Top business schools focus on building future leaders with experiential learning model

BY Sydney LakeNovember 04, 2022, 12:03 PM
Students have class outdoors on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, as seen in October 2021. (Photographer: Bing Guan—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Particularly in a post-COVID era, business students are hungry for real-world experience before graduating from an MBA program. Companies raced to develop better business practices for a now very remote-reliant world and MBA internships offer a glimpse into a potential new career dynamic—but business schools also are doing more to give students a chance to learn outside of the traditional curriculum.

Top-ranked business schools have now started to offer what are called experiential courses, which veer away from typical case-study or lecture-style class. MBA students now are being put to the test in a different way inside the classroom, being tasked with developing strategies to solve real-world problems. This includes impact investing, data analytics, and discovering more about struggles that face businesses worldwide.

“Experiential learning, when done well, is an unbelievable supplement to a great sort of traditional set of courses,” Joel Shapiro, a clinical associate professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, tells Fortune. He leads the Analytical Consulting Lab at Northwestern University (Kellogg), which Fortune ranks as having the No. 3 full-time MBA program in the U.S.

Courses like Analytical Consulting Lab have the power to give students a leg up in the job hunt after graduation because MBA grads have more tangible accomplishments and projects to tout during the recruitment process.

“Even if you aren’t the person who runs the analytics in your job, someone is going to come to you with analytics output and results and you’ve got to know enough about what it means in order to make good decisions,” Shapiro says. “It’s a wonderful leadership skill-building experience in class.”

Fortune also spoke with other top business schools about their efforts to expand experiential learning options. Both prospective and current MBA students can learn more about the options available to them at these and other business schools, although this list is not exhaustive.

Harvard Business School: HBS Impact Investment Fund

Impact investing—or investing toward an environmental or social charge—has increasingly become important to Harvard Business School students. This No. 1 business school, as ranked by Fortune, offers a field course called HBS Impact Investment Fund, which not only helps students to gain awareness of the lack of capital for minority-owned small businesses, but also gives students an opportunity to invest real money to help these companies grow.

“The only real way to learn how to become an impact investor is to make an investment decision—a real life investment decision—with real capital at stake,” Brian Trelstad, a senior lecturer with HBS, tells Fortune. “The case method and lecturing just don’t give you the sense of evaluating the pros and cons and debating that you would if you were to join an investment firm or an impact investment firm.” The case study method is a common teaching style among top business schools, which presents business cases that MBA students discuss and debate.

The development of this course came after the police killing of George Floyd, which inctied large corporations to make donations to support Black and Latinx businesses, Trelstad says. After a year of researching to understand the needs and business opportunities in the Boston area, HBS launched the course. Now, the HBS Impact Investment Fund course allows small groups of students to conduct due diligence for impact investing for local Black, Latinx and immigrant small business owners. 

These students are “very mission driven,” and work to come up with a due diligence plan to present to an investment committee at the conclusion of the course. Approved plans may receive between $25,000 to $50,000 for funding toward the small business the students are working with. 

“At a formative time in their lives, an experience where they can empathize with and work to support an entrepreneur of color who is building a business might plant the seed in some of our students,” Trelstad says. “There are lots of bridges that we need to cross economically and politically in this country. If this experience at HBS can help them do that, it would be great.”

Dartmouth College (Tuck): Virtual Global Insights Expedition

MBA students at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, which Fortune ranks as having the No. 11 full-time MBA program in the U.S., have the chance to visit Tamil Nadu, South India, to explore the concept of reverse innovation. This means “innovating new ventures in a poor country like India and later selling those products and services in a rich country like the U.S.,” Vijay Govindarajan, the Coxe distinguished professor of management at Tuck, writes in the syllabus of his course, Reverse Innovation Virtual Global Insights Expedition (VGIX) To Tamil Nadu, South India.

As the course name hints, students don’t actually travel to India to explore this concept. Rather, Govindarajan, along with a design team, has developed a rich set of virtual reality content in which students can learn from and react to people living in South India all while staying on Dartmouth’s campus.

“They get to interview them and try to understand what are the wicked social problems that these poor Indians are facing for which business can provide a solution,” Govindarajan says. “The biggest takeaway is the social impact this course has created.”

The main vision of the course is to provide MBA students an opportunity to develop their leadership mindset using a “social heart with a business mind.” This means that through the virtual reality experiences, students learn the value of female leadership, the struggle of access and affordability for certain necessities like health care, and the importance of humanity in business, Govindarajan explains.

“Ultimately we need to understand our place in the world,” Govindarajan tells Fortune. “We need to relate to humanity in a very deep way. This is another powerful lesson that you can’t get across with just case studies. You have to experience this, you have to meet these people.”

One of the biggest challenges for the people living in South India was access to health care, recalls Joe Dalton, a 2022 MBA graduate from Tuck. As a result, he chose to focus his study in the course on access to telehealth or developing mobile health care. But Dalton’s biggest takeaway was developing a sense and understanding of the importance in the humanity of business.

“It wasn’t necessarily that this was a hardcore business class, but it emphasized the humanity of business,” he tells Fortune. “At the end of the day, it’s about people. I’ll always find myself humbled by the depth of connection we’re able to build through this.”

Northwestern University (Kellogg): Analytical Consulting Lab

During the 2019-2020 school year, Joel Shapiro relaunched Kellogg’s Analytical Consulting Lab, which is a 10-week experiential course in which student teams “work with real companies on real projects in real-time with real data.” The course both gives students a chance to delve deeper into a skillset growing in importance for businesses, while also giving them the opportunity to help companies problem-solve. 

“If you want to be a great business that really succeeds with analytics, you’ve got to be able to identify and find that economic opportunity of where data can be helpful to you,” Shapiro tells Fortune. “That’s really the focus of Analytical Consulting Lab.”

Kellogg students work in teams to figure out how the data they’ve been given access to can yield economic value for their client. Ultimately, the course shows employers that not only do you know how to “do” data analytics, but it successfully shows that you’ve “‘done analytics’ to help X company generate Y insight to improve Z business outcomes,’” Shapiro explains in the relaunch announcement of his course. Students have worked on projects for real health care, sports management, and consumer packaged goods companies.

This experiential learning approach was especially helpful to Jasmine Truong, who recently graduated from Kellogg’s full-time MBA program. 

“Not only are you working on real problems, but you’re doing them in real time,” she tells Fortune. “This is great for getting to see what current businesses are dealing with while we’re studying the fundamentals in our classes.”

Overall, the Analytical Consulting Lab isn’t a total replacement for core MBA classes, but rather an important supplement to the curriculum, Shapiro explains.

“I think experiential learning is an underrated offering at a lot of top business schools,” he says. “When programs don’t offer experiential learning, they are really taking an opportunity away from their students who are able to learn more about whether they like an industry or function to actually teach them a new skill set.”

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.