Photograph by Asian Journal USA—Wikimedia
By John A. Byrne
January 8, 2015

(Poets&Quants) — When Dan Reiss and Robert Fagnani were applying to business schools two years ago, their backgrounds suggested they would stay on the East Coast.

After all, Reiss was a native of Philadelphia who majored in drama at New York University. He had been workingfor an investment management firm in New York City. Born and raised in New Jersey, Fagnani had gone to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and spent the past four years at Morgan Stanley in New York.

Ultimately, the pair went west, accepting invites from UCLA’s Anderson Graduate School of Management. Reiss turned down Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business to come to sun-bleached Los Angeles, while Fagnani passed on the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business to enroll at Anderson, currently ranked 14th best by Poets&Quants.

Why turn down higher ranked schools to go to UCLA? For both MBA students, it came down to culture. “There’s a very different way that people think on the West Coast,” says Reiss, who also saw a benefit in the emphasis on technology in the West. “People aren’t afraid to start with a blank canvas and rethink everything. I like that lifestyle. If I had went to Tuck, I would have never left the Northeast.”

Fagnani, 28, agrees. “The more I looked at programs, the more I realized that the infrastructure, the classes and the opportunities are roughly the same at the top schools,” he says. “The biggest variable is the culture. I felt this was the place I would fit in and thrive.”

He’s not alone. Student opinion surveys show increased satisfaction at UCLA’s Anderson School, which has gone through a transformation in recent years, becoming more closely tied to the tech boom, in L.A., Silicon Valley, and Seattle. The upshot: Applications last year soared by 32%, while the average GMAT for the overall applicant pool was up five points to 688, swayed in part by the greater tech focus. Those extra apps drove the school’s acceptance rate down to 18% from 22% a year earlier, while the average GMAT for the new class hit a record 715, up from 706.

“This class is phenomenal,” boasts Rob Weiller, associate dean of admissions for the MBA program. “The second years are in awe of the new class. More importantly, though, they are still the same kinds of people. We haven’t sacrificed our supportive culture. There is just a world of opportunity out there and our career center is plugged into those opportunities. It is way more difficult to do that from the East Coast. I don’t care if you have the H word on your diploma.”

At 26.5% of the Class of 2014, technology is the top hiring industry of Anderson graduates and has been for the past three years. The percentage going into tech from UCLA has more than doubled in the past four years, eclipsing the 20.4% who took finance jobs and the 14.2% of Anderson MBAs who went into consulting.

This year, in fact, at least 15 students went to work at Google, while Amazon and Microsoft each hired 10 or more MBAs, and Adobe Systems, Amgen, Apple, Ebay, Symantec, and VMware each employed between five and nine Anderson graduates. School officials, moreover, believe that tech has morphed with L.A.’s traditional strengths as an entertainment and media mecca to give birth to a host of new startups and tech firms in Silicon Beach, a three-mile stretch of sand between Venice and Santa Monica. The area is home to more than 500 startups and tech giants, ranging from Snapchat to online video service Hulu, along with an expansive L.A. office for Google.

“The school has pivoted fairly quickly to become much more of a technology school than when I first came here,” says Mark Garmaise, a finance professor who joined UCLA in 2001 after a stint at Chicago Booth. “Our major new push is going towards analytics and technology. We have great data analytics courses and classes where students are working with Google and doing real-time problem-solving.”

Dubbed “The Google Class” by students, the course represents how Anderson, once a finance and quant haven, is transforming itself into a pathway into tech. Anderson worked with Google to develop the course, which is officially called “Digital Marketing Strategy” and was first offered on a trial basis this past fall. Co-taught by marketing professor Sanjay Sood and a Google executive, the course provides students with a broad overview of Google’s approach to marketing. It focuses on four key areas: insights, measurement, storytelling, and brand.

“We reinvented the class to be more industry relevant,” says Karen Williams, executive director for the school’s Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment & Sports. “There are Google cases and projects with Google executives. All the top schools are being challenged to bridge the thinking with the doing. It is a model we are talking with another company about and have two more firms on our target list.”

Beyond the Google example, Anderson doesn’t shy away from bringing in leading executives to teach in its classrooms. Brian Frons, the president of daytime Disney/ABC, now teaches a course called “Making Creativity Profitable in Entertainment & Technology.” Dean Judy Olian and Hollywood producer Peter Guber, CEO of the multimedia Mandalay Entertainment Group, teach a class together. Not surprisingly, perhaps, one of the school’s six specializations, along with such traditional MBA areas as accounting and corporate finance, is technology leadership, with such courses as “New Product Development” and “Technology Management.”

“This California location has us keyed into the tech boom,” adds Garmaise, who is also senior associate dean of the MBA program. “We didn’t stop being a finance school, but we have pivoted in terms of industry because it is a better fit for us. You have California opportunities that would open up to you that are very difficult to access from other parts of the country.”

