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A MiddCORE student team presents its plan for Beck's Prime during the weekly team challenge.

Students embrace creativity, risk and a whole new way of learning in MiddCORE

January 30, 2008

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - An innovative new winter term course at Middlebury is giving students an intensive taste for the challenges and rewards of entrepreneurial thinking. Professor of Economics Michael Claudon, along with alumni Brent Sonnek-Schmelz and Nicolas Boillot, developed the course called MiddCORE: Creativity, Organization, Risk and Entrepreneurship, for the 4-week winter term in between semesters, in conjunction with the college's Project on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts.

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"There's a common myth among students that the only path to a good job after graduation is through majoring in economics," says Claudon.  He believes the rigorous course will give students a strong foundation in the processes of organization, leadership, entrepreneurship, communication and risk management. Equally important, he believes the course will give them the confidence to study whatever they care most about, knowing that good careers await them after graduation.

Boillot, a 1987 Middlebury graduate and co-owner of the marketing firm Hart-Boillot, says liberal arts students make excellent job candidates because they are so well rounded. However, he notes, they frequently lack some basic understanding of organizational and business concepts that will help them both in getting a job and in quickly making themselves valuable to their new employer.

Claudon, Boillot and Sonnek-Schmelz, a 1998 Middlebury graduate, enlisted nearly 30 successful business and nonprofit leaders - many of whom are alumni - to teach the course and challenge students to think differently. Students spend a lot of time with these mentor-instructors, who teach, advise, critique and share their own personal experience.

"We believe this course model is unique and groundbreaking," said Sonnek-Schmelz, president of The Focus Room, Inc.,
a market research firm based in New York City. "We could not find any other college offering this type of short, intensive course that combines classroom learning with real-world application and continual interaction with mentors."

"Response from both students and mentors has been phenomenal," said Claudon. "We have seen the potential to introduce a new teaching and learning paradigm into the liberal arts. It certainly could be a model that is picked up in different areas and programs of the college."

Claudon's enthusiasm was echoed by sophomore Alex Kent, a student in the course who wrote on the class blog, "CORE has been one of the best, if not the best, learning experience I've ever had. I think it has huge potential to expand and become a new facet of the overall Middlebury identity and I'm proud of being a member of the inaugural class." Kent says he hopes he can stay connected with the project and that he and his fellow MiddCORE alums will be able to serve as mentors to subsequent generations of students taking the course.

The course has a demanding schedule. Students spend at least five hours daily learning basic business and organizational skills, including a great deal of writing and public speaking. They listen to presentations on a range of topics, lunch with their mentors, and compete in weekly team challenges. Twice each week the class meets for dinner to hear presentations on special topics by guest instructors, followed by questions and more casual conversation.

The Challenge

On a cold and snowy Monday morning during week two of the course, the students are gathered in a small lecture hall. Next to each student is a large printed name tag that helps the guest instructors call on them by name. The class listens attentively as Molly Campbell Voorhees, a 1998 Middlebury graduate, gives an overview her family's business, Beck's Prime, a chain of 8 steak houses in Houston, Texas.

The restaurants are known in the trade as "fast casual," she tells the class. Beck's has enjoyed success, thanks in part to excellent customer loyalty, fresh ingredients and great service, she says. Voorhees has been involved with the company since childhood - she helped pick out the now-famous milkshake mix when she was 10 - and, in between her two years at Stanford Graduate School of Business, she worked in the restaurants, waiting tables, cooking food and grinding the daily beef order.

Now a senior manager, Voorhees is helping the company identify opportunities for growth and this is the challenge she presents to the class. "I'm not going to tell you what our plans are because we've come here to hear your ideas," she tells them.

Having read in-depth background and listened to the detailed business plan, the students begin to prepare a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), with guidance from Kristen Arends Hayward, a 1998 Middlebury graduate and manager of digital direct marketing for Arc Worldwide in Chicago.

Throughout the week, the teams will pore through data and ponder the biggest opportunities and challenges for Beck's, honing their ideas into a competitive presentation by the end of the week.

"Think about things that don't just apply to business," advises guest instructor Barry McPherson, a member of the 1982 Middlebury class and senior vice president of worldwide technical support and customer service for McAfee Inc. in Plano, TX.  "Think about what you know well and how to apply it creatively," he tells them. "And don't be shy about thinking in ways that may not be conventional, but make sure you identify the risks and analyze the impact of each direction."

It's Friday morning and snowing again. If the students are thinking about their promised ski time that afternoon, they don't show it. All attention is focused on the team presentations at the front of the class. Each team gets just 15 minutes to make its case.

One group proposes a major overhaul of the company's information technology system, consolidating investing and extensive building renovations. Another team wants to warm up the ambiance in the restaurants, maybe introduce margaritas to the menu and open the kitchen up to the dining area to remind customers about the quality that goes into the food preparation. This team wants to add 35 new stores over the next 10 years.

One classmate seems a bit dubious at the end of the presentation. "How are you going to do that?" he asks, prompting the team to review its capital raising plans. "I'm surprised that you did not mention public relations," notes Voorhees. The questioning continues for a few minutes - polite, yet pressing - giving students a chance to defend their positions and think on their feet.

By lunch time the students find out who this week's winner is. The winning team will enjoy dinner out at a local restaurant and the chance to direct a $1,000 donation to a charity of its choice. It's a nice way to cap off the week, but there isn't much time to savor the victory. The teams are changed around and asked to begin thinking about the next week's challenge - a complete shift of gears to social entrepreneurism and civic engagement that will have them hearing from Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz among others.

"As these students become comfortable with things like public speaking, team collaboration and understanding organizational and leadership challenges, we hope they will expand their own education beyond the classroom," says Elizabeth Robinson, director of the college's newly formed Project on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts which oversees the course. 

Robinson believes that MiddCORE is an important step in a much larger goal of establishing a visible and supportive culture of creativity, innovation and intellectual risk-taking at Middlebury. "We want students to become innovators themselves and not be afraid to try some new things and make lots of mistakes." She and Claudon hope to more than double MiddCORE next year and continue the growth in future years.

On the final Friday of the course students are giving presentations on self-chosen civic engagement challenges. One group has tackled food waste reduction in the college dining hall. Another has developed a plan to reduce paper waste in campus printers. A third team is exploring ways to streamline campus debate in order to promote civic engagement.

Among this week's mentor-instructors are Sunny Bates, chief executive officer of Sunny Bates Associates, a Fortune 500 executive search firm in New York, and Gretchen Anderson, engagement manager for Katzenbach Partners, a global consulting firm in New York, and a 1994 Middlebury graduate. "I think the richest aspect of the program," says Anderson, "is the exposure the students get to so many different voices of people who were out in the professional world and, importantly, at different stages of professional development."

The presentations on this final Friday are noticeably smoother than before - graphics more sophisticated and arguments tighter. Claudon is clearly impressed with the improvements.

"I wish we could have videotaped your original presentations," he tells the students. "The first week you were locked into your notes and fighting desperately against the clock. Today, you've got more content, better production and you're delivering it in a shorter amount of time."

Middlebury junior Pam Yeo says the significant time investment in the course has been well worth it. "I think that the class will be really helpful to me for the rest of college and after I graduate because it emphasizes team work, time management and public speaking. This is the first class I've taken at Middlebury that requires all three skills every single day of class. It's challenging and rewarding at the same time."

"MiddCORE shows how a little business and organizational knowledge can go a long way toward increasing the value of a liberal arts curriculum," says Sonnek-Schmelz. "Everyone involved in this course has been blown away by the students' performance and how far they've progressed in such a short timeframe."