MBA Strategic Consulting Program equips Foster students for the real world

Genevieve Cohen (MBA 2013) needed experience. An elementary schoolteacher trying to make the considerable jump from education to business, Cohen knew she’d have to prove her mettle to employers, and demonstrate that she could apply her MBA knowledge to real-world challenges.

MBA students at Isernio’s plant

Foster’s Strategic Consulting Program connected a team of first-year MBA students with Frank Isernio of Isernio’s Sausage, shown here at the company’s plant. A rapidly growing business, Isernio’s has become a repeat client. The most recent MBA consulting project focused on a digital marketing strategy for one of the company’s most popular products, a line of chicken sausage rolls.

She found myriad opportunities to do just that at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Internships with leading companies. Projects featuring live businesses and brands. And the MBA Strategic Consulting Program which, for the past decade, has deployed teams of graduate students to analyze business problems for a variety of successful firms in the region and beyond.

Gordon Neumiller, the program’s director, says that these education-in-action projects provide good value for clients—and essential value for students.

Foster School Dean Jim Jiambalvo agrees.

“The classroom is a great environment for learning theories and frameworks,” says Jiambalvo. “But it’s critical that students know how to apply these theories and frameworks to real-world problems. The MBA Strategic Consulting Program directly addresses this critical need, and ensures that our students can roll up their sleeves and solve the complex, unstructured problems they’ll face on the job.”

Genesis

Ten years ago, Dave Albano (MBA 2004) was an MBA candidate with an English degree who had stumbled into the wireless telecom industry. “I found that I enjoyed solving problems and making businesses run more efficiently,” he says. “I became an internal consultant wherever I worked.”

At Foster, Albano parlayed this passion into an existing MBA student organization called the Business Consulting Network. As president, he worked—along the margins of his academic work—with Neumiller to recruit area businesses with strategic problems to solve, assign student teams, and provide quality control.

He and Neumiller believed that the experiences were so valuable—and time-consuming—that they should be worth class credit. They pitched the idea to school administration. And soon there was a formal class, then a requirement, then an official program of the Foster School.

Today the Full-time MBA Program requires a 10-week Applied Strategy project in the first-year core, and many second-year students and Evening MBAs elect to take on a longer Field Study project through the MBA Strategic Consulting Program.

“These projects are an invaluable counterpart of the academics in that you get actual experience and really get engaged,” says Albano, now a consultant at Accenture who continues to advise Foster teams and has delivered a “Consulting 101” intro to many Applied Strategy classes. “It’s critical to have a quality work experience to point to, especially when you’re a career changer like I was.”

This year’s model

The program’s portfolio of recent clients includes Fortune 500 corporations (Starbucks, Intel, PACCAR, Alaska Airlines), smaller firms (Outdoor Research, Web Turner, OneEnergy Renewables, Isernio’s Sausage), non-profits (Seattle Children’s Hospital, Seattle Opera), and, increasingly, firms farther from home (Machine Perception Technologies of San Diego, Scharffen Berger Chocolate of Hershey, Pennsylvania).

The type of project ranges from supply chain efficiency to expansion strategy to brand management to database marketing and anything in between.

One of last year’s collaborations was with Saltchuk Resources, a diversified holding company founded by long-time Foster Advisory Board member Mike Garvey.

The challenge? To develop a more robust and integrated Saltchuk corporate brand across its family of 35 distinct companies that are loosely assembled around a theme of transportation and distribution.

“This task was not in our skill set,” admits Saltchuk president Tim Engle (MBA 2002). “So we looked outside for help.”

He found the team of Foster Evening MBA Students—Etta Mends, Tyler Edgar, and Rose Tucker—was more than up to the task. They worked closely with the company’s many stakeholders to produce a set of guidelines, both internal and external, designed to make Saltchuk a stronger and more cohesive company.

Mends, who works full-time in finance at Boeing, found the deep dive into the unfamiliar waters of branding and organizational structure to be exhilarating. “Not only did this project offer me a completely different perspective on business,” she says, “it also gave me a glimpse into a smaller company that moves so quickly to adapt and evolve.”

The client was more than satisfied. “We got a heck of a deal,” says Engle. “In terms of return on investment, it’s tenfold, easily. Their work will guide our thinking for a long time to come.”

Repeat business

The largest and most consistent client of the Field Study Program is Microsoft, which generated five different projects this past year.

One of the longest running collaborations is with Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing venture. Under the guidance of Suresh Sathyamurthy (MBA 2007), group product marketing manager at Windows Azure (who recently joined EMC), Foster MBAs have helped scale the business, identify market opportunities, understand the partner ecosystem, and analyze strategy over the past few years.

“The quality of work has been extremely good,” says Sathyamurthy, who was introduced to Microsoft while doing a student consulting project defining value bundles for the Xbox console. “The Foster students collaborate well and work with the end outcome in mind. This collaboration stands out in every presentation and in every meeting.”

Takeaways

At the end of the day, standing out is the name of the game for every MBA looking to leverage rich experiences into interesting and impactful work.

“We always tell students that the way to turn their project into a good job is to do a good job on the project,” says Neumiller. “It may not land you a job with your client company, but it will help you get a job.”

Mends already has a good job, and really came to the Foster School to remain competitive. But she says that challenging experiences like the Saltchuk project have opened her world. “My ambitions of what I want to do are growing as I grow with the program,” she says.

For Cohen, the former schoolteacher, the MBA Strategic Consulting Program was an essential facet of her management education. Working with different combinations of classmates, she delivered a business development plan for Ecologists Without Borders, a supply chain solution for Alaska Airlines and an international expansion analysis for Starbucks, as well as a dynamite brand audit for Tequila Partida.

“Understanding the different types of clients, different personalities, different challenges that each consulting project brings were a critical piece of my education,” Cohen says.

Her first job after graduation from Foster? Consulting.