Business schools are adapting to new demands from students
It’s 5 p.m. on a Friday in January, but Kookai Chaimahawong isn’t clocking out from her workweek yet. This evening, she’s building an innovation and entrepreneurship course at her alma mater, the UBC Sauder School of Business.
Chaimahawong works long hours to juggle many roles—she’s a partner and ESG officer at a private equity firm, owner of an impact investing advisory company, co-chair of Vancouver Entrepreneurs Forum and an adjunct professor, to name a few.
The Bangkok native is energetic and ambitious, but she didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a business titan. She wanted to see the world and make it a better place. She saw herself solving problems like poverty and climate change, and that vision still drives her today.
MBA programs traditionally launch and accelerate executive-suite careers. Students learn to manage companies and help boost their bottom lines. But Chaimahawong was intending to use that education in a different type of career when she applied for the UBC MBA she completed in 2018. She had earned a communications degree in 2014 and had been working for the United Nations Development Programme in Thailand to promote its sustainable development goals. She wanted to learn how to fund socially beneficial projects beyond asking for handouts.
“I needed to understand where the money was coming from,” she explains. “I felt like Robin Hood, trying to rob all the corporations.” She thought business school would teach her how corporations really work, and how organizations could do good while supporting themselves financially.
Chaimahawong’s quest reflects one facet of the changing face of MBA students in B.C., and how business schools in the province are adapting to new demands from students, industry and society.
Students are using MBAs to propel themselves along a broader range of career paths. Many still pursue conventional corporate roles, but, increasingly, graduates are using their degrees to become leaders in public service, NGOs or social enterprises, too.
Nowadays, they have more options to find an MBA that fits. Institutions are introducing new programs that specialize in key areas like technology, entrepreneurship and NGO management. Some tailor their schedules and curate their classes for particular audiences, like mid-career executives. And B.C. schools are becoming known worldwide for embracing a greater sense of purpose, ethics and social responsibility.
Those values attracted Chaimahawong to Canada, Vancouver and UBC. She remembers researching her eventual destination and feeling that “the people are socially conscious. They care about the environment and society.”
Sauder’s dean, Darren Dahl, agrees, and notes that this ethos shapes the learning environment. “It really attracts a certain type of person,” he says, adding that it creates particular types of opportunities. “When you think about climate and sustainability, this is where Greenpeace was born.”
No school—not even one as big and diverse as UBC—can deliver excellence in every area. Sauder doesn’t offer any courses in tourism or sports management, for example, because the university lacks relevant experts. “We don’t have that bench strength,” Dahl says matter-of-factly.
Instead, UBC has all-stars tackling contemporary problems like climate change and data analytics. When its world-class applied-science researchers create technical breakthroughs in areas like energy storage, they can work with Sauder’s innovation experts to commercialize and scale those solutions through programs like the Creative Destruction Lab.
This gives the school’s MBA students a front-row view of real-life, real-time problem-solving—they’re not just reading old case studies in textbooks. They learn to help businesses solve some of society’s most important, current challenges.
Dahl says Sauder is pivoting toward more specialized streams where students work hands-on with these kinds of emerging issues. “It’s a living, dynamic program,” he explains.
Business schools across the province are evolving in their own ways. Which one should MBA students choose for their needs? Where should employers look for new talent? Let’s take a tour of a few other schools across B.C.
The Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University
University was a distant memory for Malcolm McDonald when the longtime sales executive started looking at MBA schools in 2017. He left UBC with an English degree in 2001, and climbed between successive roles with different companies to become director of sales for construction heavyweight Ledcor.
McDonald had loads of experience by then, but wanted a better foundation to help him keep levelling up. “I needed to stop just randomly encountering business problems and solving stuff,” he remembers. He wanted to learn things in a structured way, so that he would already understand new challenges by the time he faced them.
McDonald didn’t want to move or pause his career, which narrowed his search to part-time, Vancouver-area MBA programs. SFU’s executive MBA (EMBA) quickly stood apart. It fit his work schedule, and, more importantly, its educational experience is tailored for senior managers and professionals like him.
Andrew Gemino, associate dean of the Segal Graduate School of Business, says his school carefully selects students with more work and management experience and from a diversity of backgrounds for its EMBA program. “We’re looking at a minimum of 10 years' professional experience, but we get much more than that,” he reveals. “Our average this year, I think, is 19 years' experience.”
Beedie offers a generalist full-time MBA and three part-time MBAs in addition to the EMBA—one generalist, one focused on technology management and one that develops Indigenous business leadership. The students in those cohorts are younger, averaging between three and 11 years of work experience. “So, the discussions you have in that EMBA classroom are very different,” Gemino says.
Those higher-level conversations appealed to McDonald. “I wanted a program with folks who were at a similar level in their career, or a similar stage in their lives,” he explains.
McDonald soon found he could take ideas from his weekend classes and put them to work on the job. “I immediately started to apply some of those learnings to what I was doing,” he says. He graduated in 2020 and credits his degree for preparing him to become the COO of a young consulting firm last May: “I think many of the things that I was exposed to have enabled me to be a chief of operations.”
