Education

WMU redefining business education

New center could help graduates with acquiring West Michigan companies.

December 6, 2019
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WMU Rendering
The Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy at WMU will be designed to integrate technologically enhanced experiential learning relevant to the workplace. Rendering courtesy WMU/Progressive AE

The Western Michigan University Haworth College of Business launched an undergraduate and graduate program meant to blur the line between education and professional business experience.

The Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy, led by Doug Lepisto and Derrick McIver, is designed to integrate WMU and the West Michigan business community in a way that creates value for all stakeholders — students, the university, the business community and alumni.

“Traditional notions of shareholder-only business models are becoming obsolete,” McIver said. “And traditional notions of higher education are becoming obsolete. We aspire to set a new standard for business education and are innovating to impact as many people as possible as deeply as possible.

“The most important thing we can pass on is enabling others to pursue their purpose and passion in ways that help improve others’ lives.”

Entrepreneurs and philanthropists who support the center’s mission have donated $6.5 million to help get it started.

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

“The center has touchpoints that will cause talented, aspiring students to choose WMU,” Johnston said. “It provides differentiating experiences and lifts up our West Michigan business community. This will be a game changer, and I hope others lean in to engage.”

The program offers new leadership and business strategy co-major and minor degrees, which includes integrating technologically enhanced experiential learning relevant to the workplace.

There are more than 70 students enrolled in the major, which launched this semester.

The program includes large-scale consulting projects and executive mentorship for students. The consulting projects will be focused on creating a company growth strategy.

Students in the center’s program will go on a retreat with alumni to learn and share business experiences. The center also will oversee conferences focused on leading profitable businesses that make community contributions, executive education sessions on leadership and strategy, and research on the center’s topics of focus.

Graduate students will have a course on small business acquisition. Lepisto said the graduate students will learn there is a viable alternative to climbing a corporate ladder or starting a new company.

“We're going to show you that there's a really viable path around actually acquiring a company,” Lepisto said.

Select students will have access to a capital investment fund from alumni to acquire and operate West Michigan companies, and a portion of those returns will go back to the WMU program.

“One thing that we want to do with acquiring these companies is really provide a resource to our community,” Lepisto said. He said there are a lot of companies going up for sale because baby boomers are retiring. Because many of them do not have succession plans for their businesses, they have the choice of liquidating or selling, which could land the business in the hands of a firm that may not have long-term interest in the local community.

“We want to provide an alternative for West Michigan to provide these really talented post-MBA grads, who are talented, successful, proven folks, to actually acquire those companies and then operate them in the way that we want to teach students, which is to create a big web, to create benefit across all stakeholders,” Lepisto said.

For the graduates, this gives them the opportunity to enter into an established company that has a proven product and established customer base, rather than having to start something from scratch.

“There's risk involved, but I think it’s a lower risk than something that’s untested,” Lepisto said.

What companies the students target will depend on their interests and expertise, as well as what’s made available by alumni investors.

Students consulted this semester with Caledonia-based Revolution Farms, which focuses on growing leafy greens indoors, which is much more sustainable than having them shipped during the winter months. He said the students are helping the company determine its next steps for growth and hiring.

The plans also include future establishment of spaces dedicated to the center. Plans for spaces still are underway, though WMU said they will be in renovated spaces within the College of Business. The technology-focused space will serve as the place where the program’s students can collaborate on projects.

WMU still is raising funds for the program, and leaders still are in discussion of what that goal will be.

Lepisto said the center is open to hearing from businesses interested in getting involved and growing in “profit and purpose.”

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