What business students learn outside the classroom is becoming as valuable a part of their graduate education as what they are taught in school.
Over the past year, for a new elective course offered by the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, a select group of MBA students took to the city's streets to apply theory learned in the classroom to real-life problems.
They say they learned a lot.
"There is a misconception that business schools are only interested in conceptualizing [problems] and strategy," says Rotman MBA graduate Budianto Tandjono, who signed up for the year-long City Lab course introduced last fall.
"In this kind of practical course, I got to use all the lessons I learned from first year and the other courses I took in second year," he adds. "Now you have learned things in the classroom, [you can] apply those methodologies to solve real problems."
For the course, Rotman instructors paired students with business improvement areas (BIAs), non-profit groups that organize businesses and property owners by neighbourhood to explore marketing and revitalization efforts in collaboration with the city. With four BIAs as clients, the students identified neighbourhood-specific challenges to attracting visitors and residents as well as retail and commercial investment. The findings were presented to each BIA.
The decision by Rotman to work with the BIAs was deliberate, says Raphael Gomez, one of the City Lab professors and director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the university.
"It might not be the typical Bay Street consulting job or internship that they [students] might otherwise get," he concedes. "But if you are interested in cities and where cities attract the best talent from around the world, often they come to places like Toronto where it has these independent local businesses."
The for-credit consulting project, he adds, "is a way of learning about what makes a truly global city work, and students get a first-hand window into that through this program."
One City Lab client is the Dundas West BIA, which represents a west-end Toronto neighbourhood with deep Portuguese roots, a high "churn rate" of new entrepreneurial businesses and an uncertain local identity compared to its hipper, more vibrant districts to the immediate north and south.
Through interviews with the Dundas West BIA executive and membership, Mr. Tandjono and his fellow students, Sookie Ma and Adam Dyrda, offered suggestions to promote relationships between established Portuguese stores and newcomer entrepreneurs, nurture the potential for Dundas West as a destination, and take advantage of the neighbourhood's rich history.
In offering potential solutions, such as intensified use of social media to raise the profile of Dundas West and buy-local retail promotions, Ms. Ma says she and her teammates had to learn how to present their findings to the client, just as in a real-life work environment.
"You have to get people on board," she says. "How to sell the idea during the process is one of the key learnings [of the course] and that is hard to gain from the classroom."
Working with Dundas West BIA "is a real-time, actual and practical experience," adds Ms. Ma, who recently graduated and landed a job with Air Canada.
Nichola Feldman-Kiss, a contemporary-art gallery owner and Dundas West BIA member, says working with the Rotman students was "a fantastic opportunity." A keen proponent of knitting together the new and the old of her neighbourhood, Ms. Feldman-Kiss says "it is nice to have someone come in from the outside and shake us up and give us new ideas and energize the work that has been done."
That was also the view of Patrick Morrison, co-ordinator of the Kensington Market BIA, which also worked with the Rotman students and is a longer-established and higher-profile organization compared to its Dundas West counterpart.
"For me, it was very interesting and resourceful to … take a look at the big picture and think it through," says Mr. Morrison. For example, the students recommended free Wi-Fi service in Kensington, an issue of interest to Mr. Morrison and his BIA executive so long as privacy concerns are met. The BIA may also develop a pilot project for gift cards offered by Kensington BIA members, as suggested by the students.
The street-level experience of working with BIA members allows City Lab students to translate theory to practice and develop confidence working with clients, says Prof. Gomez.
"It's a nice tangible realization that what you have learned has the potential to make things better," he says. "Hopefully by the end of the program they can see some of the benefits of having learned the skills and applied them in a local community."
Back in Dundas West at the Fitting Room, a trendy barbershop established in 2014, co-founder Bryan Brock describes the appeal of a neighbourhood that is "showing promise" and still relatively affordable for families. He welcomed the chance, through his BIA, to work with the Rotman students.
"It's always good for outsiders to come in and analyze and gather data and then provide a more educated perspective on what is going on," he says. "When we are part of the community and part of the business community, we only see one aspect."