Building an immersive, inclusive culture


In January, during the semester kickoff, first-year evening MBA for Professionals students were completing traditional team-building exercises to earn cash for a unique project that required bicycle parts. Eight teams constructed eight bikes, and the competition was fierce. Soon after, and while the competition raged on, a group of students from Yellowstone Academy, a school serving some of Houston’s neediest families, entered the ballroom at the student center. Their head of school explained to the MBAs that the bikes they built that day were about to change the life of a child at his school, and she thanked them.

“The students didn’t know they were making the bikes for these kids,” Melanie Holiday, program specialist in the professionals program, said. “It was amazing.”

Fully employed, fully loaded curriculum

Brooke Sabo has been director of student services for the Rice MBA for Professionals (MBAP) program since its inception in 2006 and has watched its growth over the past seven years. What was once a weeknight schedule with less than 100 total students has expanded by nearly five times and, since 2010, has offered a weekend schedule as well. “It grew a lot faster than expected,” Sabo said. “The first group was 70 students, and it grew to 115 the next year. Now, the MBAP program has over 320 students.”

Unlike many programs aimed at working professionals, Rice’s two-year MBAP program is cohort-based, meaning students enter, take courses and graduate together. “It’s a full-time curriculum; they take 16 hours a semester,” Sabo explained. “The only reason they’d be considered part-time is because they’re not here during the day. We consider this to be a full-time experience.”

Sue Oldham, director of admissions development for the professionals program adds, “It’s really geared towards those working professionals who want to improve their career trajectory. They’re a little more established than people in the full-time MBA program; most of them have been out of college for an average of five to six years. They’re in a certain function and might want to change or move up quickly within their function.”

Current MBAP student Alex Forshey fits that profile. A 2007 graduate of Texas A&M, he juggles his job with Cockrell Interests while taking classes. “One of my bosses is a graduate of the executive program and another is an adjunct professor, and both suggested the MBA for Professionals program,” he said, adding that the design and schedule of the program was what allowed him to enroll, and it hasn’t taken long to apply what he’s learned in class at work.

“There were so many interesting projects at work that I wanted to be a part of, so I couldn’t imagine taking two years off to get an MBA,” he said. “We’re coming straight from work, but there are times when we’ve discussed something in class one night, and I’ve been able to use it the next day.”

Adding a full course load to the schedule of someone managing a 40-hour work week and a personal life can be difficult — but that difficulty is exactly what is intended for the students to master. The difficult nature of the program has been a selling point, not a drawback, according to Oldham. “For our particular program, applicants are looking for the best education,” she said. “They’re looking for a top-ranked program with the academic rigor Rice is known for.”

Balance and bonding

Forshey said there is no question the program is taxing. “There’s a lot of work, and there’s not much time for a social life, but this is what you expect from a program at Rice. You have to make sure that your spouse and children are as much for you doing it as you are.”

From the start, students and their families are immersed in the culture of the program — beginning with the kickoff of the academic year to homecoming, zoo day, and baseball tailgate just to name a few. And then there are the student-related activities such as mentor happy hours and dinners; Jones Gives Back days; Duke MBA Games, supporting Special Olympics; and the gala. “We integrate the students from the different programs as much as we can,” said Michelle Kaltenbach, assistant director of the MBAP program.

“Especially with the full-time program. The MBAPs are members in student clubs and act as social chairs. They volunteer with the Houston Food Bank and Kids Meals, City Art Works and the Women’s Home — all the organizations we work with through Jones Gives Back.” When these students graduate after two years, Kaltenbach says, “We know them not only as students, but as leaders who fulfill the Jones School mission and contribute back to the local community and the JGSB.”

Alumnus and former Jones Student Association president for the professionals program Ben Exner ’13 said that while at the school he was determined to bring the MBA programs closer together. “You pick your priorities depending on what you want to get out of the program. Rice offered so much. I knew I wanted to take advantage of that while I was a student. I also wanted the MBAP students to have more access to the full array of full-time opportunities.”

During his tenure, Exner and his classmates participated in the Duke MBA Games, played active roles in planning school-wide events, and worked with student clubs to make membership more feasible for fully-employed students. Oldham said many students and alumni have also commented on the sense of community the program’s design has created. “You’re up late with the same students; you know them, you know their families and you share their joy of graduating together,” she said. “There’s a feeling that these are friends, and family.”

Exner agreed. “Walking across campus, you’re part of the university — part of an immersive environment.”

The campus advantage

One of seven academic units at Rice University, the Jones School sits on the 300-acre campus in the heart of Houston. Along with all the benefits of going to graduate school on a campus, there are the advantages of having the faculty, staff, Career Management Center, Admissions, Alumni Office, Corporation Relations and Office of Student Services accessible and available in one place. Exner, for example, was able to utilize the career services resources to successfully transition from corporate finance at Marathon to investment banking at Citi.

“The experiences we provide are very much as if you were in the full-time program, and a lot of students take advantage of that,” Sabo said. “We encourage them to be part of the Jones School community and the Rice community when they’re on campus. There’s a lot more to being an MBA than going to class, and we encourage them to be active. They came to Rice for a reason.”

The beauty and activity on campus have a way of pulling the students in. A good Rice football or baseball season lures the athletically-minded. Music and art lovers are drawn to the Shepherd School and Hamman Hall performances, Rice Gallery and the amazing public art. There is even an observatory for star gazers. And once they’re pulled in, other things start happening. Many students take advantage of clubs and programs or events such as the Jones Partners Thought Leadership Series, Rice Energy Finance Summit, Veterans Lecture Series, Women in Leadership Conference and the Rice Marketing Symposium, along with other lectures and exhibitions around Rice.

Sabo said three students are currently presidents of on-campus organizations, something that is unique among professional MBA programs. “I talk to people who run similar programs elsewhere and they talk about how they have a pizza party once a semester,” she said. “We have one of those every week. The closeness of and the involvement of our professional students shocks them.”

The Rice MBA for Professionals program, Sabo said, is already developing a strong reputation: Businessweek has ranked Rice in the top ten since 2009 for programs of its kind and this year it was ranked second in student satisfaction. “But our best advertising has been word of mouth — from our students telling other people they know about the program.”

On the horizon

A new initiative by student organizers called “Alumni Lunches” has connected current professional students with Rice alumni from different industries. Another idea coming out of the Office of Student Services is “Leave Your Legacy,” where students can submit programmatic proposals — either cultural, professional development, social or academic. The winner will be awarded $1000 to apply toward the total cost of their suggested program the next year.

Laurel McConn, a current MBAP student, said students are constantly asked for their input on the program and how it can be made better. “They’re always surveying us, getting our opinions on things and what they could change,” she said. “They take our opinions seriously.”

What began as an option of program delivery has now evolved into a culture onto its own at the Jones School. Students feel they are part of something unique not just as MBA candidates at Rice University but within their own program. The bond that’s formed over the course of two years remains for alumni. Two years ago, a formal event celebrating the fifth year of the program was held and the turnout among current and former Rice MBA for Professionals was overwhelming. Assistant Director Michelle Kaltenbach speculates that, “it comes down to the culture we’ve built and the support and resources we’ve received.” Both at the school level and within the program.