When Natalie Vidacs entered the Weatherhead's one-year MSM-Business Analytics Program in fall 2017, she already had a solid foundation in math and economics, thanks to her undergraduate work at the University of Pittsburgh. However, she was looking to bolster her knowledge base with the kind of skills that would help her thrive in the business world.
“My background was theory-based, and I wanted the business context for what I had done,” she says. “I felt that would prepare me to be ready to start my career.”
Luckily, Vidacs had a new initiative of the MSM-Business Analytics Program in her corner: a mentoring program pairing students with business analytics professionals. The primary goal of this program is to ensure students are up to speed about the ins and outs of the profession, says Dr. Jagdip Singh, the co-director of the MSM-Business Analytics Program.
“It’s a new field. There are not many programs with certifications. …We wanted to see how we could bring our students in touch with what it means to be in analytics today.”
To that end, every student in the MSM-Business Analytics Program is partnered with a mentor from a top company that is “deeply interested in analytics,” Singh says, including American Greetings, Goodyear, Progressive and Marcus Thomas. He adds that he was “delighted” by the response from the business community — in fact, the level of participation resulted in each mentor only having one mentee.
Although Weatherhead hosts structured fall and spring events for the program, the relationship is designed to be open-ended and flexible, and tailored to students’ individual needs and backgrounds. The idea is to provide a sounding board for job searching and career advice, and jumpstart business networks.
“We expect this relationship to be something that’s natural, organic and will continue even after students graduate,” Singh adds.
The ability to forge a long-term business relationship is also a plus in the eyes of Adriana Benavides Treviño, a full-time MBA student who’s working alongside Singh to organize and administer the mentoring program. She sees first-hand how valuable the mentoring program is for Weatherhead’s international students, who might be navigating cultural or communication differences — such as writing style for emails — as they look for jobs.
“That’s the potential I see in it — forming a relationship between students and mentors that goes beyond what Case is and entails,” Treviño says. “We’re going to get the baseline of hard skills with classes, but the mentors will aid in obtaining soft skills or facing the challenges of corporate life in America.”
In addition to helping students succeed, the mentoring program is enriching the MSM-Business Analytics Program curriculum itself. In fact, Singh observes that this business-academic partnership keeps the school tethered to cutting-edge trends.
“In many cases, academics have the tools, skills and new statistical methods for working with data — but the interesting data, the interesting problems, lie with the industry,” he says. “And the industry has more data they can analyze or draw insights from. Academics can gain by bringing more real-life data, real-life experiences into the program.”
The idea of a mutually beneficial partnership also underscores a core offering of the second year of Weatherhead’s full-time MBA program: a two-semester course centered around helping students develop and hone their business acumen via real-world experience. Taught by Michael Goldberg, assistant professor, Design & Innovation, the AMES Business Model and AMES Business Models II classes are designed to be a “capstone experience,” he says, with an eye toward skills-building.
“People entering the business world today need different types of skills than perhaps they needed in the past,” Goldberg explains. “Even if ultimately they’re going into larger companies, what we teach in this course is hypothesis testing.”
Students take on what he terms “sponsored projects,” working on business model challenges faced by a diverse range of existing companies, including startups; businesses working to commercialize technology from CWRU; and even established firms.
“A lot of these smaller companies that are in a very early commercialization stage often don’t have the resources to get these business perspectives,” Goldberg says. “They’re just doing it themselves. I think they’re very grateful [for the help].”
Although the AMES courses do incorporate lectures and guest speakers, much of the work finds students acting as de facto consultants: Working in teams, they do research and crunch numbers, identify challenges and make recommendations for these external companies. “A lot of the coursework is getting out of the walls of the business school and off campus to go test these hypotheses with real people,” Goldberg says. “That’s a key emphasis of the class.”
During the spring semester, students also work on developing their own business ideas and take what Goldberg calls their “own entrepreneurial journey,” using the skills and knowledge they gleaned from the fall semester.
The experiential nature of this course in particular resonated with recent graduate Lauren De Camara, who worked as a logistical analyst at the J.M. Smucker Company before matriculating at Weatherhead. “As a student, most of your life you’re sitting in a chair and someone is speaking to you. You absorb information that way. This is a very, very hands-on experience, which is part of the reason why I feel like I learned so much.”
For one project, she and her peers partnered to assist NeuroRad Vision, a CWRU-developed technology comprising a software algorithm that produces a heatmap of MRI brainscans. From there, doctors can use the information to identify kinds of tissue — specifically, the difference between a brain cancer recurrence and residual necrosis — and figure out a course of treatment without invasive surgery. This “essentially leads to specialists being more confident in their secondary treatment options for these patients,” De Camara explains.
She says that developing strategies and recommendations for NeuroRad Vision didn’t just involve getting up to speed on the company’s technology. “Of the five people in my group, none of us had a real medical background — we’re all business students, [and there were] a couple of engineers in the group,” she says. “We needed to learn a lot about healthcare. We needed to learn about insurance billing.” Interviews with biomedical engineers, radiologists, doctors and other healthcare professionals also followed.
Overall, the AMES courses were hard work, De Camara admits. Though she adds they were also extremely rewarding. “We would learn about a concept in class, and then were asked to implement that for the following week,” she says. “This provided an opportunity [to] apply [what we’ve learned] with a client, which I had never had the opportunity to do before. It was student-learning, but using it as a reference in a real-world situation.”
For the MSM-Business Analytics student Vidacs, having this real-world perspective was invaluable as she began her job search. She and her mentor, who works at American Greetings, met in person three times per semester, as well as emailed and talked on the phone occasionally.
“He made it very clear that he was open to communication if I had anything on my mind, and I could contact him,” she says. “I tried to do that as much as possible, because it’s just good to get a second opinion on things.
“Especially when I started my job search in the spring semester, he was really helpful for that,” she adds, noting that he was particularly helpful with interview prep. As it turns out, this guidance paid off: Vidacs shared that she was due to begin an internship the day after being interviewed for this story.