Babson MBA Program Boldly Expands to San Francisco, Where Entrepreneurship Goes “90 Miles Per Hour”

If you’ve spent much time around Boston, you know that the name Babson College is pretty much synonymous with “entrepreneurship.” Centered in Babson Park, MA, adjacent to suburban Wellesley, Babson’s MBA programs seem to churn out startup founders at a rate that’s far out of proportion to the school’s size (1,600 graduate students) or its endowment (just $171 million). The entrepreneurs I met during my three years with Xconomy Boston hailed from Babson just as often as they did from Harvard Business School or MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Now Bay Area businesspeople who’d like to earn Babson MBAs don’t have to move to Massachusetts to do it—and they don’t even have to take (much) time away from their jobs. In a move that directly challenges local B-schools such as the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, Babson has set up the second off-campus version of its Fast Track MBA program in San Francisco. The first cohort of 34 San Francisco students began their studies this spring, and the school is already interviewing students for its next class, which will come together starting in March 2011.

It’s a daring and entrepreneurial move, but perhaps not a surprising one for a school that tends to practice what it preaches. After Babson president Leonard Schlesinger joined the school in 2008 from Victoria’s Secret parent company Limited Brands—where he was chief operating officer—he said his goals for Babson were to broaden the definition of entrepreneurship and extend the school’s reach around the globe. “This is our time…and the world can benefit enormously from a much more expansive diffusion of what it is that we do,” he told Xconomy CEO Bob Buderi in an interview last year.

Schlesinger says the principles of entrepreneurship are “documentable, codifiable, and consequently teachable to anybody.” And the Fast Track program is a case in point, representing the school’s attempt to repackage its two-year MBA program into a form that works for busy Bay Area workers who don’t want, or can’t afford, to leave their full-time jobs.

The program involves a combination of face-to-face classes, taught by full-time Babson faculty members, and Internet-mediated distance learning. First-year students start out by traveling to Babson’s Massachusetts campus for a five-day bootcamp. Then they use wikis, blogs, and Web conferencing tools such as Adobe Connect and the Blackboard learning management system to pursue remote projects. Every six weeks, the students gather at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus in San Francisco for an intense two-day session of classes and discussions (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 pm on Friday and Saturday).

“Unlike a typical evening MBA program that requires students to go to campus once or twice a week for the duration, here the students need to come to campus just once every six weeks,” says Raghu Tadepalli, the Massachusetts-based dean of Babson’s Olin Graduate School of Business and one of the architects of the San Francisco program. “We find that allows students, for the remainder of that period, to work or travel, and the only thing they need to access the material is a broadband connection.”

The Fast Track program is competitively priced—the program costs $70,000 for two years, compared to roughly $160,000 at Wharton and $140,000 at Columbia. And it’s tailored for the West Coast’s entrepreneurial culture, with high-decibel give and take between students, according to Tadepalli. “If the Boston program was going at 60 miles per hour, San Francisco is going at 90,” he says. “The students’ expectations are just that different.”

Tadepalli is careful to spell out what the Babson Fast Track program is not. It’s not an online-only degree program like those offered by the University of Phoenix, because about half of the curriculum is classroom-based. And it’s definitely not an executive MBA program—these tend to be more compressed and less demanding than regular MBAs, Tadapelli says. “The perception is that executive MBAs are ‘MBA lite,'” says Tadepalli. “If you talk to our students, they’ll tell you they have to work very hard. The curriculum is rigorous and team-based, and the focus is on training general managers.”

Babson isn’t a new player on the West Coast. In 2001, it rolled out a 27-month on-site MBA program designed especially for Intel executives in Portland, OR. That program opened its doors to non-Intel students in 2005, and has been “very successful,” according to Tadepalli; in fact, it still has about 90 students. But Babson officials felt the curriculum originally developed for Intel might work even better in other regions. After Tadepalli took over as dean in June 2009, he commissioned a study to find the next geographic target.