Once wary of heavily promoting its southern California location, in the affluent Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, the school seems far more willing to embrace it these days. “We’ve done a much better job of talking about why California,” says Weiller in admissions.“Five years ago, there was this feeling that we couldn’t even put palm trees or sand on our brochures because some thought we would diminish our reputation by making people think we are here playing beach volleyball. But we are the school in Los Angeles. We are not going anywhere. So we need to learn to talk about L.A. as a competitive advantage.”

Many business schools in big urban centers tend to be less collaborative and more competitive. It’s because students often disperse into the city after class, making it difficult to form bonds with each other. Not so at UCLA’s Anderson. “Some students say they expected UCLA to be a commuter school because we’re in the city, but their experience is just the opposite,” adds Weiller. “They are here and it feels like they are in Hanover or Charlottesville. It is an organic part of who we are: We are confident but not cocky and smart but not overbearingly so.”

Students say the environment is supportive. “Business schools are super competitive, but you can be in this competitive environment and win together,” says Schoelkopf. “I was showing students to a class last winter and we were finding out about consulting interviews and offers. One of my friends came up and said, ‘I heard you got a final round at BCG.’” She said, ‘I didn’t get it but I am super pumped for you.’ People were generally excited about the things others were doing. It is such an anxious time in all of our lives. At other schools, people don’t talk to one another during recruiting. It’s a lot more cut-throat.”

In Schoelkopf’s learning team, he played the role of the finance guy in a diverse group that included a former Wall Street Journal reporter, a consultant, a serial entrepreneur, and a human resources person. “Managing that dynamic was a bigger learning experience than any class you are going to take,” he says.

At UCLA, students take a fairly typical set of core courses in the first year. In the second year, there’s the usual array of electives as well as a capstone course, a 20-week project in which students choose teams and do one of three options: a management field study in which MBAs work on a key strategic issue with a participating company; a business creation option, which gives entrepreneurs the chance to work on their own startups, and a special project option, which allows teams to analyze a strategic issue facing an entire industry.

Through it all, the school has gotten closer to students and their career needs, insists Regina Regazzi, assistant dean and director of the school’s Parker Career Management Center. “We got to know the students a lot better. Starting with the Class of 2012, we committed to tracking them and met every student before the end of orientation. We started to problem solve what they needed and what they were looking for.”

The school launched what it calls ACT, which stands for Anderson Career Teams, in which some 80 second-year MBAs volunteer to coach first-year students based on their industry and functional backgrounds. “That allows us to teach our career series and then individualize it for each student,” says Regazzi. “Some volunteers are putting in 10 to 15 hours a week. And when it comes to show time, before the interviews, our second years conducted 125 mock interviews in one week just for banking interviews last year.”

The entrepreneurial culture at Anderson is also predictably strong, with some 300,000 entrepreneurial ventures based in the L.A. metro area. “Finding new sources of value is the best way to secure our future,” says long-time UCLA professor Al Osborne, founder and faculty director of the school’s Harold Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. “This generation of students wants to be on their own. They are not interested in gold watches and security. I see students who want to make a big difference with their time. My generation made a fortune destroying the environment. What they want to do is make a future cleaning it up.”

Adds Reiss, who will graduate this June, “The students basically run everything here. The only disappointment is that I don’t have 48 hours in a day to get everything done.” His classmate Fagnani knows the feeling. “A common pitfall for a lot of MBA students is that they don’t do enough [due] diligence before they come to know what they want to get out of the experience,” he says. “They are trying to explore and those are the ones who struggle during recruiting because they spread themselves too thin.”

Reiss and Fagnani are helping to run the school’s consulting firm, which is called the Anderson Strategy Group. Last year, the group—composed exclusively of UCLA MBA students—did consulting for companies that ranged in size from $200 million to $1 billion, including a food and beverage company, a ticketing company, a hospital, and a non-profit organization. Both students are making the transition from finance to consulting and will join their summer internship employers as full-time employees, with Reiss going to ZS Associates and Fagnani headed for Boston Consulting Group’s West Coast practice.

Within Anderson’s Class of 2014, the median base salary improved by $10,000 to $110,000, but the school’s job offer rates trailed many rival schools. Some 75.4% had offers at graduation and 90.3% had offers three months out, numbers that Weiller believes would be better if not for the strength of the job market and the school’s location. Compared to some rivals, those stats are not nearly as impressive. The average offer rate at graduation for a Top 25 school this year was 84%, while the three-month rate was slightly over 94%.

“The market has given people some comfort,” explains Weiller. “We have more students who go to firms with just-in-time hiring. There were plenty of students who had job offers before graduation and they turned them down. That is a drawback of being in a big city. If you are in Hanover or Charlottesville, there is a real incentive to make sure you get a job before you get out of there. So we are going to lag a bit, but I don’t want to push anyone to take a job for statistical purposes.”

All told, administrators, faculty, and students seem to be getting a lot of value out of Anderson and its new direction. “I think we are on this incredible upward trajectory,” believes Weiller. “I love where we are positioned right now. We have caught up in many ways and our level of services has caught up. We are delivering a really, really good product to our students. In the past five years, the grumbling went from ‘Parker sucks’ to ‘the water fountain in the library shoots too high.’”

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