Campus & Community

Business School summer program offers world of possibilities

5 min read

Twenty-five years ago, a group of Harvard Business School (HBS) professors started a program they hoped would change lives. Their wish has come true.

Since the program’s inception in 1983, more than 1,700 students heading into their senior year of college have benefited from an inside look at the world of business and used the experience to help chart their futures.

The HBS Summer Venture in Management Program (SVMP) offers undergraduates the opportunity to explore the business sector through the HBS interactive case method system of learning. The students accepted into the program often have little or no background in business, and are all members of minority groups underrepresented in the corporate world.

“One of the founding purposes of the program is to stop people from self-selecting out, saying ‘I’ll never get into an Ivy League school. I’ll never get into a business school, I’ll never get into Harvard,’ and just not even trying,” said Benjamin Esty, Roy and Elizabeth Simmons Professor of Business Administration, who has been the faculty chair of the program for the past eight years.

The summer program also fits with the HBS mission of educating leaders who contribute to the well-being of society by preparing them to work for a wide range of organizations.

Part of that mission, said one of the SVMP founders, is to shape young leaders by helping them understand the importance of developing and running a successful business. People need good employers who treat them fairly and pay them a good wage, said James Cash, James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration Emeritus.

“[The students] walk away understanding that if they really want to have an impact on society and the world, there is not a better way to do that than building a business and having it be effective in their target communities.”

For seven days this summer, 78 students from around the country lived and worked as though they were actual master’s degree candidates at the Business School. The program includes an intense week of HBS case classes that bring students into the realm of the corporate world through the spirited debate-and-dialogue case method, which puts them in the role of corporate executives dealing with big decisions.

Participants in the program exceed the average caseload of an HBS student, taking on 14 cases in a week, versus the standard 13 that constitute a typical week for the M.B.A. program. The students spend their nights reading, and they participate in small study groups each morning before class in preparation for the fast-paced class discussions.

The acceptance process is a rigorous one. Sponsoring organizations where students have secured summer internships nominate them for the program. Those recommendations, along with the students’ academic record, demonstrated leadership, and personal characteristics all factor into the admissions process.

Bruno Ocampo, a native of Colombia and a senior at Baruch College in New York City, took part in this year’s program.

“My long-term goal is becoming the president of Colombia, which is quite ambitious,” Ocampo said.

Previously unfamiliar with the case-method style of teaching, Ocampo said his experience in the HBS program and exposure to the case method was invaluable.

“Why I find the case study so effective is that everybody has an opportunity to participate” he explained, “so, I get to learn different perspectives on how to approach a problem. … It’s the most effective way of learning by far.”

Another member of this year’s class, Shivon White, grew up on a Native American reservation in Montana and had never been to the East Coast. Her life’s vision, she said, is to help remove barriers for Native American communities and students.

“I’d like to a do joint-degree program — an M.B.A. with an M.P.P. or M.B.A. with a juris doctorate — because I think that those powerful education tools can really help to remove those barriers that are holding people back.”

White said it was her lifelong dream to come to Harvard and that attending the SVMP brought that dream much closer to a reality.

“I just think that this program made the M.B.A. at Harvard really seem more real for me. … It seemed so unreachable before I’d actually come here, but now it’s like a possibility, I think that’s very cool.”

Another benefit of the program is the sense of shared values and goals within the group and the friends and contacts that develop as a result.

“You create a really strong bond,” said Ocampo, who has already created a Facebook group with a number of the students. “I have probably 15, 20 friends so far.”

The creation of such networks, acknowledged Esty, is another important goal of the program.

Esty, who teaches the very first and last case of the week, said it’s inspiring to see the transformation that the participants undergo.

“With the case method you learn by engaging in dialogue, not passive observance from the sidelines,” he said. “If Monday they are just dipping their toe in, they are diving and splashing around and having a great time by Friday. They’ve grown in comfort and confidence, in a lot of ways.”

But administrators aren’t disappointed if the students who attend the program opt for something other than a business degree. Included in the week’s events is a career fair with representatives from other Harvard graduate schools.

“If we help someone figure out they want to go to law or medical school, or even another business school, that’s great,” said Esty.

The summer program, he added, is in part about “trying to change the trajectories the students are on … not only the actual trajectory but the perceived trajectory about what they can accomplish and what they can do with their lives. … You actually, in a quite compressed time, see this transformation in how many of them think about themselves, their aspirations, their possibilities.”