Feature of the Week

March 19, 2012 12:05 am

A degree of choice for the older and wiser student

After 24 years in the US Air Force, Lee-Ann Perkins knew one thing: she wanted to do something different. And she wanted to do it in a region of the world that she chose herself.

“For 24 years I was told where I had to live,” she laughs. She decided to go back to school and applied to become a Sloan Fellow at London Business School.

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The Sloan Fellows programme, inspired and initially funded by Alfred P Sloan, General Motors chief executive, about 50 years ago, is taught at three business schools: London Business School, MIT Sloan and Stanford. These three exclusive programmes have much in common – they are one-year immersion programmes designed for very senior managers to study full-time. They are also distinct: MIT focuses on innovation and LBS on strategy, while Stanford plays its Silicon Valley card. According to Marie Mookini, who manages Stanford’s Sloan programme, “the combination of the university and the valley can’t be beat”

But perhaps the most significant difference is the target student group. LBS admits an older class, such as Ms Perkins, now 47, who wish to reinvent their careers. “We’re all at a key turning point in our lives,” she says.

At MIT and Stanford the participants are younger. At MIT, Sloan Fellows have an average age of 38, with 14 years’ work experience, says Stephen Sacca, director of the programme. Sloan Fellows is “not a career-changer programme”, he says, but it is proving particularly popular with entrepreneurs who have already built their first company. “They may have built a $5m business but now they want to build a $50m one,” he says.

Traditionally, programmes targeted at students in their late 30s and 40s have been non-degree programmes, although increasingly executive MBA programmes for working managers are taking the degree market to more mature students. But the fragmentation of the degree market, with masters and online degrees that give greater choice to managers of all ages, combined with the need to educate more senior managers with longer working lives, has given a fillip to the sector.

“There is very little out there for people in their 40s,” says Linden Selby, senior admissions manager for the Sloan Fellows programme at LBS.

Mr Sacca says applications to MIT’s programme have increased by 20 per cent this year. And Stanford is increasing the size of its programme from 67 to 80, splitting the 80 students into two classes of 40, to give a more intimate experience.

“There will be fewer students, so much more time for debate,” Ms Mookini says. The programme will also run for 12 months in future, not 10.5 as today. Stanford is pondering whether to go one step further and drop the Sloan name altogether, because of the confusion this causes with the MIT Sloan school.

Other business schools are also looking at entering the market. Hong Kong University approached MIT three years ago about running a programme but has not developed the idea. Top US schools are also considering one-year MBA programmes. The Kellogg school at Northwestern University, which has been running a one-year programme for decades, is hoping to have 170 participants on its one-year MBA within three years. One reason is to attract international students, says Betsy Ziegler, associate dean of MBA programmes. The average student is 28.

In Europe, one-year MBAs for older managers are already established. At Ashridge in the UK, which is relaunching its MBA in September, the average age of students is 36. At IMD in Switzerland the one-year MBA programme enrols 90 students a year with an average age of 31.

Martha Maznevski, MBA programme director, says the programme is similar to the Sloan Fellows in that it is a small class in which students form a tight-knit community and learn from each other. “We do not select the 90 best individuals, we create the one best class.”

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As for Ms Perkins, the programme she began in January is proving a little daunting. “I haven’t been a student for many years, so organising myself has been challenging. It’s been hard, but in a good way.”

She believes she has already got more out of the programme than she envisaged. “I have learnt more about myself over the past few months than I ever anticipated. The cultural and social aspects have been amazing. For me, just to have a social life is great.”

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Three schools, three different approaches to the Sloan programme

London Business School

It was Tom Schalenbourg’s ambition to study for an MBA, but on investigation he discovered that he was too old. The Sloan Fellows programme at London Business School, however, “appealed immediately”. The class was small, global and highly experienced. “Even at 35 I was one of the youngest in the class.”

The Belgian agricultural engineer wanted to take his knowledge of mechanical engineering and environmental science to develop corporate sustainability strategies. Today he is sustainable development director for Toyota’s fork-lift truck business in Brussels.

A great bonus of the programme was the other students, he says. Whatever group project was proposed, there was always one class member with experience of the case or the problem. Another was the personal development. “I learnt that I was able to achieve much more than I had previously thought possible.”

MIT

At 36 years old and the creator of a successful biomedical investment fund, David Lucchino decided he needed more management training. So in 2005 he joined the Sloan programme at MIT, where he worked with renowned institute professor Bob Langer and a group of PhD students developing a novel approach to medical devices so that they are less likely to cause infections. Bringing the science knowhow and business acumen together was critical for the development of the technology, says Mr Lucchino. “Everyone tries to work out which is more important. I think they are both equally important,” he says.

The technology won three business school and enterprise awards for Mr Lucchino and his partners, including MIT’s $100k entrepreneurship competition.

Six years on, the company, Semprus Biosciences, has its first product, a catheter incorporating the durable surface modifications developed by the company, before the FDA for approval.

Stanford GSB

At the age of 44, David Gill decided that he needed a “complete retread” and left his job at HSBC bank in London to join the Sloan programme at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“I thought it would be more fun to be on the other side of the fence,” he says.

These days he is managing director of St John’s Innovation Centre, the business incubator in Cambridge in the UK, arguably Europe’s first innovation centre. Now aged 52, he describes himself as part of “the generation that missed the MBA”. The Sloan programme made up for that.

“The fact that it [Sloan] wasn’t an MBA didn’t matter at all because it was taught to degree standard.”

One of the big advantages, he adds, is that he has been able to use the Stanford network, often to help St John’s fledgling entrepreneurs, but he warns that the programme is not for the faint-hearted. “It’s something you really have to want to do.”

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