Business schools across the country are revolutionizing their curricula by incorporating more and more project-based learning experiences into their programs, which feature real companies with real challenges. But finding businesses to partner with, developing the project scope, and preparing the project for launch is a full-time job in itself that faculty members often don’t have time to do. Unfortunately, the old dictum is true: garbage in, garbage out. If project-based learning isn’t properly designed and overseen, the risk of failure is high, with minimal benefit to either party. For this reason, faculty and administrators who recognize the need for experiential learning are turning to third-party organizations to source and facilitate these projects.
The University of Maryland, for example, is at the forefront of this trend.
Over the 2017/2018 academic year, the University of Maryland partnered with CapSource to connect over 200 undergraduate and graduate students with 12 different companies in the greater DC area. Most notably, the university’s Growth Strategy course is a high-impact learning experience where students are able to continuously apply core theoretical concepts to a real client through a “living case.” After learning textbook theories, the students are responsible for applying those concepts to both traditional case studies and their live client.
“Although this style of course is a little different, it’s truly only a few modest adjustments from what most faculty are used to doing in the classroom,” said David Kirsch, an Associate Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship who teaches Growth Strategy. “We incorporate traditional content and case studies just as we would normally. The main difference is having a real company to rely on to provide us with context and a steady flow of relevant information and feedback as the students apply what they are learning. I think it’s certainly something just about any faculty can handle – and it’s more fun.”
One of the companies that the University of Maryland has partnered with for Growth Strategy is HUNGRY, a local startup that is revolutionizing office catering by providing exclusive access to top chefs making incredible food. HUNGRY’s network of 60+ top local chefs, including former White House chefs, a 3-time Chopped Champion, and many internationally acclaimed chefs, focus on only a handful of their very best dishes, thus ensuring each meal is both exceptional and truly authentic.
Together, CapSource, Professor Kirsch, and HUNGRY’s President, Shy Pahlevani, designed three projects based on the company’s immediate strategic needs. Each project revolved around a different area of the business – marketing, organizational development, and product innovation. Kirsch separated the class of 25 students into groups – 2 groups per topic area – and let the students opt into the assignment that most interested them.
Throughout the semester, each group was responsible for leading a class section where they prepared relevant theoretical readings and historical case materials, facilitated class discussions about these materials, and tested them in the HUNGRY context. Depending on the project, students employed a variety of skills including how to identify and evaluate growth opportunities, how to design and implement surveys intended to assess organizational culture, and how to compare the costs and benefits of particular marketing channels.
For Kirsch, it was important to let students take the lead throughout the project.
“I believe in doing more teaching with my mouth shut; when students are leading the class and asking questions, my role is to guide the conversation, highlight interesting discussion points, and tie the class together with key takeaways,” said Kirsch.
Behind the scenes, Kirsch also served as the liaison between the class and the company. Because HUNGRY is an evolving startup company, Kirsch and Pahlevani kept the project scopes relatively broad and kept in contact often to ensure they were aligned on project expectations. Kirsch and Pahlevani aimed to speak at least every two weeks to provide comprehensive updates and ask strategic questions about next steps for the various groups. Pacing the project this way, with relatively brief but frequent updates, they were able to minimize the company’s time commitment while maintaining project alignment and maximizing the overall reach and impact of the students’ efforts.
In addition, Kirsch used two TAs from prior courses to help manage the student groups participating in the projects. The TAs were responsible for helping Kirsch stay organized, participating in conversations with Pahlevani, and relaying appropriate information back to the students.
At the end of the term, students presented their findings to Pahlevani and other senior HUNGRY executives and offered their recommendations based on their chosen challenge.
“This was quite an exciting project for our team at HUNGRY. It’s always great to hear insights from young, creative students. Since we were running three projects at once, it was great to see how the teams were able to build off of each other in order to deliver great results. By communicating primarily with the professor, we were able to keep our commitment down to a minimum while really providing these students with a compelling way to learn” said Pahlevani.
Students also couldn’t be happier with the experience.
“I took the Growth Strategy course because it looked like a great way to learn more about the startup scene and gain real experience while in school. I enjoyed learning theory and directly applying it to a real company. It’s pretty amazing to see that the work we contributed is being implemented at an actual company,” said Ankush Manchanda, a student working on the Product Innovation team in Kirsch’s course.
HUNGRY was so satisfied with the results of the project that they invited Ankush to participate in a Wintermester internship to further develop the ideas he and his team had proposed. In fact, Ankush will be continuing his work through the spring semester as an unpaid intern for course credit as a second semester senior through Maryland’s Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He will be further developing his insights on the HUNGRY product line and learning more about customer discovery and business development.
As for the upcoming spring term, HUNGRY will have worked with the University of Maryland for two semesters straight—one semester with an MBA Consulting class and one semester with the Growth Strategy class for undergraduate business minors. HUNGRY is planning to do another growth strategy project with the MBA program to achieve new growth targets. Their newest project includes crafting launch playbooks for HUNGRY’s management that will help them learn more about what it will take to set up shop in other regions.
To maintain its commitment of taking on class projects semester after semester, HUNGRY has also updated its staffing model to account for managing the student interactions, maximizing the value they can provide, and insuring the necessary mentorship they will need over the course of a term.
As for Kirsch, he has handed off the spring 2018 Growth Strategy course to Dave Kressler, a full-time Lecturer in the Management and Organization department. They plan to work with Mobtown Fermentation, a Baltimore-based alternate beverage company focused on producing Kombucha, from various perspectives like product strategy, account management, and business development.
As the University of Maryland and CapSource partnership expands, more students will have the opportunity to work with companies like HUNGRY and Mobtown Fermentation. Through experiential learning projects like these, universities are able to teach students how to organize their thoughts into assumptions, verify those assumptions with key stakeholders, and ultimately make a real difference at a real company through applying their new business knowledge.
Kirsch agrees, “This course helped the students realize that they were working on something tangible and real. To me, that’s one really obvious way to improve classroom engagement and impact.”
To learn more about the University of Maryland process of working with CapSource and HUNGRY, view our new explainer video. If you are interested in working with CapSource as a company or school, please contact [email protected].