Leading the way

Four leadership and business strategy students sit at a conference room table laughing and talkingImagine courses with no textbooks and no exams, where real-life business issues are part of everyday learning. Haworth College of Business management faculty members Dr. Doug Lepisto and Dr. Derrick McIver are building just that with the new leadership and business strategy program—a highly experiential curriculum that prepares students to be leaders, strategic thinkers—and above all—problem solvers. 

“The leadership and business strategy program strives to provide the best experiential learning for business students in the country,” says McIver. “Traditional notions of shareholder-only business models are becoming obsolete. And traditional notions of higher education are becoming obsolete. We aspire to set a new standard for business education and to impact as many people as possible, as deeply as possible.”

This new model for business education builds students’ resilience and confidence while differentiating the business education offered at WMU. 

“I have never been more confident,” says senior Megan Miller. “I used to be terrified of public speaking, but now I am presenting to CEOs and know I can excel in any presentation. I am learning to make confident decisions independently; leadership and business strategy pushes you to own your decisions and go!”

Underpinning the leadership and business strategy program is the concept of mutual benefit. “Education for mutual benefit means that all stakeholders are uplifted by anything that we pursue,” says Lepisto. That sense of a larger purpose breeds confidence in students and builds trust with community partners.

“Leadership and business strategy has given me the opportunity to be more than just what grades say,” remarks senior Kordell Smith. “It has encouraged me to try different approaches when working on business concepts. My critical thinking and analysis skills have grown tremendously. Students can create and grow in this major; you have equity as a team member.”

What sorts of experiences make up this innovative curriculum? 

  • Large-scale consulting projects where leadership and business strategy students, alongside faculty, solve problems for executives on increasing profit and purpose.
  • A course for graduate students on small business acquisition that also provides select students with capital investment from alumni to acquire and operate West Michigan companies.
  • Mentor relationships with CEOs and other executives for students. 
  • Learning experiences focused on principles and performance, giving students career experiences from day one.

“I came to Western to find an environment to change and grow into the best version of myself,” says senior Sylvan Benton. “Through this transformational program, I have been able to push myself beyond my perceived limitations.”

Shedding limitations and setting intentional goals is something MBA alumna Anne Betts, a recent student in the business acquisition course, is targeting. “My goal is to eventually be where some of the college’s alumni have ended up—as an owner of multiple companies, able to invest in the next generation of entrepreneurs. My courses have been life-changing, and I am just getting started.”

Three bottles of Bronconess wine on an antique wooden serving tray

Bottling the Bronco Spirit

How do you create a purpose-driven brand that speaks to consumers and generates sales? This is the question that students in Western Michigan University’s leadership and business strategy courses answered over 12 months, as they determined whether launching a cause-driven, micro-local wine in Michigan was feasible. 

More than 130 students looked at every aspect of introducing the wine, researching consumer profiles and the geographic footprint for distribution, as well as what would differentiate the product. The point of differentiation was a question they worked on throughout the duration of the project. Students coined a new term, Bronconess, which captures the essence of how Broncos sustain their efforts when others might stop, and pursue ideas with courage and enthusiasm in the face of challenges. It came to define their efforts, and the wine itself. 

“Originally, launching a wine brand out of the college didn’t seem real; it sounded gimmicky,” says senior Jason Olinger. “My thinking quickly changed from ‘this is just for a grade’ to ‘real lives will be impacted if this goes through.’ I couldn’t tell you how many people we called to get pricing on importing, shipping and handling, storing and distributing. Ten other groups of students were doing the same thing, if not more. Maybe it’s the atmosphere that our professors created or the overall project dynamic, but I have never seen so many students come together and care about a project like this.”

Three leadership and business strategy students smile and hold photos of Bronco artworkThe wine comes from Tremonte Vineyard in Chile, and there are three vintages available: 

  • Bronconess Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
  • Bronconess Red Wine Blend 2015
  • Bronconess Reserve White Blend 2015

The Bronconess wine brand is operated through the Haworth College of Business, with profits from the wine sales funding scholarships. To date, sales have generated more than $25,000 in scholarships.