Royal Roads University
Entrepreneurship runs deep in Lara Mitchell’s family. “When I was little, my parents had a corner store that I was raised in,” she recalls of her childhood. “It was like a general store.”
She took roles in other family enterprises after high school—a small renovations company; a deli and meat shop she helped run despite being vegetarian. “It was a huge contradiction in my life, but the business needed me,” she remembers.
Mitchell seized opportunities as she discovered them, founding and leading companies in the publishing, marketing, and lighting industries. She describes her path as “very organic and unplanned.”
In the early part of her career, she hadn’t gone for a degree—her business schooling was all hands-on. But she began to see how a classroom education made the employees she hired more valuable. “There is a big difference,” she says.
As Mitchell’s three children approached adulthood, she wanted to set an example. “They’re asking for life advice and I was encouraging them to go to school,” she laughs. “And yet, I hadn’t really looked at that for myself.”
Royal Roads quickly emerged as her ideal choice. It offers a blended delivery combining online classes with a pair of two-week residencies on campus in Victoria. So Mitchell, who lives in Edmonton, wouldn’t have to disrupt her work much.
And Royal Roads accommodates applicants with unconventional educational backgrounds, like Mitchell. Its flexible admission pathway assesses their work and management experience, and doesn’t require a degree or GMAT score.
Royal Roads business school dean Rob Mittelman says students like Mitchell make valuable contributions to the learning environment. “The leadership experience in the field that they bring into the classroom discussions—that for us is worth as much as the undergraduate degree might be for some others,” he argues.
Mitchell has finished her schoolwork and will receive her MBA in June. She’s contemplating what she will do with her new tools. “I still feel like I’m celebrating,” she says.
University of Northern British Columbia
Andrey Soroka earned a finance degree in his native Ukraine, but he's no big-city banker. He found work in Toronto's glass towers when he first arrived in Canada—he cleaned their garages and windows.
That was more than 10 years ago. Today, he also holds a civil engineering technology diploma, manages large highway projects near Fort St. John, where he lives, and is finishing his MBA from UNBC in Prince George.
Soroka loves Northern B.C. “It’s a bit cheaper living out here, so you’re not spending life in traffic,” he points out. “You can drive out for half an hour and be in nature.” Soroka wanted more skills to be able to take bigger roles leading larger projects. He explored online MBAs from schools in Ontario, but remote learning didn’t grab him. “I wanted to be more connected to the program and have that face-to-face component,” he explains.
Once a month, Soroka drives five hours to Prince George for three days of classes. He’ll graduate this May. Unfortunately, that means he won’t get to enjoy the shorter drive to Grande Prairie, Alberta, where UNBC is starting a new MBA location in September. The university also offers the degree at Langara College's campus in Vancouver.
Kafui Monu is the curriculum chair of the UNBC School of Business. He says students at the different campuses have different needs. Prince George draws what he calls up-and-comers, striving for their first management jobs. Grande Prairie attracts senior executives. And Vancouver mainly pulls in international students.
Monu says that each campus will soon offer intimate, localized experiences, thanks to relationships the university has built with its neighbours. UNBC worked with economic development officials and industry players when opening its new locations. “We made inroads with the community and business leaders in those areas,” he explains.
That network will share ideas with students in business development classes, and collaborate with them after they graduate.
Trinity Western University
Eric Nicholl's decision to attend Trinity Western University came down to one factor: Christian values that mirror his own.
“Trinity is the only faith-based MBA program in Canada,” he says—a conclusion he gathered while looking at business schools across the country. “It was the best alignment with my goals and values as a human being, as a father, as a husband and as a steward in our community.”
Nicholl started his degree last June, attend- ing classes two days a week while working as the executive director of the Vancouver International Auto Show. His classmates in the executive MBA program are a tight group. “There is a genuine level of concern for one another as individuals, and as a team collectively,” he shares. “It’s great.”
TWU students aren’t all religious. Christians are in the minority in classes, says MBA program director Chen Liu. Spiritual values are a draw for most domestic students, but they're less of a priority for the many international students. “When they come to Canada, they’re looking for a place with a high-quality MBA,” Liu explains.
That’s why Anjali Kukreja enrolled. She’s a London-born globetrotter who has gone to school in Johannesburg; Islamabad; Washington, D.C.; Paris; and Bhopal, India.
Kukreja appreciates the flexibility of TWU’s schedule. It doesn’t run on a semester system, so students can begin any month of the year, or take breaks to attend to other business. She started her degree last June.
She comes from a Hindu background, but praises the values and purposefulness that sets Trinity apart: “TWU helps you become a part of a family where you’re able to learn who you are, what you believe in and what your calling is in the world.”
Thompson Rivers University
MBA students often have business in their blood, or at least on their undergraduate transcripts. Not so for Tana Dagneau-Jones, who manages marketing and client relations at a Kamloops law firm.
Dagneau-Jones has a history degree and experience running small businesses, but felt uneasy starting classes alongside peers who seemed so knowledgeable. “It was somewhat intimidating to be pursuing a master’s in the field that I had no background in,” she recalls.
