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Inspiring Stanford humanities majors to consider business careers

This summer was the first time that Stanford provided funding – with support from the Office of the President – to help Stanford students majoring in the humanities and the arts take part in the Summer Institute for General Management at the Graduate School of Business.

L.A. Cicero Natasha Mmonatau at Summer Institute for General Management class

Junior history major Natasha Mmonatau participates in a class discussion during the Summer Institute for General Management.

On a recent summer morning, a lecture hall at Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) was filled with students from around the world who were ready to analyze the fall – and subsequent resurrection – of an American kidney dialysis company.

To prepare for the lecture, titled "A Deep Dive into Company Culture," the students had read a GSB case study that described a company, Total Renal Care, which was once plagued by financial, operational, regulatory and morale problems.

Sarah Soule, the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior at the GSB, stood facing the class of dozens of students majoring in the humanities, engineering sciences, economics and finance, law, social sciences, and natural and life sciences.

It was the third week of the Summer Institute for General Management (SIGM), a month-long program designed for exceptional college students – rising juniors and seniors –majoring in non-business fields and recent graduates with non-business degrees. The program is now in its 11th year.

"Let's begin in 1999, when Total Renal Care was a very troubled kidney dialysis company," said Soule, one of a dozen MBA faculty members who taught the SIGM students.

"What were the problems with the company?" she asked.

Sitting in the third row, Stanford junior Natasha Mmonatau, a history major concentrating in 20th-century African history, offered the first observation.

"They had acquired a lot of companies, similar dialysis centers, and they had trouble integrating them into their existing model," said Mmonatau, one of eight undergraduate humanities and arts majors at Stanford who received university funding to take part in this summer's program.

"Yes, good," Soule said. "One of the big problems that was plaguing Total Renal Care in 1999 was that they had gone on a shopping spree and acquired all these dialysis centers and other companies, but they hadn't figured out how to integrate the acquisitions."

Soule turned to the whiteboard behind her and wrote "failure to integrate acquisitions." She turned back to the class, calling on one student after another. Soon, the whiteboard was filled with examples of the company's blunders.

In an interview after the class, Soule said the intent of the exercise was to get the students accustomed to the case method of teaching, wherein students use the details and nuances of a case study to arrive at a general business framework, which can then be applied to other cases.

"In this particular SIGM session, the students were able to inductively understand how company culture can lead to both improvements in employee motivation and to increased coordination in a large company, since the lack of both of these was the root cause of many of the problems that the students had identified from the case study," Soule said.

Humanities skills benefit business

This summer was the first time that Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S) provided funding – with support from the Office of the President – to help Stanford students majoring in the humanities and the arts take part in SIGM. The program tuition of $10,750 included campus accommodations, meals and course materials.

Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts in H&S, said one of the primary goals of the funding initiative was to ameliorate the anxiety of students and parents who worry that majoring in the humanities is a "fast ticket to becoming a waitress or a taxi driver'' or not finding a job at all.

"It was founded on the belief that training in the humanities – doing close reading of complex texts, engaging in Socratic argument and dialogue, and grappling with complex interpretations and enduring questions of human value – are skills that are desperately needed in all sectors of society," she said.

"Businesses in particular need employees who understand cultural diversity, speak non-English languages, and can draw on history and philosophy in thinking about alternative strategies and goals."

In addition to Mmonatau, seven other Stanford undergraduates received funding to take part in the program. The group included another student majoring in history, as well as students majoring in music, art history, French, film and media studies, theater and performance studies, and English literature.

Mmonatau, who said she knew very little about business before starting the program, said she was drawn to SIGM because she is interested in finding sustainable development solutions to some of her country's most intractable problems, including a severe shortage of water and electricity.

"Last year, 80 percent of Botswana's crops failed due to drought," she said. "We don't have enough water. How can we adapt? How can we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels?"

Christina Medina, a Stanford senior majoring in theater and performance studies, said she enjoyed the opportunity to learn from professors at the Business School.

"We got a taste of what it would be like to get your MBA, which was both challenging and exciting," she said. "I met wonderful people from all over the world and learned from world-class faculty. Overall, the program was amazing. Business is everywhere, and I think a lot of the concepts we learned are applicable to many occupations. I don't know what type of career I will be pursuing yet, but I'm sure it will be business-related."

Joel Chapman, who earned a bachelor's degree in music in 2014 at Stanford, is now pursuing a master's degree in Music, Science, and Technology through the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford.

"I studied business this summer to supplement my music career, which will undoubtedly require me at some point to be business-savvy," he said.

Chapman, who plans to become a conductor, said the business world was unfamiliar territory before the program began.

"Still, I learned an immense amount about totally new topics," he said. "Being a math guy at heart, I especially enjoyed learning about statistics and the stock market. I found a new appreciation for economics, and being a creative guy in practice, I thoroughly enjoyed marketing. It was also great to study specific cases of business models around the world."

To help spark the creativity and fellowship of students enrolled in the program, Chapman, a singer and songwriter who plays the piano, organized  "Munger Music Mondayz," a night when students were invited to perform for each other.

"It was a huge success and many people, from other performers to shower singers, bravely stepped in front of the crowd, " he said. "I loved this experience because music breaks down the barriers to interpersonal connection and allows people to celebrate creativity together. Business could use a little creativity."

Many faces of business

During the program, which ran from June 22 to July 19, MBA faculty members gave lectures on entrepreneurship, microeconomics, finance, strategic management, talent management, organizational behavior, statistics, accounting, marketing, operations and negotiation.

Students also heard presentations from guest speakers, ranging from the director of grower relations for Francis Ford Coppola Winery to a managing director of Goldman Sachs.

The 117 students who participated in the program came from all over the United States and from 23 foreign countries, including Mexico, India, Norway and Saudi Arabia. Half of them were international students. The students lived together in the Munger Graduate Residences.

The program was founded in 2004 by two GSB professors: Kathryn Shaw, the Ernest C. Arbuckle Professor of Economics, whose most recent research focuses on managing talent in high-performance organizations; and Edward Lazear, a labor economist who is a founder of a field known as personnel economics. Lazear is the Jack Steele Parker Professor of Human Resources Management and Economics.

Shaw serves as the director of SIGM.

"We want to show participants that the analytics and the details of running a business are really quite interesting, and that running a business – or developing a business of their own – will challenge them, inspire them and lead to fulfilling and long-running careers," she said.