California dream calls Babson

The school believes that it can learn from the entrepreneurial culture of the west coast

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Raghu Tadepalli was adamant from the moment he started at Babson College – the business school specialising in entrepreneurship – that it should open a campus in San Francisco.

His first question when becoming dean of Babson’s Olin Graduate School of Business in July 2009 was: “Why aren’t we in San Francisco?” Now, with the backing of Babson’s president and provost, Prof Tadepalli is accomplishing just this.

This month, Babson will officially open its west coast hub, a campus in downtown San Francisco in a 7,000 sq ft high rise in the city’s trendy South of Market start-up district, which is also home to Twitter. It will be Babson’s first satellite campus outside its base at Wellesley, near Boston. And while only its “fast-track” MBA – Babson’s version of the executive MBA, which combines on-campus and distance learning and emphasises entrepreneurship – is on offer, the plan is to expand to offer executive education.

To date, interest has been high, with more than 100 students expected to enrol in the two intakes this year.

Babson already has a small west coast presence. It has run its executive MBA programme in Portland, using rented classroom space, since 2006. But, after finding higher demand when it tested the water in San Francisco last year, it decided to consolidate. Portland will wind down next year, with the resources ploughed into creating the new campus.

It is not the first foray by a high- profile US east coast business school into San Francisco’s bay area. Following the dotcom boom of the early 2000s, centred on nearby Silicon Valley, a clutch of schools decided they wanted to be part of the action.

A block from the Babson site is the San Francisco campus of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania – its executive MBA programme is its “crown jewel”, says Douglas Collom, vice-dean of the campus. The campus is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and plans to expand into bigger premises next year.

A joint EMBA is also run by New York-based Columbia Business School and the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. Established in 2002, it is described as “Wall Street meets Silicon Valley” and students benefit from having the networks of two schools. Last year, the Cornell-Queens EMBA opened two small distance-learning facilities in Silicon Valley.

But while Wharton and Columbia-Berkeley regard Babson as too niche to represent much real competition, Prof Tadepalli sees it differently. Not only is Babson considerably cheaper but he believes it is better at teaching entrepreneurs. “Just as Wharton is well known for its focus on finance, and Columbia-Berkeley for general management, we are focused on entrepreneurial thought in action.”

Prof Tadepalli says faculty will fly out to San Francisco to teach, meaning that west coast students can be confident they will receive the same quality of teaching. But the “out-of-class” experience will be different. The San Francisco programme will have its own guest speakers and networking events. “We have to be Babson San Francisco. We cannot be Babson San Francisco run from Wellesley,” says Prof Tadepalli.

He adds that the California experience also has a lot to offer Babson. In setting up in San Francisco, Babson wants to “learn” from the region, he says. Primarily, Prof Tadepalli says the new campus will give Babson greater insights into how to build systems where entrepreneurship is encouraged.

“It is not that one [site] is better than the other but there is a difference in business culture and we want to create an environment where the students in Wellesley learn from the students in San Francisco and vice versa,” says Prof Tadepalli, citing the west coast’s “greater willingness” to learn from failure and try again.

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It is these lessons that San Francisco can teach, he says, and that could see the area become a destination for European and Asian business schools, too. “The world over, the bay area is known for its entrepreneurial culture and, if a school says ‘there is a lot to learn, not just teach’, they will want to come,” he adds.

Meanwhile at Hass, Jay Stowsky, senior assistant dean for instruction, will be watching Babson “with interest”, as he has with Wharton.

“I am not surprised to see more business schools wanting to set up shop here. But we [Haas] have the advantage in that we ... are part of this network and that cannot be easily replicated. [Babson and Wharton] have to fly all their people out, whereas we live here ... and I think that gives us an advantage.”

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