Her professors calmed her by giving answers and advice individualized for her needs. “They really delivered,” she says.“They were able to give me information that wasn't in the course content, or places to search for what I needed to know.”
TRU takes a flexible, student-centred approach, where learners can shape their programs to their needs, says Mike Henry, the business school’s dean. They can take classes in-person or online with the same professors, for example.
They can also steer the content of their degrees. Students choose electives for a quarter of their class credits. Regular courses are worth three credits, but TRU professors can create smaller, customized classes called nano-courses, worth one credit each.
The instructors propose a topic like environmental economics or carbon accounting, and students vote on what they will learn next term. “It’s about breaking down and almost customizing a curriculum based on needs and interests,” Henry explains. Students can even take electives from another faculty.
Dagneau-Jones followed her curiosity to dig into urban design, and was surprised by the personalized support she received from her instructors. “My thesis isn’t typical for an MBA program,” she says. “So my thesis advisor suggested collaborating with a couple different professors so they could guide me in the most effective way together.”
Vancouver Island University
Brian Lin’s first thought when looking abroad for a graduate school was: “I hope I don’t end up somewhere super cold.” He grew up in Belize, where he earned a business degree and became a senior manager developing trade and investment for the Caribbean country. “It’s quite a little paradise,” he says.
Lin embraced Canada despite the weather. He earned his MBA from VIU in Nanaimo, renting a room from a woman he calls his “Canadian mom.” He chose the university because its internship program stood out. It would allow him to apply what he learned in school and from his years in business development in a Canadian work environment.
“I wanted to be able to immerse into the Canadian local culture as quickly as possible,” he explains.
Up to 95 percent of VIU students come from other countries, says professor Laurie Dean. It’s a 20-month, full-time program, but many domestic students prefer part-time studies for their MBAs. “It allows them to continue to work full-time,” she points out.
Lin graduated in 2020 and dove deeper into the Canadian experience. He worked as an economic development officer—splitting his duties between Flin Flon in Manitoba and Creighton and Denare Beach in Saskatchewan—before returning west for a similar role with the City of North Vancouver.
His “mom” asked if he was sure about braving the frigid Prairies. “I said I really wanted to give it a try now that I’m in Canada,” he recalls. “More importantly, there was the opportunity to serve three communities at once.”
Lin learned to use a block heater to start his car at -30 degrees Celsius, and he saw the beauty of the northern lights. “I got through all of that and I totally enjoyed it,” he says. “It’s really amazing.”
University Canada West
What am I going to study? What am I going to do?” That’s what Sumaiyah Nausheen asked herself as she pondered where to channel her ambitions. She earned a computer science degree in 2020 in her native Hyderabad, India, but working in an edtech startup made her want to pursue entrepreneurship or business leadership.
She thought about getting an MBA, perhaps in Chicago where her sister works as a data scientist. But she decided UCW and Vancouver would be a better fit. “I really felt like Canada is more welcoming and more inclusive of all cultures—not that I have anything against the U.S.,” she explains.
UCW is a private university founded in 2004 that offers undergraduate and graduate business degrees. Vice-president of academics Maureen Mancuso says her institution emphasizes students’ learning outcomes. “UCW is focused on teaching, rather than academic research,” she says.
Ambitious students can accelerate their progress, completing their MBA in 15 months rather than the regular two years.
Many of the students come from abroad, like Nausheen. She appreciates how much the university helps people handle academic pressures and adapt to the stresses of studying in a foreign country. “One of the things I value most at UCW is the support that the university provides,” she says. “They have a resource in place for everything.”
“The biggest thing for me is the mental health resources that they provide for the students for free,” she continues. “I don’t pay anything and I can reach a therapist on my phone 24/7.”
Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria
UVic’s MBA is now an MBA in sustainable innovation. The school relaunched the degree under its new title in 2020, but it wasn’t a pivot. Rather, it was the recognition of an identity Gustavson had been building for years.
“We have a long history of sustainability,” asserts academic director Cheryl Mitchell. Gustavson has catalyzed multidisciplinary research at its Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation for more than a decade. “We’ve got lots of work happening around impact investing and sustainable finance,” Mitchell notes as an example.
And the school has put its ideas into practice. “We have long offset all of our carbon, including all of our student and faculty travel,” she says.
How will this change affect what’s taught in UVic’s MBA classrooms? Mitchell says students will continue to learn business fundamentals like accounting, finance and marketing. “But they can also expect to see design thinking, collaboration and technology,” she explains.
Some students will return to traditional industries like accounting and finance after they graduate, but they’ll be able to deliver leadership on issues like impact investing.
Mitchell anticipates that some students will also switch to non-traditional industries. “A lot of students are coming to us and then moving into consulting firms that are looking to deliver unique content in the areas of ESG and SDGs,” she notes.
In Mitchell’s view, all organizations need to change their values and perspective. “There is no option but to think about people, planet and profit. It should be at the absolute core of every business decision that is being made,” she says.