Leveraging the Power of Two
Celebrating the Success of the Berkeley-Columbia Executive MBA Program
By Kim Girard
CEO Jim Rogers and his three business partners had hit a wall at their clinical trial software startup Nextrials. Scientists by trade, none of them had a deep understanding of finance, accounting, or even product marketing. That led to critical business decisions based on hunches, rather than what they actually knew to be true, guesswork that was taking its toll on their San Ramon, Calif., based business.
"There's only so far you can get using common sense," says Rogers, who holds degrees in both biology and biochemistry. Over time, the partners agreed that Rogers should return to school for an MBA. He picked the Berkeley-Columbia Executive MBA program, where he could complete a prestigious program in 19 months and earn a degree from both institutions without leaving his job. "Three days a week every third week was perfect for accommodating my schedule," says Rogers, MBA 03.
A flexible schedule is only one of many reasons executives seek a degree from the Berkeley-Columbia program, lauded by graduates for its academic rigor, quality of its student body, and invaluable alumni network.
Launched three years ago by former deans Laura Tyson (Haas) and Meyer Feldberg ( Columbia), the program offers students the best of two worlds: Berkeley's entrepreneurial and management vision and ties to Silicon Valley, and Columbia's finance expertise and proximity to Wall Street. The program has been an overnight success, attracting stellar classes of students since its inception. The program is also Columbia's first domestic partnership, joining their existing executive MBA offerings, which include a partnership with the London Business School where Laura Tyson is now dean.
"What's unique is that we bring together the East and West Coasts," says Robert Gleeson, executive director of the BCEMBA program. "Students are getting access to the world renowned faculty of each school," says Michael Fenlon, associate dean of the Columbia Business School. "We're delighted with the success and the momentum of the program." Administrators from both universities began negotiating terms of the new program in 2000; the first class entered in May 2002.
"We were committed to creating a curriculum that was equivalent in rigor, depth, and breadth as the MBA degree that our day and weekend students receive," says Andy Shogan, associate dean of Berkeley's Haas School of Business, who helped create the program. "We also had to meet the degree requirements of both schools."
The program is structured as five terms that span 19 months, beginning in May and ending the following December. Students split their time between the two campuses. Although students spend more time at Berkeley, instruction time is divided equally among Berkeley and Columbia faculty. It's a grueling schedule, but one that many students find rewarding both academically and personally.
"One of the really cool things about the program is that you get to know people incredibly well because of the intense shared experience," says Alice Hansen, a managing director at the public relations firm Burson-Marstellar in San Francisco.
Professional diversity is crucial to the BCEMBA program, which draws students from vastly different careers, including lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, and bankers. "I can't imagine meeting a more interesting and dynamic group of individuals who have been successful in so many areas of their lives," Gleeson says.
Take Dr. Michael Longaker, MBA 03, a professor and director of children's surgical research at Stanford University Medical Center. He enrolled in the BCEMBA program because he realized that with the changing healthcare industry, balance sheets were becoming as important to his job as his medical experience. "Most physicians aren't comfortable looking at profits and losses," he says. "They're foreign concepts, yet one could argue that medicine, beginning with HMOs, is completely a business. Medicine is both an art and a science that is hard to manage as a business. You aren't really thinking of the cost versus the benefit of an x-ray but that's what you need to survive." After three semesters as an executive MBA student, Longaker says he had a working language of finance and how to implement principles when tackling budgets and cost accounting.
Emily Watkins, a real estate management director for Gap Inc., headed to BCEMBA to add finance to her background as a structural engineer, while Kristine Kern, a former managing editor of Wired magazine, wanted business expertise on her resume along with her well-honed editorial skills. "I knew I could wear more hats with that experience," she says.
Though class members have had vastly different career experiences, Marjorie DeGraca, the program's admissions director, says they do share common ground. Because each entering class is so small – about 65 to 70 students – she says that the right chemistry is key and every admission decision counts. "It's very important to me that we put together a diverse class so that students can learn from one another and be exposed to industries and functions outside their own," says DeGraca. "We need to feel confident that the candidates we consider can handle the academic rigors and that their future classmates will view them as credible peers."
About 30 percent of the program's students hail from outside of the Bay Area; about 30 percent are women. While the average BCEMBA student has had a 12-year career and a strong resume to back it, applicants who might have five years on the fast track at their job are also considered, DeGraca says. "Our students have to be proven in some way," DeGraca says. "We are looking for people who stand out and are exceptional."
Once admitted, students say an invaluable part of the BCEMBA program is applying what they've learned in the classroom on both coasts to their day-to-day jobs and to further their careers. Alice Hansen says she immediately relayed to her team what she learned from her leadership class about a "yes" approach to negotiating when you hold an opposing opinion to a potential client. She taught her team members to use the approach, which requires artfully changing the subject to find neutral ground. "My colleagues use "Yes, but…"all the time," Hansen says. "I'm helping them with tools I learned from the program."
Negotiation skills he'd practiced in class even helped Dan Whisenhunt, MBA 03, a senior vice president at real estate services company Jones Lang LaSalle, land better pay when he was in the midst of switching jobs. "I applied those techniques as I negotiated for my compensation," he says. "It was really effective for me."
The Gap's Watkins, who is currently a BCEMBA student, says she applies financial models she's studying to ask better questions about whether the company should pursue particular investments based on the cost to open a store, the expected sales at that store, and other factors.
A rich network of alumni of nearly 65,000 people from both universities has also proven invaluable for many graduates. Kern, managing editor of the startup women's magazine Tango, says she was able to relocate from San Francisco to New York last year and to find a job fairly easily thanks to her new Columbia network. Her magazine's publisher was also a Columbia grad. "We bonded over the fact that we both went to Columbia," she says. "I scored major points by having a Columbia business degree. The Columbia network here is very, very strong. It really opens doors."
Kern adds that a business school degree gave her the confidence to be more effective at everything from marketing the magazine to using a website strategically to building the magazine's brand. "I really have relied on some of the lessons we learned in school for that," she says.
Graduates say they expect to benefit from the program long after they're finished. Joe John Duran, MBA 04, the CEO of United Capital Financial Partners who sold his former company, Centurion Capital Management, to General Electric's GE Financial in 2001, says classes in leadership and organizational behavior have helped him work toward becoming a more effective leader.
"You really find out about yourself and your weaknesses as a business person in an environment where there's no conflict," he says. "You realize where you go wrong in a safe environment." Like Alice Hansen, Duran says studying negotiation styles in class helped him when he shifted from working at a big company to heading a startup. "Before, I'd steamroll employees (and say) 'This is how it's going to be,'" he says. "Now, I am much more reserved when I play my cards."
Packy Kelly, MBA 04, a partner at accounting firm KPMG, says an MBA from not just one, but two, top business schools, gives him an edge he always believed he needed in business. He adds that the breadth of study within the BCEMBA program gives him confidence on the job that reaches far beyond his accounting expertise.
"I can talk to a CEO, a COO, a VP of marketing, or a VP of sales because I am now conversant in many more areas of business that are relevant to them but outside of my career discipline," he says. "It increases your confidence and effectiveness. You have training and an understanding of their challenges and requirements."
Back at Nextrials, Rogers, who earned his MBA in 2003 as a member of the program's first graduating class, is now CEO and acting CFO, using his new business skills to take the company to the next level. He boasts that the company's financial statements are clear and easy to understand. The company has found the right market niche for its software and is tracking research and development costs more closely. "It's exciting," Rogers says. "We're starting to look more like a company." And he thanks his Berkeley-Columbia Executive MBA for that.
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