to overcomplicate things or think there’s a silver bullet when there’s not. My idea isn’t complicated, and it isn’t trying to be a silver bullet.  It’s just one simple way of providing the space and opportunity needed to help others succeed.”

Track the progress of the i2i Challenge Phase 2 winners at gmac.com/metfund and follow the Fund on Twitter at @GMATMETFund.

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