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Simon School's dean explains why he's looking for younger students who may not have the usual five years of work experience under their belts

The University of Rochester's Simon School of Business has recently launched an initiative called Early Leaders, focused on recruiting the best and brightest undergrads directly into the Simon MBA program without the typical five years of work experience. Dean Mark Zupan thinks the initiative will attract students who either wouldn't consider B-school -- or wouldn't consider a second-tier program -- after five years in the workforce. Zupan recently sat down with BusinessWeek reporter Geoff Gloeckler to talk about Early Leaders and how valuable work experience is in the MBA world. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Is it fair to say that in the eyes of Rochester, experience doesn't matter?

It's not that experience doesn't matter. The parlance of business still helps, but over half of our students are career switchers. The typical case is that someone was doing marketing, then they come to the MBA programs because they never want to do marketing again. So they use the MBA as a transition. Quite a few of them want to go into investment banking, and that marketing experience isn't too valuable. So the experience might be overrated for folks like that.

You recently launched the Early Leaders initiative to find strong candidates for enrollment into the MBA program without work experience. How do the younger students perform compared with their more experienced peers?

This is the first graduating class, this spring, that will have an 18% to 20% component of early leaders. But so far they've been steadily outperforming the class before them in the order of 10% or 15% in terms of placement rate. In internships, they seem to have a lot of fire in the belly. They're also outperforming in terms of job offers. The salary numbers are good, but the placement rates are higher. We're cautiously optimistic that this experiment is worth running a little bit further than we have to date.

How does such an initiative benefit the school?

The future leaders are more motivated, in general, and by reaching out to them, our belief is that we will get more people who view Simon as their first choice. If we are passive like everyone else and wait until people take the GMAT or go to a forum, people are already in the mindset of applying to 10 [top] schools. Even if you get them through a lot of effort, Chicago is probably [among their top picks], or Harvard, and you breed a little bit more of the "second choice" [mentality].

Past experience has shown that if you get a high enough number of people who are winners, it changes the character of an organization, because this can-do attitude comes through.

What percentage of the MBA class is made up of Early Leaders?

It has been 18% to 20% in the last two years. If anything, we'll try to be slightly higher this year. I don't know where we'll end up, but we don't want to get rid of the older students. We hope that we'll attract more older applicants, because if we are successful, that success will be the beacon that draws them in.

Are there any downsides to bringing in students without any work experience?

There are two. One is working the diversity effect, because if people view differences as a weakness, this thing can spiral out of control in a bad way. And the other is that it has to be used in a way to improve the school. It has to be a winning strategy and not just something that will be made up for in volume -- some combination of recruiters, prospective students, and what they feel they got out of the Simon MBA.

Both of those are things we have to stay on top of. And again, we are cautiously optimistic. But two years from now we could come back and say, "Big mistake. Back to square one."

How many undergrads can you reach before it affects the quality of the program?

We are going to go higher than 20% this year and it will depend on how deep the [applicant] pool is, but right now we are 30% ahead [of last year's applications from undergraduates with no work experience]. We probably could go 40%, maybe even 50% [of total enrollment]. So long as you worked on the diversity enough so that people felt that "the mix helped me as opposed to hurt me."

And the goal is to be larger and higher-quality. So the goal of this is to have more older students and more younger, but using the younger as a way to attract the experienced students. Quality is first, but the intention is to do both.

What kind of a school would follow you in something like this?

Schools that are more interested in a healthy dose of theory in their education, because they'll be more open to younger students. If you're more case-based, you'll have a harder time.

Edited by Louis Lavelle

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