Meet the XBA: A better, faster, cheaper MBA?

The Fullbridge Program’s Luke Owings

FORTUNE — Students, six to a table, pore over financials and craft investor presentations. The click-clacks of their laptops fill the ornate conference rooms of Boston’s mahogany-paneled 19th century Omni Parker House. The space is old, but the class is brand new.

The students are all in the Fullbridge Program, a new kind of business school, akin to an MBA — a baby brother, perhaps, but with a speed addiction. Fullbridge’s founders, husband and wife Peter and Candice Carpenter Olson (he a former CEO at Random House; she a founder at iVillage) have even developed a new certificate for graduates of their program: the XBA.

The XBA mixes drills with a bit of theory. Participants learn to read balance sheets, income, and cash flow statements in small groups for eight hours a day. They evaluate global companies’ strategies and performance based on those numbers, and then present their findings in teams at the end of a 20-day, four-week boot camp — typically over winter or summer break. Fullbridge recruits students and early-career professionals in their late teens to late twenties. Its appeal is that not only will the program help students be more valuable at their jobs, but it will also help them find fulfillment in their careers.

The Olsons founded Fullbridge in 2010 to address a problem they saw their seven children’s friends struggle with: Academia gave them critical thinking skills, but left these young people unprepared for real-life work. When Peter, 62, first graduated from college, he recalls that employers either had “extensive training programs or almost unlimited amounts of patience.” That’s no longer the case and graduates are entering high-expectation jobs with little experience, proving problematic for both parties.

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The Olsons say they have little desire to replace the traditional undergraduate or MBA experience. They see the XBA as a new category of education — the finishing touch on the 21st century liberal arts degree. They enlisted their network of successful business friends — from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Randy Komisar to Communispace founder and CEO Diane Hessan — and put together bite-size presentations that address topics like being smart versus being effective at work and how to make good use of Excel. The lessons also dive into companies like Apple (AAPL) and Starbucks (SBUX), talking about how these brands have thrived in competitive environments. And Peter gives an abbreviated step-by-step of how he examined cash flow statements and the like while he was CEO of Random House. After running a successful pilot with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom first-year associates, the duo fine-tuned Fullbridge’s curriculum for undergraduates.

Though Peter still teaches business administration at Harvard Business School, the pair say that the new program has forced them to reevaluate traditional teaching methods. Candice, 60, has focused on how Fullbridge’s learning materials are designed. To create a visually appealing environment for Fullbridge participants, she hired firms like Tank Design and Mechanica to create eye-catching content for the students. “We could be called an education-slash-tech company, but the two biggest checks we’ve written have been to design firms,” she laughs. Short video lessons and team activities serve as the program’s foundation.

Students pay between $5,000-6,000 to attend Fullbridge, depending on date and location. Students can also access housing at an additional cost of $1250-$1450. Since the program’s 2010 launch, 584 students have participated.

The power of a good coach

At the Omni Parker House, Luke Owings’ 6’6” frame towers over five Fullbridge coaches. Owings, 28, played basketball at Princeton. It’s a day after the program’s most intense lesson, “Cintas y Lazos,” where students review the financials of a new company (it makes ribbons, of all things), and are then tasked with presenting investors with a plan to reach profitability, taking into account brand, salaries, manufacturing costs, and other factors. There’s one message in the coaches’ room: “Whatever you do for this opener, bring the energy.” Owings bounces as he advises the coaches: “We’re really trying to get them into that culture of feedback, feedback, feedback.”

In the same way that a terrible boss can create a hellish workplace, an ineffective Fullbridge coach can ruin the XBA program. Fullbridge assigns one coach to every 16 students. Owings plays coach to the coaches.

Peter recruited the former McKinsey analyst in 2011, just after he graduated from Harvard Business School. Owings looks for approachable professionals with credibility when he searches for coaches. Many Fullbridge coaches are current MBA students with several years of work experience. He argues that coaches get just as much out of the program as the students: they gain leadership skills and awaken otherwise latent teaching talent.

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Coaches complete 50-60 hours of training before meeting students, provide each student with around 100 performance reviews over the course of 20 days, and spend two days with each student to brainstorm about their dream careers and offer a path to achieve those goals.

Ben Monnin, a 2010 Columbia graduate, participated in the Fullbridge program last winter while working at startup DormAid. Owings, who was his coach, often spoke to him about the Minto Pyramid Principle (situation, complication, question, and answer), which he picked up at McKinsey. Monin says that kind of thinking taught him how to simplify arguments and use tools like PowerPoint and Excel for effect, rather than show. He now works in the U.S. and overseas as a portfolio manager at Saudi Arabia-based Makshaff Services.

Moving into new territory

Fullbridge has wasted no time waiting to expand. The company hosts programs in various cities, and it launched its veteran program in partnership with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America this January. James Wang, who works in the military’s IT department, says there’s little innovation in his department at the Pentagon; he credits the program with sparking his interest in entrepreneurship.

Fullbridge also works with universities like Bowdoin and Washington University in St. Louis to offer complementary courses for students. (Some offer it free to scholarship students, others send students to the open enrollment programs.) “Universities move slowly; they’re a conservator of values,” Candice explains. Working with a program like Fullbridge helps these schools fill this knowledge gap faster, Candace argues. “There isn’t much overlap between what we do and what they do.”

Fullbridge is also going global: In 2011, it launched a program in South Korea and last month, it ended its Phase 1 program in partnership with Prince Sultan University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Fourteen men and 22 women enrolled, and were separated by gender. Since the coaches weren’t sure what to expect, they overcompensated by assign one coach for every six students. “For many participants, it was their first experience in a professional setting,” says Owings. “There was a sense of urgency among the women, whereas the men knew there would be jobs waiting for them upon graduation.” Just after the Fullbridge program ended, the students began 7-month co-op assignments at PriceWaterhouseCooper, Microsoft (MSFT), the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce, and at area preschools. This summer, Fullbridge will run a program in Shanghai.

The company’s obsession with feedback doesn’t end with the students; on-the-ground successes and failures are reported to Owings, who helps program manager Matt Rubins mold the different course tracks — business immersion, entrepreneurship, and legal — to cater to Fullbridge’s professionally and geographically diverse audiences.

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Over the next two years, Fullbridge plans to launch JobX, a database of 1,000 interviews with employees from varying industries, asking what they love and what they hate about their jobs and coded based on students’ career assessment indexes. (Fullbridge uses HBS senior fellow Tim Butler’s CareerLeader program.) It also acquired, hoping to use its platform to create peer-mentoring groups over the next year, and will be rolling out follow up 5-10 day programs that dive deeper into subjects like marketing, technology, design, and finance for Fullbridge graduates.

In 2014, Fullbridge is launching a World Tour: for American students, it’s a seven-week program with stops in cities like Mumbai, Prague, and Shanghai; international students will visit London, New York City, and Silicon Valley.  These new initiatives focus on opening students’ eyes to all career possibilities.

As Fullbridge grows, it faces the challenge of hiring more coaches without sacrificing talent quality. The coaches make the program worthwhile, giving participants a taste of what professional relationships are like, while instilling confidence in the doe-eyed twenty-somethings. Its unlikely Fullbridge graduates needed the program to find success, but it does give students a chance to find careers that match their personalities — and avoid the astronomical cost of business school.

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