“We had about twelve levels of criteria, both macro and micro,” Tadepalli told me in an interview at Mission Bay, where Fast Track was renting seminar rooms for one of its face-to-face sessions. “The macro level was dealing directly with the entrepreneurial climate in each city: the number of new startups over a period of time, the number of companies above a certain revenue base. That gave us some indication of the number of potential applicants. Then there were the micro factors, such as the number of Babson alumni in a given area, the kinds of support the alumni were willing to provide, and whether they would open doors and help us publicize the programs in those cities.”

Raghu Tadepalli

Raghu Tadepalli

When Babson tallied up the stats, it found, not too surprisingly, that San Francisco was at the top of the list. (More surprising, perhaps, was the second-place city: Miami, which will, in fact, be the next location Babson sets up shop, according to Tadepalli.) To hear Tadepalli tell it, there is an almost physical pull among Bay Area entrepreneurs for practical business training that will help them get their ideas to market faster.

“In San Francisco there is a very large proportion of what we also have in Wellesley, which is mid-career people who are ready to switch,” Tadepalli says. “I was having lunch with one student who has his own startup company, and he is in the program because he wants some of the skills that the company needs in areas like finance and marketing and operations. There is a sense of urgency. This San Francisco group is very impatient. They want to get the information as quickly as they can and use it as quickly as they can.”

Portland, where Fast Track was born, came in seventh in the regional comparison Tadepalli commissioned. So the plan is to shut down the program there and use San Francisco as the permanent base for Babson’s West Coast operations. In fact, when I met him in late August, Tadepalli was in town to lease a long-term location for “Babson West.” The new campus will probably be in San Francisco’s startup-saturated South of Market neighborhood.

Making sure students come to campus to interact with faculty face-to-face at least every six weeks (18 times over the course of the program) was an important part of the San Francisco program’s design. But Peter Wilson, executive director of the Fast Track program, says something equally important happens during the periods between classes. “The fact that you’re still working full-time makes this into a live learning laboratory,” he says. “You get an idea in an online class on Monday, and on Tuesday you’re trying it out in your office. Because we have this connected environment, the learning takes place continuously, and you don’t have to wait for the next week to test things out. I think the students feel like it’s a great way to learn.”

One student I spoke with, Alok Dube, provides custom software and IT services to life sciences companies through his Fremont, CA, startup, BrainyPro. “I’d worked as a manager at Roche, but when I started my own company, I knew that something was missing, and the only thing I could think of to fill it was business school,” Dube says. “But I can’t afford to leave my family and go to a place like Stanford full-time. That was the point at which I really considered joining Babson.”

Other famous schools such as University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business have San Francisco-based MBA programs, but Dube says he chose the new Babson program because the Massachusetts school is known for its hands-on, entrepreneurial bent. “I was trying to collect all the different skills entrepreneurs need, like marketing, accounting, and finance, and I found that Babson was doing it in that way,” Dube says. “Very few people I know from Wharton started their own companies or run their own businesses.”

Rolling admissions are underway for Babson’s second cohort in San Francisco, which will be more than twice as large as the first. The inexperienced need not apply: Fast Track doesn’t admit students with less than eight years of experience in the business world, and the average among the first cohort is more like 14 years, Tadapelli says.

Which could be proof that the image of the typical San Francisco or Silicon Valley startup founder as a 21-year-old computer science dropout from Harvard or Berkeley is a myth. Or it could just be a sign that the dropouts don’t think they need MBAs.

“I don’t think an MBA is for everyone,” Tadepalli comments. “And a Babson MBA is not for everyone either. If you just want to be a CFO, or if you don’t have an entrepreneurial bent, you ought not to come to Babson. On the other hand, if you have the technical background and you have the experience and you’ve started your own company and you realize there are certain gaps in your knowledge base that you need filled, and you want to interact with a group of people who can share your experiences, that is when you should come to Babson.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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