What Is It Actually Like To Get An MBA? Q&A With Daniel Bentle Of Washington University’s Olin Business School

If you’re thinking about getting an MBA, perhaps your goal is to move up faster in a complex professional landscape, increase your earning power or get promoted to a higher level of leadership. Maybe you’re looking to improve your professional prowess in your field. Whatever your end goal, heading back into the classroom feels like the place to start. However, a key differentiator for smart MBA programs is that they tend to emphasize experiential learning, which values learning in real-world business situations as much as theory taught in the classroom.

One MBA program that is pioneering this type of learning is Washington University’s Olin Business School, which provides opportunities for initiating new business professionals into the fold of real-world experiences. Better yet, in addition to a full-time MBA program, WashU offers a part-time or “Professional” MBA for working adults as well as two and three-semester Specialized Masters Programs, which accelerate student learning in one specific area of study.

To get a better understanding of how experiential learning impacts an education, we spoke with Daniel Bentle, director of Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning (CEL). Bentle, an alum of the MBA program himself, was preparing to travel with a group of students to Ireland, where students are working with a European energy company preparing to enter the US market. While the Center for Experiential Learning is one applied approach to action-based learning, students also work with WashU’s research centers on practicum projects, participate in case competitions and much more.

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What is the concept of experiential learning and why should it matter to prospective students?
In academia, there’s been a big push to incorporate entrepreneurship as a discipline. There are different schools of thought on how/whether entrepreneurship can actually be taught in an academic sense, but I would argue that entrepreneurship is experiential learning, or learning on the job. It requires grit and tenacity to get a business off the ground, and we drill that into our students through experience working with entrepreneurs and business leaders around the globe.

Giving them the opportunity and the freedom to apply what they’re learning in the classroom in student-driven, faculty-guided experiences is critical. That’s what we’re doing through our Center for Experiential Learning, which is essentially a business that’s run by WashU as a part of the business school.

What is this project you’re working on with students in Ireland?
The company we’re working with is an alternative energy startup that primarily does business in the UK. They’ve been considering expansion into the US, and are looking to explore market entry based on our connection with them and a meeting they took with us. The student consulting team is working on an overall assessment of the market, how a market entry plan might look, and questions that would need to be tackled up-front to provide recommendations.

This is the type of project that a company like this would be taking to a professional consulting firm. A CEL-student project is not a class in the traditional sense; the project manager we have is a second-year MBA. In most cases these are paying projects, or the project is brought in through a grant—and they involve very real challenges in the contemporary business world.

What we have are extremely talented, high-caliber students who, once they graduate, may be going to work for the very same consulting companies our clients may hire. It’s giving students a mission, something real. It’s a critical component of the experience at WashU, and will continue to be a critical component in the MBA experience as a whole going forward.

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What other kinds of opportunities are available to students through the Center for Experiential Learning?
We run seven different types of projects in St. Louis, around the country and around the globe to provide consulting services. These entail a range of organizations: companies, firms, nonprofits, cooperatives, the public sector, as well as larger multinational firms. It’s a swath of organizations we serve. Students can work with companies like those noted above, with a nonprofit, an NGO in the Congo, or a small family business in South Vietnam—they are able to work on something that’s of real interest to them. These ventures are supported through a variety of means: gifts, grant funding, and the university also subsidizes the center. And we have clients who pay for our services.

Our talent is the students we’re bringing in to manage the projects. It’s a very student-driven–faculty-guided philosophy, in which we’re empowering talented, highly qualified students to deliver on a project.

How does this type of learning empower students?
Students can immediately see the impact of their work and feel that sense of urgency. It takes the classroom one step further. Their skills are incredibly valuable and can bring about real change. That’s an awakening for the students. We’re hoping that will help them make decisions about their career paths, whether they want to work with corporate America, family businesses, a nonprofit or elsewhere.

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