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Students completing their MBA degrees at Thompson Rivers University tackle projects and competitions (like the BC MBA Games, above) to gain real-world skills.

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Over a three-day weekend this past October, Akhil Prabhu and 23 other Thompson Rivers University Master of Business Administration students put in marathon days presenting solutions for business case studies, participating in an “amazing race,” playing soccer and dancing.

They emerged victorious from the annual BC MBA Games, a particularly meaningful triumph after TRU’s third place finish in 2018.

“This was our chance for redemption and to bring the trophy back home,” says Mr. Prabhu, who will wrap up his degree at TRU, based in Kamloops, B.C., this December.

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The team pulled ahead of the four other B.C. schools in the competition by taking first place in the marketing case study: developing an online strategy for local bedding company QE Home. “The founder was so happy with our recommendations [that] he came over and gave us gift cards,” Mr. Prabhu says.

For the team dance, the TRU crew created a storyline around the event’s theme: Industry 4.0 – The Future for Business. In soccer, their star striker scored the most goals over the entire competition, landing the Player of the Games Award.

TRU’s team began preparing last summer and put in 14-hour days in just before the start of the competition, which was held at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Mr. Prabhu says juggling games preparation with schoolwork was worth it.

“The benefit, first and foremost, was the bond that we made between each other. You get the experience of working in a large team and working with creative ideas,” he says.

At the games themselves, he and his teammates forged relationships with students from the other B.C. schools that took part. “You build a network with people in other cities. And we can test ourselves against them and see where we stand.”

Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.

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While the basic coursework involved in an MBA is comprehensive and challenging, some students want more, and want to test their skills in real-world scenarios. That’s why business schools like TRU have a career-ready mandate that encourages students to get hands-on via competitions, or by choosing to do a project or thesis.

“To bridge the gap from academic studies to their career, a student needs some kind of focus,” says Bernie Warren, a TRU business and economics faculty member and MBA co-ordinator. “To get this focus, we incorporate activities outside of traditional course work.” He says MBAs offer a breadth of information, but these extra endeavours let students go deeper, and tap into their passions.

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“There’s something for everyone, that’s the great thing,” says Nancy Southin, assistant professor at TRU and faculty supervisor for the school’s MBA Games team. She notes that some students prefer to stick to their textbooks, while others thrive doing extracurricular work and ambitious projects.

Ben McLoughlin began his MBA in 2017 while he was still working as a financial advisor. Through his studies and his work, he noticed a gap in the market: investors using robo-advisers to help with their investments had no access to a comparable digital service that could develop a big-picture financial plan. So, he decided to launch a digital startup called Savvy Plan and incorporate that into his MBA project.

“I want to disrupt the industry,” he says. “I want to remove the need for a financial advisor.”

Mr. Warren, who is Mr. McLoughlin’s advisor, is overseeing other MBA projects with real-life implications, including one that includes a business plan for a drive-in theatre in Calgary. Other students are doing analytics for the local fire department.

“It doesn’t get any more real-world than this,” Mr. Warren says.

For his startup, Mr. McLoughlin taught himself to code and is building the new app himself with the help of a group of fourth-year TRU computer science students. “It’s really good to work as part of a team and lead a team,” he says.

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Similarly, the MBA Games offer leadership opportunities for the captain, but also for those who help run the smaller teams doing case studies or a sport.

“That’s the thing about these events. They provide the opportunity for students to develop some sort of skill in a live environment,” Ms. Southin says. “It [can be] hard to make connections when you’re in a classroom, away from an actual company.”

Students who do these non-classroom projects gain experience and connections, some of which could lead to opportunities after graduation. The games also push students out of their comfort zone – particularly the dance, race and sports components.

“That’s a big challenge in business. Dealing with the uncertainty of the business world and not being afraid,” Ms. Southin adds.

There are downsides to the time-consuming out-of-classroom experiences. Mr. Prabhu admits the games made completing school projects a challenge. For Mr. McLoughlin, pursuing a startup for his project has taken longer than if he’d chosen course work.

TRU faculty also put in many extra hours around these projects. But Ms. Southin says despite the extra work, she and her colleagues get a lot out of the experience.

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“You get to see that what you teach in class is helping them,” she says.

Mr. Warren agrees the effort pays off for faculty. “This is perhaps the best part of teaching, seeing students apply this classroom knowledge into solving real world issues,” he says. “For me, this is the lifeblood of our MBA. There is where the rubber hits the road.”


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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