Directing Cross-Country Traffic

Full-time MBA students will take classes for the first time on the San Francisco campus during a new pilot program.

By Anne Freedman 

Before this fall, Wharton | San Francisco was home to just one of Wharton’s two MBA programs: the MBA Program for Executives. That changed in September when 55 second-year students from the full-time MBA program ventured from Philadelphia to participate in a first-ever pilot program.

It’s easiest to gauge the significance of the increased integration between the two Wharton campuses by hearing it in the enthusiasm and anticipation of the students’ voices (all of whom were interviewed in August before classes began).

“I am just really excited about the opportunity. I think it’s really great that Wharton is doing this,” said Jennifer Royer, C’07, W’07, an entrepreneurial management major who is on track to complete her MBA in 2013. “San Francisco is so highly regarded. It’s such an epicenter of … entrepreneurship, technology, venture capital. A lot of great ideas start here, are funded here, take off here.”

Like roughly half of her peers, Royer moved early to the Bay Area for a summer internship before the coursework. She held a marketing role at Goodreads, a social network for book lovers. Ziad El Baba delved into analytics and new products during his internship at PayPal in San Jose, CA.

What really drew him was Wharton | San Francisco’s curriculum emphasis on entrepreneurship, technology and venture capital, as well as the faculty—“some of the most sought-after professors,” he said. The Lebanese native had already “crossed two continents” to attend classes in Philadelphia, so moving across the country did not cause much angst.

Perhaps Ariel Quiñones was feeling a little trepidation when he called the pilot program “a risky proposition.” He was leaving an internship at a top VC-backed startup in São Paulo, Brazil, for the San Francisco classes. The major in entrepreneurial management and finance was missing out on a semester in Philadelphia and being part of “something that hasn’t been tested before.”

The potential advantages, however, outweighed the possible disadvantages for him. Originally from Puerto Rico, Quiñones agrees with El Baba that one main reason he chose to participate was the faculty. The other reason: “the ability to be part of a cohort of peers that are really passionate about technology and startups and are really like-minded in their objectives.”

Jan Wittmaack saw nothing but benefit in being with students who have similar interests in technology and entrepreneurship. Networking with like-minded colleagues—and with the many other professionals they will meet during the fall semester—may lead to beginning work on a startup.

“It’s a great incubator to start your own business when you think about it,” said Wittmaack, a finance major.

You would expect students to be optimistic and eager. Their voices, after all, encouraged the School to launch the pilot in the first place. In a poll, two-thirds of respondents from the Class of 2012 said they would have applied to such a program if it had been available, recalled Karl Ulrich, vice dean of innovation and CIBC Professor of Entrepreneurship and eCommerce, who is credited as being the architect of the project.

“They were so enthusiastic that we said, ‘This idea has legs. Let’s go ahead and submit it to get approval for a two-year pilot,’” he said. “We put a team together, and we just kind of plowed through the issues.”

They sold the idea to the faculty and administration, but no arm twisting was needed as the reaction was nearly uniformly positive, Ulrich said. “It serves the needs of the students who have a strong interest in the Bay Area.”

As many as 40 staff members collaborated to review issues from computer access to academic advising.

The School wanted to make sure it “delivered the same level of services to the students in San Francisco that they would get here in Philadelphia,” explained Don Huesman, managing director of the Innovation Group at Wharton.

They worked to make sure that it would be easy for students in the Bay Area to communicate with service providers in Philadelphia and that financial aid would be increased, when necessary, because the cost of living is significantly higher in San Francisco. Planning also involved putting together the slate of classes, faculty, speakers and events for students, and ensuring opportunities for field application projects or independent study, Huesman said.

“I am shocked at the number of things that had to be thought about to pull this off,” he added. The two biggest challenges were housing and career management. For housing, “we encouraged the students to take that on themselves as a problem to solve, and they have,” Huesman said. For career management, the goal was to ensure the same quality support that they would receive in Philadelphia. While in the Bay Area, students will be able to meet with tech companies, startups, venture capital firms and other top employers, either on campus or at the company’s location, according to Samuel Jones, director of strategic initiatives, MBA Career Management. In addition, Jones’ office made sure that companies recruiting in Philadelphia will also visit the San Francisco campus or communicate with students via video chat.

“Actually, overall, they are positioning themselves well if they want to work on the West Coast because of the direct contact they will have,” Jones said of the pilot participants. “They have more time to build a network there.”

One thing that nobody had to worry about was the campus itself, which was recently relocated to a 35,000-square-foot space on the top floor of the old Hills Bros. coffee building on the Embarcadero. The campus features a large amphitheater, two small amphitheater classrooms, 17 study rooms, faculty space and a dining room.

The stunning new facility is not the only thing that sets its campus apart from Philadelphia, said Doug Collom, vice dean of Wharton | San Francisco. It also differs “in terms of state of mind.” Wharton | San Francisco is at the “epicenter” of entrepreneurship, being close to Silicon Valley and SoMa—the south of Market area home to the financial district and many startups and tech companies, he said.

“There are significant differences between San Francisco and Philadelphia on many levels,” Collom said. “We are definitely starting to move the needle to invest the Wharton | San Francisco campus with its own identity.”

As distinctive as the San Francisco experience surely will be for the MBA students, the pilot could also serve as a testing ground for other distance-learning opportunities.

“We viewed this as a way to explore this idea and test its advantages,” Ulrich said, mentioning Beijing and London as two prospective locations.

“Wharton is a global brand. It’s a global school,” Huesman said. “Over a third of our MBA students are non-U.S. natives. We have over 100 members of our faculty—looking at both standing and non-standing members—who are non-U.S. natives. Everybody’s business is global, so how do we address that if everyone is in Philadelphia? And one model for doing that is what we are doing in San Francisco.”

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