The Berkeley-Haas EMBA: Turning ‘Advancers’ Into ‘Switchers’

EMBA 2014 valedictorian, Laura Adint (middle) flanked by faculty and staff during graduation. (L-R Jay Stowsky, Andy Rose, Laura, Jenny Chatman, Catherine Wolfram). Courtesy photo

EMBA 2014 valedictorian, Laura Adint (middle) flanked by faculty and staff during graduation.
(L-R Jay Stowsky, Andy Rose, Laura, Jenny Chatman, Catherine Wolfram). Photo by Jim Block

It was a classic tale of growing too much prestige too quickly. The rags to riches cliché. Once a cohesive and functioning team, the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business and Columbia Business School decided to part ways on their EMBA partnership in 2012. A true power couple, how could two of the best business schools in the world not work out? Haas Dean Rich Lyons, at the time, chalked it up to the partnership not “evolving as quickly as either side of the partnership was evolving.

Columbia was left with their mother lode of EMBA programs, and Haas was left with nothing more than a plan—to create its own unique EMBA. The program was dubbed the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program and just graduated its first cohort in December 2014. Trying to establish a program from scratch amongst such prestige rivals as Stanford’s MSx, Wharton’s San Francisco EMBA and Babson College’s offering in San Francisco as well would prove daunting.

But according to Mike Rielly, who helped launch the program and was recently appointed assistant dean, the key was to create something unique and be the nice guy in the market. In an interview with Poets&Quants, Rielly explains why the Berkeley-Haas program is different from others and how they’ve put an emphasis on building both within the program and with trans-Bay rivals, Stanford and Wharton.

A SMALL, COHESIVE COHORT

Perhaps the largest differentiator of Berkeley-Haas’ program is its staunch resistance to blended or online learning. Students are expected on campus from Thursday through Saturday once every three weeks. And outside of a few logistical items—such as virtual office meetings and staying connected between terms—the program remains face-to-face.

One main reason is community and connection. According to Rielly, who was originally hired at Haas as lecturer in sports marketing and then director for student experience after more than two decades of private sector work in sports marketing, creating community is one of the most important aspects of the program. And community is largely why you won’t see a cohort larger than 70 members who live together while on campus and spend one week in each of the five terms fully immersed in a remote location with one another.

PROGRAM HIGHLIGHTED BY WEEK-LONG IMMERSIONS

The program is 19 months long and broken up into five terms. Students complete four on-campus sessions each term, called “blocks,” plus an immersion week at the end of each term. A strong core curriculum makes up 60% of the entire program, the immersions, which serve as experiential learning make up 25%, and electives take up the rest.

During the first immersion, students travel to nearby Napa for leadership communication training (consuming products of local businesses and vendors assuredly gets the communication flowing). During term two, students venture to nearby Silicon Valley. In term three, students participate in an “applied innovation week.” For term four, they are all expected to take an international trip together—last year was China and this year will be Brazil. Finally, they are expected in Washington D.C. for a week of business and policy to close out the program.

In our interview, Rielly tackles a wide range of questions, explains the cornerstone to the immersion weeks, why so many students come into the program looking to advance in their current careers and leave starting their own ventures, and how Berkeley-Haas, Stanford, and Wharton EMBAs all play and network nicely with one another.

Poets&Quants: What is Haas doing that is new and unique?

Rielly: First, the program itself is new, and is the business school’s first new program since 2001. We’ve had an amazing opportunity to create something that is uniquely Berkeley-Haas, and most relevant to today’s executives.

Our academics involve a rigorous core, anchor electives and, this is new, a significant commitment to experiential leaning.  In fact, 25% of our curriculum is experiential, led by immersion weeks.  I don’t know of another top business school so committed to experiential learning.

Whether its Silicon Valley, where we stage class at Google, Facebook and Airbnb; visit founders at 32 startups; and host a VC Panel and reception with Berkeley-Haas Alumni; or Washington DC, where we explore deeply the intersection of business and policy, all of our immersions are led by rock star faculty, if you will, and are designed so that students leave with a deep understanding of the business and culture of that particular region or industry.

The residential component and on campus experience remain central to our promise and we emphasize a commitment to community across cohorts and across MBA programs. We’ve also been doing some networking with our neighbors across the bay—Wharton and Stanford, both personally and professionally.

Another thing, we meet every three weeks. We find this pattern allows our EMBAs to compartmentalize the most important areas in their lives, and it helps our out-of-Bay Area students manage the required travel.

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