MBA Entrepreneurship Gets an Overhaul

By Brian Wallheimer | Spring 2016

New focus promotes a broader business mindset

The Notre Dame MBA program recently changed the name of its entrepreneurship track to include a very important word: innovation.

The revamped Innovation & Entrepreneurship MBA track builds on the Mendoza College of Business’ success as a breeding ground for entrepreneurship. It now also provides opportunities for students to bring an entrepreneurial mindset to larger, more established companies that need a jolt of inspiration.

“We have had a strong entrepreneurship program, but sometimes the perception was it was intended only for students who planned to start a company,” says Sam Miller, director of the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. “By synthesizing entrepreneurship with innovation, we’ve added a broader range of learning experiences and created appeal to students looking to make their mark with large enterprises as well as startups and every type of organization in between.”

Administrators approved new courses, overhauled current courses and made changes to internship opportunities in 2015. Students have already taken advantage of some of the changes, while the entire program redesign will be fully implemented in the 2016-17 academic year.

New classes such as Strategic Foresight and Business Model Innovation emphasize methods for bringing fresh ways of thinking to sometimes rigid organizations.

Other classes have been turned on their heads. New Product Development and Innovation and Design take advantage of the immersive learning methods prominent in Mendoza. Instead of traditional classes, students bring business or product ideas to panels of seasoned entrepreneurs and innovators — many of them alumni — who give guidance on improvement.

“In the areas of entrepreneurship and innovation, you need to be immersed with successful people,” says Jeffrey Bergstrand, Mendoza’s associate dean for graduate programs. “One of the significant benefits of the Notre Dame program is our deep network. We can draw on a lot of alums who will share their expertise.”

Kristen Sawdon (MBA ’16), has taken both the New Product Development and Innovation and Design courses. Her experiences pushed her to look at problems through different lenses. While researching methods to improve airport security checkpoints, her mentors pushed her to go beyond traditional reviews of literature, focus groups and interviews. They challenged her to spend time in airports, observing security lines and thinking of ways to design a new solution rather than make an incremental improvement on the current system.

“We go about our days and perform tasks based on how they’re presented to us,” Sawdon says. “But these things don’t have to be completed in the way that they are currently designed. We can ask the question: ‘Can I design that differently so that it’s better or more efficient?’”

That’s the type of thought processes the Innovation & Entrepreneurship track is trying to foster.

“The challenges we face as a society and an economy are getting harder and harder to solve with existing business models and traditional ways of thinking,” Miller says. “The things that move this world forward are not incremental changes to existing products, but true innovation.”

Students will also have the opportunity to now focus on one of three areas of emphasis: new product development, early stage venture capital and social entrepreneurship.

The social entrepreneurship area, in which students build business models for companies or products that address societal problems, is particularly well-suited to Notre Dame’s mission, which includes creating “a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice,” says Bergstrand.

“A lot of MBA programs focus on the area of entrepreneurship and innovation, but a key aspect for us is emphasizing that social aspect. This is a force for good,” he adds.

Outside the classroom, redesigned internship programs will allow students to shadow successful entrepreneurs at startup companies, as well as those involved in innovative processes in other companies.

“We give students the opportunity to work firsthand — breathing the oxygen, if you will — that founders of startups and innovators in their fields are breathing,” Miller says.