MBA Scholars Create, Nurture Community Partnerships

In the last two years, Mount Mercy’s Master of Business Administration students have contributed to the rich, diverse  campus life. Through outreach to local organizations, MBA students have earned a reputation as a resource for helping business leaders make strategic investments and sound, data-driven decisions that will sustain their businesses during difficult economic times.

Mount Mercy’s growing reputation in the Corridor area, especially with regard to the burgeoning MBA program, is due in large part to a quintet of students who began as Mount Mercy’s first MBA students and a cadre of talented faculty.

“The Fab Five,” as the students have been dubbed, will graduate in November. Together, Amanda Carson, Tia Haven, Damon Hines, Sherry Keller and Mark Latta have participated in the same cohort for the duration of the program. Mount Mercy will honor them and other graduates on December 1 at a graduate student reception and they will participate in Commencement activities on May 23, 2010.

When Mount Mercy implemented the MBA program in March 2008, it drew from a deep pool of teachers and scholars, many of whom, including Ayman Amer, Ph.D., and Kathryn Coulter, J.D., were already working at the institution. Coupled with the appointment of Deb Oliver, Ph.D., as MBA program director and Bob Walker, chair of the Mount Mercy business department and an associate professor in the MBA program, Mount Mercy’s graduate programs in business have jumped from an initial enrollment of 25 students to more than 130 students in Fall 2009.

“The MBA program has certainly grown in size and reputation in the local community, and rightfully so,” says Melody Graham, Ph.D., dean of graduate studies. “Mount Mercy’s commitment to service and the common good, which is infused in our curriculum, is a draw for adults seeking an MBA program that emphasizes ethical and socially responsible leadership. There also is no doubt that the reputation of our faculty as excellent instructors have helped spur our growth.”

Courses such as Principles of Project Management and Entrepreneurial Endeavors encourage outreach. During the MBA students’ final Capstone course, faculty offer students hands-on, relevant experience gained through working with and supporting local businesses.

Oliver has taught at Mount Mercy for six years and began her duties as MBA program director in 2008. As she planned course offerings, she knew a successful, meaningful curriculum would need to incorporate community outreach in order to hone students’ skills and build upon classroom knowledge.

“Our MBA students are driven,” says Oliver. “They are engaged, they ask questions and they do the work. The culture of Mount Mercy is focused on serving and caring, with an emphasis on community, so it is imperative that part of our curriculum would require students to partner with locally based organizations to help them succeed.” Oliver believes that one of the differentiating characteristics of Mount Mercy’s MBA program is the “electric electives.” “I want students to be excited about their choices of electives,” she says. “I want them to say, ‘I want to take that!’” Examples of the elective choices are: Systems Theory and Organizational Design, Entrepreneurial Endeavors, and Methods of Quality Management.

Walker stresses that management — and learning how to manage – is all about the people. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” says Walker. With this axiom in mind, Mount Mercy MBA faculty prepared their students to begin cultivating relationships with local non-profit leaders.

Hines, a senior customer account coordinator at Intertrade — A Rockwell Collins Company, partnered with the local chapter of Big Brothers/Big Sisters as his project in the Principles of Project Management course. In the process, he learned about the oldest and largest national youth mentoring organization and gained a greater understanding of its challenges to recruit and retain volunteers. “Our task was to help the organization come up with innovative and cheaper ways to recruit ‘Bigs’ to volunteer for their program,” says Hines. “Specifically, they wanted a way to attract a more diverse group to become ‘Bigs.’ Our specific project was to devise a plan to hold a Brown Bag Recruitment Lunch at a diverse company, such as Rockwell Collins.”

Hines gained a greater appreciation for the organization and plans to make a personal investment in Big Brothers — Big Sisters. “I have promised myself that I will become a Big Brother once I am done with school,” he says. “Meeting with the organization several times made me realize how important it is.”

Win-win partnerships

MBA students also teamed with the Girls Scouts of Eastern Iowa & Western Illinois. “The Mount Mercy MBA students were a dynamic group,” says Allison Johnson, regional vice president, Cedar Rapids/Process Improvement. “They were both professional and enthusiastic about taking on a project with Girl Scouts. I was greatly impressed by their interactions with one another and with me throughout the duration of the course project. We were able to take a concept of an idea and hand it over to the students to build a solid project implementation plan. As a result, we will not only be able to implement this project, we will be able to start it two months earlier. Our final results for the project will most likely be better, too. A huge win for our organization!”

Sherry Keller, also a member of the “Fab Five,” worked with the Iowa Quality Center (IQC) during the Principles of Project Management course. In collaboration with four other Mount Mercy MBA students, Keller suggested some innovative ideas for IQC. “One idea to expand on was the possibility of using commercial software to allow live interactive on-line organizational meetings,” says Keller. “Interactive on-line meetings would allow the Iowa Quality Center to reach more members throughout the state as well as provide the option for the leaders and members to attend meetings at a local site without losing the ability to network with other members around the state.”  The IQC leaders were aware of the technology and possibilities of the project, but busy schedules did not allow them the time to organize the project. With the help of Mount Mercy’s MBA students, who provided the organization with a project plan, the IQC discovered the steps and resources it would take to successfully implement the project.

The partnership was a positive one — for all involved. “The students were very professional and respected the time that we had to offer,” says Gary Nesteby, executive director of the IQC. “The project that we assigned to the group was a theory that we were testing. The group not only provided input to the theory but gave us a plan for implementation
of the project should we decide to go ahead. The students were just as interested in the use of the project as they were about completing the class. The combination of those two purposes allowed them to put together a project plan that fit our organization and could lead us to a higher level of success.”

Keller, a senior design quality engineer in the Integrated Systems Department for Rockwell Collins Government Systems, also feels that she benefited from the Principles of Project Management course and the outreach to IQC. “Working with nonprofit groups through Mount Mercy provided an opportunity for me to offer help to others totally separate from my own needs,” she says. “It was an exciting opportunity to see how I could enhance my MBA education with real hands-on experience as well as have fun applying new tools and applications. The projects we chose were serious work, but with instructor guidance, team collaboration, and right-sized projects, the experience provided fun training as well as benefits to the organization.”

Hines echoes Keller’s assessment of the curriculum mandate to work with local organizations. “I absolutely love working directly with members of the community,” he says. “It not only gives us real-life experiences to help our education, but it gives the students a sense of pride to know they helped our community improve. It also builds our own networks and gives students greater access to job skills and local career choices they may not have previously known about.”

The institutional mission of service to those in need was a welcome byproduct of the relationships forged between the organizations and the MBA students. “I believe MBA students should have to work and volunteer with non-profit organizations like we did,” explains Hines. “It provides a very valuable experience. It forces students to think outside of our mostly private-corporate work worlds and gives us a clearer view of how to make a difference in our community. Kudos to Mount Mercy for being a true leader (not to mention, right out of the gate with a new program) and realizing the value of these experiences!”