staff, March 20, 2015

Students in the Tippie College of Business MBA program at the University of Iowa are guaranteed one thing in during the 21-month program: plenty of real-world experience.

Much of that is due to the school?s Business Solutions Center coursework, required for every student pursuing an MBA. This program matches graduate students with companies as consultants-in-training.

?Think of it as project-based courses,? said Mark Winkler, the center?s director. ?They?re out in the world solving problems. But the difference is they have someone in the business world helping them out.?

[btn-post-package]Here?s how it works: All first-year students in the program are put into groups with eight second-year students who act as project managers for each company. They work on initiatives from manufacturing to media buying and advertising.

?One of the things we do as a program is give our students a lot of opportunity to apply what they?re doing in the classroom to real-world projects,? Winkler said.

Students complete their project in the spring semester, working an average of 10 hours a week. But the program is more than just unpaid labor from a bunch of college kids. Companies who participate in the program must pay $10,000 - money that goes back into the business school?s general fund.

?We charge a fee because it puts skin in the game,? Winkler said. ?That?s one of our core principles. They expect something for their money.?

Many of the students in the program aren?t necessarily business majors. In fact, a majority of them are coming back to school from the working world, looking to improve their business acumen.

?These are [mostly] students with two to five years [of] work experience,? Winkler said. ?Many have an undergrad degree in other fields. They aren?t necessarily business students. A lot of them are career-changers.?

The program has tended to perpetuate itself, as first-year students are encouraged to go out and find business partners as they become group leaders. That keeps the group of businesses involved fresh and teaches the students how to establish relationships.

?It?s our students that go out in the work world that bring us projects,? Winkler said. ?As they become alumni, they reach back to us and give us projects. It becomes part of the cycle. And I love when they get a job offer as a result of the project.?

The program, now in its eighth year, has completed 63 projects, directly impacting 41 different organizations. That includes a number of non-profits, as well as a few companies outside the state.

This year?s crop of business partners includes everyone from Pella Windows to Urban Teacher Residency United, a New York-based non-profit that provides study services for potential teachers looking to take the state-level certification exam.

One of the more unique partnerships is with Polaris, an all-terrain-vehicle manufacturer based in Minnesota with operations in western Iowa. The Business Solutions Center is doing an inventory-management program for the company. In exchange, Polaris will auction off a University of Iowa-themed motorcycle and donate the proceeds to the school.

Iowa_MBAIt?s another example of the kinds of unique, win-win approaches that make this program so popular for both businesses and students.

?This is consistently one of the highest-ranked courses in terms of feedback,? Winkler said ?It helps them get internships. It helps them get jobs. They have more confidence when going after jobs.?

Not only that, but they learn how to work with a number of industries in a team-based environment, something Winkler said is invaluable when they graduate.

?It really helps them understand what it takes to be part of an effective team,? he explained. ?All work is done nowadays cross-functionally. So you have to understand all those disciplines. It allows them to see the world and get a much bigger view.?

By Matthew Wood