COB's 12-credit class prepares future business leaders
By Brad Jenkins ('99)
Photographs by Casey Templeton ('06)
Condensed from the article in Fall 2007 Madison
An intense semester of research and collaboration comes down to a moment: Presentation of a business plan.
Years before Donald Trump created The Apprentice and made "You're fired!" part of the pop-culture lexicon, professors in JMU's College of Business were already using some of the show's concepts in an academic setting.
Their idea: Create a 12-credit class with a practical centerpiece that requires student teams to build a business from the ground up. While tamer than Trump's reality-TV version, the course features aspects of the show, such as long hours working on what at times seems an impossible task, tense arguments as students vie for places on a team or deal with fellow students who have not lived up to expectations and, in the end, the exhilaration of completing a project that has consumed an entire semester.
Students complete the business plan while learning the fundamentals of finance, management, marketing and operations during 12 hours of classroom work each week. Robert Reid, the college's dean, describes the class — required of almost all business majors and taken junior year — as the "gateway" into the college, taken as the first class before a student's major curriculum. That makes this course different than at other universities, where students usually take the course as a capstone at the end of their studies, Reid says.
"In a mere 15 weeks," says finance instructor Scott Lowe, "we give them a dose of a practical business environment."
No "entitlement mentality" allowed
Business professionals e-mail and call professors to pass along their compliments and praises of and for JMU graduates and COB 300's integrated learning experience. They say JMU students are quicker to acclimate, are better team players and don't have the "entitlement mentality" graduates of some other business schools have. One manager called JMU students his go–to people. "Recruiters have consistently told us our grads are better prepared, and they know how to work in a team environment," Reid says.
With its time-consuming centerpiece — a business plan that gives students an example of how business functions are integrated in real life — one professor has called the course "the mother of all classes."
Students say it is the most challenging course they have ever taken. The stories they tell about the class are passed down like family history, thus adding to a reputation already bordering on the mythological. For instance, students created a Web site where you can buy COB 300 shirts among other things. One shirt declares "ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE" and another displays "COB 300, where six strangers become a dysfunctional family ..."
The course has gained a reputation beyond the university, too. In 2006, BusinessWeek magazine cited the class and its simulated real-world project, which this fall will have been required for a decade, as a reason why the college is ranked in the top 5 percent of undergraduate business schools. "COB 300 ... is the hardest thing I have ever been through," one student wrote in the magazine's ranking profile, "but it is the most valuable thing that I will take away from here. I learned so much about the business world from that course. It's amazing."
At the end of a semester, teams present their plans to professors and other students. During these presentations, professors play the roles of potential investors as they pepper the students with questions about their plans. Teams that work the hardest are rewarded in other ways besides good grades — entry into a springtime competition and an opportunity for the team to win a cash prize.
Those familiar with the program say that forcing students to work with randomly selected teammates whose temperaments or work styles may not mesh makes the course successful. "There are always going to be team dynamics and team problems," says marketing professor Claire Bolfing, who taught COB 300 for the first time this year. "You want the students to take what they know and figure out how to solve their own team problems."
Some students, however, "don't work very well in teams," says finance professor Scott Lowe, a former entrepreneur and airline pilot who has been teaching COB 300 since 2005. "For many, it's ... a rude awakening."
Ultimately, that rude awakening strengthens the projects. "It is as practical and as constructive a class as you can possibly get," says John Rothenberger, a 1988 College of Business graduate who now runs Strategic Enterprise Solutions in Reston, and is a member of the college's Executive Advisory Council.
Professors and judges offer support
It's not just the students who have to work well together. Because the integrated course includes four disciplines, a team of professors teaches the classes and assists students on the business plan. COB 300 professors get together for weekly meetings to discuss how the class is going and what's coming next. They also spend a lot of time meeting with students to advise them on the business plan.
That support helps students as they complete the business plan; it also helps them become more serious about their studies and motivated to think creatively. In the end, students and professors say the semester can be life changing. Important components of the competition are the coaching and mentoring each team receives from the judges, who are all top-level executives from a variety of industries. When the competition is over, judges go into a closed session with their assigned teams to offer students constructive feedback on what they did well and where they might improve.
Convergence point for alumni and students
Perhaps the most important outcome of the competition is the boost in confidence students gain from networking with successful alumni, presenting their pitches and answering tough questions on the spot.
The event also showcases the outstanding academic programs of the College of Business, notes judge Don Rainey ('82), a partner with the venture capital firm Intersouth Partners and a member of the college's Executive Advisory Council, and few other business schools in the nation do anything like it. With the exception of one corporate award, the financial support for the competition comes from EAC members and alumni. It's a "great convergence point for alumni to interact with the students," he says.
Kick-starts a career
Katherine Ferguson ('04), a past competitor who served as a judge for the first time this year, says the experience has proven invaluable for her career development. An associate with the executive search firm Christian & Timbers, she continues to network with former judges — including Rainey — and believes participating in the competition puts students ahead of their peers in the marketplace.
"You kick-start your career from the competition with a great network of mentors in the judges and other students in the competition who you can always turn to [for] advice, ideas and opportunities," says Ferguson. "They'll get you internships, they help you get jobs and from there you prove your value and success."