Visit bronconess.com to learn more about the initiative.

artificial intelligence meets WMU intelligence 

 BlueGranite, a data and analytics consulting firm based in Kalamazoo, recently partnered with the leadership and business strategy program on growth opportunities for their firm in artificial intelligence. Fifteen student teams conducted extensive primary and secondary research to deliver recommendations to the company’s leadership team. Their research focused on the risks and opportunities for AI in each potential industry, given BlueGranite’s business focus and partnerships.

Student teams compete as they work toward an ultimate deliverable—business solutions or recommendations for a company. In the end, the top team, identified by their classmates and Lepisto and McIver, presents its findings.

“Our goal was to gain an outside perspective on our strategic direction for AI,” says Matthew Mace, B.B.A.’98, founder and CEO of BlueGranite. “The students asked tough questions about how we might position ourselves in the AI space, together with our partner Microsoft. The emphasis student teams placed on industry-based solutions shaped a new five-year strategy for our company, including focus on adding industry experts to our team who will work side-by-side with our data platform, business intelligence, and AI specialists.”

Rob Salter sitting at a conference table with a laptop smilingFor senior Rob Salter, the most interesting thing about this experience was it did not feel like a class. “Each day our team met, team leaders set an agenda, distributed workload, conducted evaluations and managed everything in between. I was pleased at how supportive teams were of each other. We prided ourselves collectively on providing our client with the best recommendation possible.

Salter recalls spending 25 hours over a weekend on the project and “being hungry to do more.” 

Interestingly, Salter and other students realized that the skills they were applying—critical thinking and high-level synthesis and analysis—are just the things that technology struggles to perfect.

“I believe this is the future of higher education," says Salter. "Recruiters want students with business experience, and students want more value from their education. This provides a win for everyone.”

Progressive AE designed this concept for new learning spaces in the Haworth College of Business.

center for principled leadership and business strategy

Many of the changes in our world come from business or are connected to business in some way, so making sure that businesses are benefiting all stakeholders is vital.

This starts with students. The Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy teaches students that purpose and profit can be powerfully linked through the actions and strategies of leaders. “A business’s significant economic impact is transformational when paired with wide, positive community impact,” says Lepisto. “That is why this center fills a critical need—it teaches this concept.”

The center serves as a hub for the high-impact learning experiences described in the previous pages.

In addition, the center will partner with businesses through:

  • Consulting collaborations.
  • Conferences focused on leading profitable businesses that are able to make a greater contribution to customers, employees, suppliers, community members and society.
  • Executive education sessions on leadership and strategy.
  • Research on topics such as leadership, strategy, meaningful work and leading with purpose, relevant to both academic leaders and industry.

As co-directors of the center, Lepisto and McIver seek to educate students about creating genuine value for others through business.

The center will also oversee initial redesign and continuous updating of “learning spaces of the future” in the Haworth College of Business, which will help students and West Michigan businesses collaboratively solve business problems.

“The college fosters an environment where faculty and students bring great ideas to fruition,” says Dr. Satish Deshpande, dean. “This center is a great example of the creative, strategic experimentation that is at the core of how we deliver on our promise to give our students a relevant education and provide the business expertise our community needs.”

$6.5 million investment

The Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy has attracted more than $6.5 million in donations from noted entrepreneurs and philanthropists who support the center’s mission.

The Haworth family, Greenleaf Trust Chairman William D. Johnston, the Menard family and the Charles Koch Foundation have provided the generous seed investment to establish the center and help fund its related academic activities.

“We are truly grateful to these donors for partnering with us to develop the next generation of business leaders,” says WMU President Edward Montgomery. “Their philanthropy enables Western Michigan University to help students and business leaders harness their passions and beliefs to change the way we think about profit and purpose through new and exciting education, research and outreach activities.”

The center held an event in late fall where donors, community partners, students and University officials celebrated its launch.