How coronavirus tested a graduate program launch

University of Utah’s Master of Business Creation faculty members pivoted to manage the new program like the startups of their student entrepreneurs
By: | April 29, 2020
The first group of founders in the Master of Business Creation program at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.The first group of founders in the Master of Business Creation program at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.
Thad Kelling is the director of public relations and marketing at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, an interdisciplinary division of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah.

Thad Kelling is the director of public relations and marketing at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, an interdisciplinary division of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah.

We all know launching a master’s program can be tough. There are debates, approvals, more approvals, recruiting, and new curriculum to develop.

Now, imagine you’re starting a new type of program–one without a playbook–and then mix in a global pandemic. This is what faculty at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business faced as they enrolled the first group of founders in the Master of Business Creation, or MBC, program during the 2019-20 academic year in partnership with the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.

This is not true for every program, but the pandemic was a perfect test for the fledgling MBC. The experience showed how a novel approach to entrepreneurship education at the master’s level can be successful—even under the most challenging circumstances.


Read: 89 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic


Adapting to student needs

The MBC is designed to adapt to the changing needs of the founders enrolled and the business environment. Founders in the program spend nine months launching and scaling their companies. Everything they do—from classes to mentor meetings and grades—revolves around their startups. To provide this program, the faculty in the Eccles School’s Department of Entrepreneurship & Strategy created a fluid curriculum and support structure that could change regularly and be customized for each founder.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the MBC program was affected much like every other university program in the country. At first, there was panic as news changed daily, then stress and confusion, and then classes and support moved online with mixed results.

When the initial shock passed, the faculty realized they just needed to manage the program in the same way they started: by being entrepreneurial and managing the program like a startup.


Read: Reopening campuses safely for fall 2020 is No. 1 priority


Moving to online learning

A lead faculty member with the MBC program, Jack Brittain, approached the pandemic with a learning attitude. The result was a program that improved as it moved online. Brittain says students, faculty and mentors became more engaged as they moved to a digital format that was more fluid, interactive and easy to alter from day to day. “When faculty are collectively online, they tend to talk to each other more,” he says. The dead time between meetings became “hallway conversations.”

The result was a program that improved as it moved online. Students, faculty and mentors became more engaged as they moved to a digital format that was more fluid, interactive and easy to alter from day to day.

The program started offering a new type of brainstorming session. All the founders joined a panel of faculty and experts. The founders presented their business challenges—many of them severe—and the panel helped address them.

New types of experts were needed for guest lectures to address immediate challenges stemming from the global shutdown. Online presentations made this easy because experts could log in instead of traveling across the country. Brittain says these strategies will continue after the pandemic.


Read: How B-schools can meet needs of entrepreneurs


Confronting challenges as opportunities

For evidence of the program’s success through the crisis, take a look at three of the 20 startups:

  1. Doxy.me is a telehealth company. It suddenly exploded and was able to get the help needed to manage thousandfold growth.
  2. My School Dance lost all of its 70 clients for its app to manage high school dances. But it received help to pivot and create Virtual Prom Live, a series of proms for students across the country.
  3. True North Behavioral Health, which provides counseling for first responders, moved online and started building an app to reach customers anywhere. “Without this support, I’m very clear that we would not have been in a position to pivot under the current financial conditions,” says Andrew Sidoli, founder of True North.

This test of the MBC program provides insights for other schools that want to develop programs for entrepreneurs. They should be designed to confront every challenge as an opportunity. Just like the founders in the program, they should be entrepreneurial. When designed in this manner, challenges make them stronger.


Thad Kelling is the director of public relations and marketing at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, an interdisciplinary division of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah.


UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.