Startup Culture

Startup Culture


UCLA Anderson evolves its business creation capstone options

August 30, 2023

Professor Olav Sorenson, UCLA Anderson’s Joseph Jacobs Chair in Entrepreneurial Studies, heads the school’s Business Creation Program

Over the summer of 2023, we detailed some changes to UCLA Anderson’s capstone programs. One thing that hasn’t changed is the notion that Anderson, the first MBA program in the nation to require a field study project in lieu of a thesis or exam as a graduation requirement, continues to be a market leader in this area.

Consider what, exactly, a capstone project reveals about students — namely, whether they have grasped the essential concepts and lessons taught in an MBA program. Before the degree is bestowed, very reasonable expectations of the knowledge, talent and skill required of future business partners, colleagues or bankers must be gauged.

The capstone project is the measure by which an MBA program ensures its graduates are ready to meet those expectations. The philosophy at Anderson is that practical experience — not a test or a paper — is the best way to prove the value of its degree.

Now the school is commencing its new strategic plan. As a result, the capstone curriculum has undergone an evolution, offering students new options for their final projects.

The school will now offer students capstone opportunities that broadly fall into three categories. One is client-facing consulting projects for students across Anderson’s MBA programs. Students focused on entrepreneurship, many of whom may be attempting to launch startups, may opt for the Business Creation Program. Finally, there is a new option: faculty-led seminars that feature distinct but interrelated projects. “The capstone is the culmination of what our students are doing at Anderson. We wanted to make sure that we had some of our best faculty really trying to bridge the gap between what happens in the classroom and actually applying it to the real world,” says Senior Associate Dean Sanford DeVoe.

Olav Sorenson is UCLA Anderson’s Joseph Jacobs Chair in Entrepreneurial Studies and a professor of strategy. He is also the faculty director of the Price Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. If that weren’t enough, he is heading up the BCP options in the overall capstone project universe.

Q: Maybe you could start with a broad description of Anderson’s Business Creation Program, one of the capstone options.

As you know, the capstone has really been a hallmark of the Anderson MBA and something that Anderson has been a leader in in the MBA world. The client-facing consulting projects have been around for more than 50 years.

About 20 years ago, students expressed interest in having a project that wasn’t for a client. They wanted to work on their own business ideas. Many were interested in starting their own business, and that led to the creation of the Business Creation Option, which was originally just an alternative capstone.

Now, there’s more of a structure to help students understand whether their ideas are feasible and the first steps in getting those businesses started. That’s really, I think, what the essence of the Business Creation Program is. It’s not just a capstone on the MBA, but also a capstone on our entrepreneurship offerings, which start with a course on entrepreneurship and venture initiation, move on to business plan development and then culminate in the Business Creation Program.

Q: Is there an expectation that students in the BCP are seriously trying to launch a business? Or are some just doing the project as an exercise while intending to work for an established company after graduation?

It’s a perfectly acceptable outcome for students to do the research and, through the course of that research, discover that they’d been making the wrong assumption about what customers wanted or about how the industry works. They might discover that it doesn’t make sense to pursue it.

I mean, that’s the point of the program — not that they need to launch something, but that they understand the process of how to evaluate the business and get it started.

The average age of an entrepreneur is about 42, and the average age of successful entrepreneurs is a little older, about 45. I feel like part of what we’re trying to do is prepare students for a point in their career when they’ll see an opportunity and understand how to pursue it, and will be prepared for that pursuit.

Q: How does the BCP fit into the larger entrepreneurial ecosystem at Anderson?

Anderson is a leader in providing an almost comprehensive experience for entrepreneurs, with a two-year sequence allocated to entrepreneurship.

The typical student interested in entrepreneurship could take the entrepreneurship and venture initiation course in the winter of their first year. They would then go into business plan development in the spring of their first year, and then there’s an opportunity to continue working on that project. Instead of doing a summer internship, the Venture Accelerator at UCLA Anderson offers support for the student entrepreneurs to continue pursuing their ideas in the summer. And then we have the Wolfen Fellowships, which provide financial support so that students who might not have the means to not work over the summer have enough funding to focus on and pursue their own organizations and ideas. Then, in the second year, they can do the Business Creation Program. For some students, the Accelerator can offer another six months of support as they launch their businesses. So, almost from day one, students who are focused on entrepreneurship can make that a key component of the curriculum all the way until the end of their MBA.

Q: Do all members of each BCP team have to be Anderson students?

Well, in the Accelerator, you don’t have to have any Anderson connection; people from different parts of campus and the community can apply. But for BCP, the expectation is that the core of the team are Anderson students. In some cases, where it makes sense for the nature of the business, we’ve allowed teams to include a member from the School of Engineering or another part of campus.

All of the BCP teams have a dedicated faculty advisor. In addition to the faculty advisor, we have a pool of mentors whom the students are expected to connect with.

Q: What percentage of Anderson classes chooses the Business Creation Program?

For the last couple of years, about 50% of students across MBA programs have done the BCP. However, in the full-time program, we’re now offering an additional area-sponsored capstone — so now it’s about a third doing this new option, a third doing a client-facing program and a third BCP.

Q: How does the new version of the BCP connect with Anderson’s strategic plan?

There are a couple of things that I’ve been thinking about that are connected to the strategic plan. One is better integrating the BCP with the Accelerator. The Accelerator is already providing a lot of support and activities to entrepreneurs, and many of those activities would be valuable for our BCP teams, especially teams that decide their idea makes sense to pursue as a business. And one of the advantages of combining those is that it means we can offer greater variety of support activities. I feel we can better serve both the Accelerator companies and the BCP teams if we aggregate them to provide more customized offerings.

I’m thinking through ways to launch more tech companies. Anderson has a fantastic tradition of launching consumer-oriented companies. We have a lot of successful food and beverage entrepreneurs, for example, which is fantastic. I think that’s important and don’t want to shut that down. That’s one of our strengths. But there’s also a real opportunity on the tech side, and I think tech entrepreneurs should find Anderson equally supportive. We’re still working on the right way to do that. I think one of the difficulties is that students coming to an MBA program often don’t have the full set of technical skills to come up with those ideas and pursue them. I think that going in that direction will require more collaboration with [UCLA Samueli School of Engineering] and other parts of campus.

Q: How might the BCP be different down the road? Any guess about things that might be different five years from now?

One other thing is that I’m hoping over the next couple of years to integrate the BCP with our undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship. I think there is a real opportunity there. The undergraduates would benefit tremendously from involvement with MBA students, and I believe the MBA students would also benefit from the additional person power on the projects, and having the opportunity to manage and lead.