This fall, the Ross School of Business will offer its third semester of the Living Business Leadership Experience, a class that immerses undergraduate and graduate students in real-life business projects. The class is part of the Business School’s Real Experience in Action-Based Learning initiative, a new curriculum philosophy that emphasizes problem-solving surrounded by the complexities and ambiguities of the business world.

Mike Barger, executive director for the Business School’s Office of Strategy and Academic Innovation, was the vice president of fleet operations for JetBlue Airways’ former vice when he was approached ten years ago by Business School Dean Scott DeRue. The Business school was looking to utilize a team of University of Michigan Business students to help develop some of JetBlue’s projects. 

“At JetBlue, as an executive there, we had dozens of concepts for new products or offerings or lines of business that would come across the executive docket on a weekly basis, and very few of them we were ever able to pull the trigger on because we didn’t have the bandwidth, or the time or it wasn’t in our sweet spot,” Barger said.

One year ago, about three weeks after Barger was hired by the Business School, he presented the concept of Living Business Leadership Experience at an advisers meeting, and several advisers immediately supported the concept and suggested company partners.

“This course, this Living Business Leadership Experience – what we refer to often around here as the Shinola course because they were our first partner – is this program that we put together to create a portfolio of businesses that students from across Ross could spend a semester embedded in a team that’s actually run a new line of business or a new product offering,” Barger said.

While LBLE is currently a 1.5-credit class, it will be introduced as a 3-credit class starting fall semester. Shinola, a Detroit-based luxury watch and lifestyle brand, was LBLE’s first company partner. Alex Drinker, Shinola’s vice president of marketing, works with LBLE students directly every week. Their project is to help develop Shinola’s new audio brand.

“We just don’t have enough resources to do all the things we would want to do within the four walls of our building,” Drinker said. “I think that the opportunity we saw within LBLE is that we could bring into the building a lot of extremely talented people with a deep kind of background of their own professional expertise that they could bring to the table and help us really drive the success of the audio business.”

Business senior Charlotte Zukauckas is currently working on an LBLE project team with Ookla, an internet speed-testing company. Through her project, she has explored her technology interests and gained perspectives from the company and University faculty advisers.

“Ross is very for action-based learning opportunities, and as a BBA student, I found it very helpful because you have your different classes that pertain to your interests, but not necessarily one that mirrors the actual business setting,” Zukauckas said. “So, this is a great way to kind of jump that bridge from classroom setting to work setting by taking a class that ultimately is in a workplace.”

LBLE teams are comprised of Bachelor of Business Administration and Master of Business Administration students, which Zukauckas said provides her with an opportunity to learn from unique perspectives and consider possibly earning an MBA in the future.

“I was a little intimidated going into it, because I was the only BBA in my group and I’m working with four other MBAs, and I thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to be so much smarter than me,’” Zukauckas said. “But we’ve really all had our fair share of contributions and we work really well together as a group.”

While the Business School has similar immersive business projects, such as  Multidisciplinary Action Projects course for MBAs, Barger said LBLE is different because instead of studying a problem and providing a final report, students work to create a new service or product, which new LBLE students develop further each semester. Regarding LBLE students’ work on their audio products, Drinker said the team made a direct impact on their business.

“We worked with them directly on the prices for the headphones that we ultimately went to market with, and some of the marketing collateral was directly derived from the work the students did,” Drinker said. “So none of it was kind of make a report, put it on the shelf, and save it for another day. It was all very real-time work that was put in the market right away.”

In modern business settings, Barger finds there are rarely formulas or clear-cut answers. Since businesses are in need of employees prepared for the often-ambiguous business world, LBLE focuses on developing creative problem-solving skills in students.

“You’re going to need to find ways to make decisions and move your teams forward based off of imperfect data and uncertainty in the environment that you’re operating in,” Barger said. “So for all students, who are taking any courses around Michigan, don’t let the problem come to you. Be ambitious. Get to the problem. Get the data that you need. Don’t wait for the problem to come to you.”

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