Last week, Money, a US-based personal finance magazine, published its take on college rankings, traditionally the stronghold of US News & World Report. Money’s rankings were notable in that they listed Babson College and Webb Institute, 2 relatively lesser-known institutes ahead of the Ivies, setting off predictably fierce debates about the merits and demerits of the rankings.
Enough has been written about Money’s methodology, and its rights and wrongs. That is not what I want to adress in this post. Instead I want to talk about Babson College, the #1 ranked college in Money’s rankings and see what lessons its success holds for Indian universities.
I must confess that I speak from a vantage point, for I recently visited Babson College spending an entire day on the campus, during a whistle-stop tour of US universities. During this trip, through my interactions with select faculty members and administrators, I got to see what makes Babson tick. Through the post, I hope to share with you a few key learnings that Babson can offer Indian higher-ed institutions – especially newer ones looking to launch.
#1 Focus, Focus, Focus – Babson is a small Boston-based college, only about 3,500 student strong (2,000 undergrads and about 700 graduates, all MBAs on the campus, and another 800 in distance / executive MBAs) compared to say a Harvard which is 21,000 strong. Babson offers only 1 undergrad degree – a BS in Business, and a couple of post-grad degrees – an MBA and a MS in Accounting. That is it. There is no BA in Anthropology or Political Science or anything else. Just business. But that doesn’t mean students graduate narrowly exposed to Business subjects and nothing else. There are Liberal Arts requirements to fulfill, and there are 27 concentrations including some offbeat ones such as Justice & Social Responsibility, Identity & Diversity etc. However the focus is on meaty areas such as Information Technology & Management, Real Estate, Business Analytics, Accounting & of course Entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship is really what Babson is known for; not even Business. For 20 years in a row, it has been ranked #1 in US News & World Reports rankings for Entrepreneurship studies. Babson has tried hard to make sure that Entrepreneurship is truly integrated into the course, and not merely an add-on. All 1st year undergrad students have to take a course called Foundations of Management & Entrepreneurship, as part of which they have to create, launch and manage a real business, using $3,000 of real money given by the College! All profits from these ventures go to local Boston charities.
At the core of Babson’s curricular approach is a concept called Entrepreneurial Thought & Action, championed by its previous President Len Schlesinger. This is the lens through which they approach teaching of management problems and topics, making sure that entrepreneurial thinking pervades all courses, and doesn’t remain a ‘discrete, siloed subject’.
To support the above focus on Entrepreneurship, Babson invests considerably to make sure it has the capabilities to deliver. Two examples of this
To ensure that teaching of Entrepreneurship reflects real-world understanding, Babson makes sure that all faculty have entrepreneurial experience. In fact, it is a hiring requirement! Faculty has been extremely supportive of Babson’s Entrepreneurship-focussed strategy – in fact they have even funded businesses born on the campus such as Ideapaint!
To ensure that it remains a Entrepreneurial-leader, Babson has recently invested in an outpost in San Francisco, adjacent to Silicon Valley, the biggest Entrepreneurial hub in United States, and possibly the world. Here it offers a unique Fast track MBA , one as rigorous as the regular 2-year one, but with only 2 days of classtime every 6 weeks. This makes it relevant for the always-on worklife and lifestyle of the students who have high-pressure jobs in the valley.
#2 Real World Learning – I wrote earlier about Babson’s Foundations of Management & Entrepreneurship course where students set up real businesses. This is not the only instance of real-world learning. Babson also runs accelerator programs of various kinds including a famed Summer Venture Program which culminates in a demo day where students showcase their startup idea to professional investors.
#3 Look Outside the Academic Box for Leadership – Babson’s Board of Trustees have looked outside the traditional academic types for leadership. The present President of Babson College is Kerry Healey has a background in Politics and Philanthropy (she does have a PhD, and is clearly no academic slouch). Its previous President, the much-loved Len Schlesinger, while an impeccable academic, was also COO of Limited Brands (Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works etc). Entrepreneurship is about risk – In taking such risks, Babson truly walks the talk.
#4 Experiment Boldly – Initiatives such as Fast track MBA, now called Blended Learning, and its partnership with Intel to deliver a custom MBA program for Intel employees demonstrate Babson’s willingness to try out new approaches. It has not been scared to go beyond its pretty Wellesley campus – I mentioned earlier about its San Francisco outpost. This satellite campus in the Bay Area also benefits undergrad students, who have the opportunity to spend a semester at San Francisco, enabling networking with the tech community. In addition to San Francisco, Babson has a similar outpost in Boston, another big startup / infotech hub, and is now looking to start a similar one in Miami.
As an aside, a great example of Babson’s innovative thinking is that it is possibly the only university to have hired a cartoonist to express their philosophy! As ex-President Len Schlesinger says “I knew, if we have it nailed (strategy), we should be able to put it in cartoons”.
#5 Partner Wisely – Babson understands that as a small school dwarfed by MIT, Boston University and Harvard in its neighbourhood, it cannot always go it alone. It has chosen to partner cleverly, leveraging its presence in Boston, and its academic neighbours. Let me illustrate this with 2 examples –
– In 2009, Babson partnered with Wellesley, the prestigious women’s only liberal arts college, and Olin School of Engineering to “explore new academic, social and business relationships. Examples include joint research and curricular projects, common centers to coordinate conferences and programs, and shared services. At the same time, the institutions hope to break new ground in interdisciplinary studies and projects.” Through this partnership Babson students can register for courses in these colleges (and more – it has similar arrangements with Brandeis and some other Boston area colleges)
– Babson partnered with MassChallenge, the world’s largest startup accelerator and competition, to “create graduate student hatchery space in Boston’s Innovation District. MBA students part of Babson’s Venture Accelerator program can house their startups at the MassChallenge office space”. This is a win-win partnership benefitting both MassChallenge which gets access to quality startups as well as Babson students who get the benefit of Boston location as well as MassChallenge’s critical inputs.
These five learnings from Babson have immense value for Indian universities. Harking back to Money’s rankings, one standout fact is the success of colleges such as Babson, Webb Institute which focus on one or two academic offerings. Very few Indian colleges attempt to focus or position their school around one area what they can be the best at, or as Len Schlesinger says, what they can be the only ones at. And it is also true that very few Indian universities experiment boldly, chose to look at innovative leaders, attempt academic partnerships with other institutions or even root their curricula in the real-world as Babson does. There are immense learnings to be had from the Babson story. Here is hoping more Indian universities take cues from this tiny college in Boston.