As a scholar of corporate strategy, Dan Shapiro likes nothing better than to dive into an intriguing case study of an organization in the throes of fast, complex growth.
But what happens when that case is the institution he runs, the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and Burnaby?
He has recently seen a donation of $22-million from a local development family, the addition of a third campus, and a plethora of new programs – all of which bring an intriguing mixture of challenge and opportunity for the 64-year-old dean.
With another strong business school in town at University of British Columbia, how do you differentiate yourself?
We have chosen to run very small, specialized programs targeted at very specific demographics or industrial groups. We've got, for example, an MBA in management of technology. In our MBA program, we are not looking for just anybody. We don't take anybody, for example, who has a business education background – it is targeted to people from arts and sciences. They might have some business experience but not business education. They are people whose goal is more targeted to leadership in smaller organizations, rather than joining McKinsey or Goldman Sachs.
By adding a third location in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, are you too spread out?
Everyone is concerned about that challenge. Up to now, with two campuses, we had a fairly simple division of labour. The downtown Vancouver campus houses the Segal Graduate School, and all our graduate programs are there; all our undergrad programs are [at the original campus]in Burnaby. But now with the addition of the new Surrey campus, it's become even more complex.
What are the big challenges from that situation?
From a pure business perspective, we are like any multinational corporation that operates in different locations and people have to communicate by distance. This is what we teach our students, and yet we are having some difficulty in accomplishing it exactly. I don't yet have the solution. What has been lost is water-cooler talk and stuff like that. I think part of the solution is technological, but that is the superficial solution. We will have to spend a lot more time, money and effort in getting people together in different kinds of circumstances.
What is happening at your Surrey branch?
It has been challenging for the university, and now for us, to build a strategy. Surrey is not only the fastest-growing municipality in B.C., but will soon be the largest – larger than Vancouver. You can imagine the pressure to offer the full range of programs available across the other two locations, and we simply don't have the resources to do that. As a strategy teacher, I find it fun and interesting but challenging. It is the kind of strategic question companies face: Do I offer my full array of products in Surrey? Do I offer some of them, and which ones? For the moment, given the campus's history as TechBC [a former technical university] it has a certain porousness across disciplines that is very appealing. We have built our programs to exploit that. We focus a lot on innovation, entrepreneurship – and social innovation. We just launched the Ken Spencer Entrepreneur Incubator to mix engineers and business students.
How are you using the Beedie family's donation of $22-million?
We got nearly half of the funds up front, which is immediately going to make a big difference. The entire amount has been allocated to people – to the recruitment and retention of top flight faculty, including professors on short-term visits, and student scholarships and things to enhance the student experience. We will use it to enhance experiential learning – for example, by launching more student incubators, including social innovation incubators of various kinds.
We will use some of the Beedie money to give scholarships for students to work in these incubators or maybe prizes for best ideas. And the university was persuaded to allow us to use $5-million of its endowment to launch a student-run investment fund – run, in this case, by undergrads. We have a similar [$12-million]fund administered by our graduate students in finance. Their mandate is prudence; they are under very strict investment guidelines, and the graduate fund in 10 years has never failed to meet its benchmark on a quarterly basis.
You have an executive MBA starting this fall that focuses on aboriginal business. Does this fill a real need or was there money available?
We actually put up the seed money. One of first things I did as dean was rewrite our vision and mission statement, including a series of statements about responsible management. Among other things, I felt strongly we ought to put our money where our mouths were, and if we weren't able to do something like that, why should our students? A number of people in our faculty with strong connections to aboriginal peoples and First Nations brought this idea forward. We looked around and various other universities and colleges have tried to attract aboriginal peoples to increase their success rates in university, and have met with mixed success. Given our long history in EMBAs, we felt the best thing we could do was try to train cohorts of really vigorous and dynamic leaders and help them lead their communities.
Who will fund these students?
We will be charging our regular EMBA rates – our current cost now is around $50,000. What we are seeking to do is get scholarships. We are anticipating that, with scholarships, there are enough First Nations organizations out there that will be interested and will fund these students to some degree. We are looking at an initial cohort of 25. But I am hoping this is a program that goes away. Our goal is to put out 150 to 200 really dynamic First Nations leaders who will render us irrelevant...
So more First Nations people will move into the regular MBA program?
Nobody wants to see programs created for specific communities. I am hoping some day that will be the case.
What will be the focus?
[Besides the regular MBA content] there will be things around governance – which is a big issue. We will attack it full on in the classroom. A lot of it is about entrepreneurship; a bunch of businesses are being started. There will be community development – the kinds of things not always taught in EMBA. The first indication is we are getting the kind of person applying we were hoping for – people who are relatively senior, have had a fair bit of experience – from being a band chief to running an investment fund for the community, or managing or creating enterprises. It is not restricted to First Nations people but is open to anybody working in these issues. There may be people from the public sector, from mining companies, utilities and oil companies.
How are you capitalizing on your location?
We've launched the MBA of the Americas, which is a partnership between us, Vanderbilt in Nashville, Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, and FIA in Sao Paulo, Brazil. To our knowledge, this is the first north-south kind of EMBA. You would have thought the program might have preferred a Toronto or Montreal location because of the volume of business that goes north-south from there, but they wanted us because of the Asia-Pacific focus. China is now Brazil's largest trading partner. So while the orientation is north-south, it takes a fully global view, particularly pointing to the Pacific.