Yale Curriculum: Orientation
A new Orientation exercise introduces first-year students to the SOM approach.
The Class of 2010 Orientation this year included many scenes familiar to previous classes — a rousing speech from the Dean; an introduction to New Haven cuisine at SOM Tastes New Haven; a visit to the New York Stock Exchange.
But there was one element that was completely new. Just a few hours into Orientation, first-year students were launched into a two-day exercise designed to introduce them to each other and to the SOM approach to solving business problems, called the Audubon Street Project.
The first-year class was divided up into small groups of six or seven; each team had the task of coming up with a hypothetical business concept for an unoccupied storefront on New Haven’s Audubon Street, near the SOM campus. The students were charged with producing a concept that was economically viable; that had a social impact that reflected SOM’s mission of educating leaders for business and society; and that reflected Yale’s desire to have a positive impact on the New Haven community. The end product would be a PowerPoint presentation for fellow students and a panel of faculty judges.
“We wanted Orientation to be focused on what’s unique and special about the school,“ Dean Joel Podolny says, “so the Audubon Street Project was a chance for students to reflect on the SOM mission before they get into ‘the weeds’ of classwork and the job search.”
He adds, “It was also a chance for students to get early feedback on their effectiveness in group settings and presentations,” which will be tested on a regular basis over the next two years.
The students were given some background information — maps, photographs, information about tax rates and other fixed costs — but little more; it was an appropriate introduction to the Yale integrated MBA curriculum, which focuses on unstructured business problems, rather than exercises with neat, clean solutions. The assignment also required them to think through a business idea from all possible angles — from the potential impact on the community to cash flow to staffing needs — rather than focusing on any one aspect, such as marketing.
Many of the teams began by walking to Audubon Street to inspect the site — an 1,100-square-foot space across the street from a coffee shop and a community arts school — and survey passersby and the owners of nearby businesses. Back on campus, they brainstormed, strategized with second-year volunteers, and gathered information from real-world sources such as Yale Properties, which leases the Audubon Street space. By the following morning, most teams had settled on an idea and divided up tasks, with some students creating logos and floor plans and others editing text and tweaking spreadsheets.
Finally, the teams presented their concepts. Each had seven minutes to present its slides, with five minutes reserved for grilling from the judges about their financial projections, their analysis of the competition, and other assumptions.
“We didn’t meet the faculty judges until just before our presentations, so we really didn’t know what to expect from them,” says Adam Stone '10. “I just enjoyed presenting what we came up with and hearing their feedback.”
The business concepts varied widely, as did the ways in which they incorporated social impact. Some, including the Next Step career placement agency, were nonprofits with a purely social mission; others, like Audubon Kids daycare, filled a gap in the local economy. The Hands-On Audubon Kitchen, a “make and take” facility chosen by the judges as the best concept, was a for-profit company with a double bottom line; the Kitchen would work with local farmers to promote sustainable agriculture and give free workshops on healthy eating.
Other ideas included a “green” dry cleaner, a yoga studio, a furniture restorer employing local high schoolers, and a recording studio/lounge with facilities for creating recordings and videos and uploading them to YouTube.
The judges were impressed with the quality of the presentations, according to Dean Podolny. “The faculty and I were thrilled with the outcome of the Audubon Street Project exercise,” he says. “The student teams came up with creative concepts that met the three criteria we set for them. The student proposals didn’t just meet our expectations, they exceeded them.”
As the members Class of 2010 begins the Yale integrated MBA curriculum, they take with them the insights — not least about themselves — gained in the Audubon Street Project. Neil Alger '10 reported on the SOM Community Blog: “At the end of two days, while we were not the winning team, I felt that we had won a bigger prize: an amazing sense of our ability to work with all types of different people to generate an amazing product on a tremendously short timeline. This was an experience that I’m sure many people in my class will draw on over the next two years as they move through SOM and out into the world.”