Published: Nov. 4, 2022

From Business at Leeds 2022 | Full issue

Earth from space. Lines representing radio waves and satellite traffic are drawn onto the image.

As the lines blur between business and business schools, Leeds' innovation and adaptability are keeping alumni in the driver's seat.

In the business world, change was once said to be constant.

Today, that word fails to capture the relentless pace of disruption, one in which a company’s fortunes can change seemingly overnight as a result of an innovation that unlocks a new market, enables new ways to connect to customers, or radically realigns established industry categories.

Businesses have been forced to find new ways to be agile, to anticipate change and to rethink risk as they navigate this new world. A core piece of their strategy is finding ways to partner with business schools, which have created and revamped programs to ensure graduates add value the moment they start work.  

With its emphases on entrepreneurship, innovation, technology and analytics, it’s no surprise Leeds is a frequent partner of companies seeking nimble professionals. 

“The field is always moving so fast—something new comes up every year,” said Dan Zhang, interim chair of Leeds’ strategy, entrepreneurship and operations division. He brings his extensive consulting experience to bear in refreshing his Advanced Data Analytics course each summer, and “if you do not do regular updates, you can’t keep up to date with industry. It’s a necessity.” 

‘Data are not going away’

Libby Duane Adams poses in a corporate stairwell.Industry, meanwhile, is appreciative of Leeds’ willingness to anticipate the new skills businesses will need in the years to come. Libby Duane Adams, chief advocacy officer at Alteryx, has had a front-row seat to the changes in industry since she and Dean Stoecker (IntBus’79) co-founded the software company. As Alteryx has grown, it’s begun offering scholarships to schools like Leeds to ensure graduates have the right set of skills for a workplace driven by change.

“Data are not going away,” she said. “The ability to work with data is a required skill now—and the more students invest in that skill set, and develop their ability to work with data, the richer their career opportunities are.”

Alteryx also co-sponsored a conference at Leeds over the summer that brought the directors of business analytics programs together to address and begin solving some of their shared challenges. The two-day event, which attracted representatives from nearly two dozen programs nationwide, also featured industry input through panel discussions and a keynote. Kai R. Larsen, faculty director of the master’s in business analytics at Leeds, said industry involvement showcased the scale and pace of change that has disrupted companies across the spectrum. 

Poet warrior, meet Python

“Every time we ask chief information officers what they want in a recent grad, it’s always the same thing. They want a poet warrior,” Larsen said. “But in reality, they want a warrior who also knows how to program Python, and that’s what they test for in their entry interviews.”

Tim Weiss stands in Optera's offices. He's wearing a baseball cap with the company logo.Data and analytics are, of course, driving conversations in business. But that’s not all you need to stay current. Tim Weiss (MBA’16), co-founder and chief operating officer of Boulder-based Optera, said in his industry, new regulations and changing attitudes around climate are keying rising interest in the sustainability management software provider’s services.

“Leeds taught me new business skills and how to market myself for prospective opportunities, as well as become better engaged with the Boulder community,” Weiss said. He added, “I don’t know of any programs that specifically teach what you need to know for this industry. It’s moving too quickly.”

Faces of Leeds: Meet Tim Weiss

That said, a glance at the company’s roster shows more than a few CU Boulder alumni. “When we recruit, we try to hire the full package—which means ensuring we have fundamentally good people, for whom values are not optional,” Weiss said. “There’s a lot of great people from CU Boulder who fit that mold. We do have to train them in sustainability, but they come out with the skills needed to quickly adapt.”

Finding good people

Wanting to hire good people—not just skilled people—is an important consideration against the backdrop of shifting workplace attitudes toward ethics, said Joshua Nunziato, a teaching assistant professor in Leeds’ Social Responsibility and Sustainability Division and director of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative Collegiate Program. Increasingly, professionals want to work for companies that value their values; just ask Theranos, Facebook or Uber, which have all landed in hot water for conduct coming out of their C-suites. 

In Nunziato’s classes, he sees a subset of students with a deep desire to make a positive social and environmental impact. 

“But what interests me are those students who instead see sustainability and ethical leadership as inseparable from their own career ambitions,” he said. “It’s exciting to teach them, because they understand that ethical leadership is not an either-or choice.”

A focus on values helped Jenny Gerson (EBio’06; MBA’14) transition from working as an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service to creating a sustainability role at Zayo Group. 

Jenny Gerson in a data center.She’s now director of sustainability at DataBank; the company’s data centers enable the kind of cloud storage and computing power that have put data within reach at so many companies.

Too much information

“One of the ways I’ve stayed current with all the changes going on in my industry is something I learned at Leeds—networking,” she said. She started a group for sustainability professionals which numbers more than 100 people—including more than a few Leeds alumni—mainly at small to midsize tech companies in the Denver area. 

“When you have a network like that, any time a question comes up, you can immediately go to someone and get a different perspective on what it means for own your work,” Gerson said. “There’s so much information out there—too much, really—and having peers who can help you focus is incredibly valuable.” 

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“Work has become almost a continuation of business school. Things come at you quickly, and you have to figure out how to prioritize them, solve problems and plan ahead.”

Jenny Gerson (EBio’06, MBA’14), director of sustainability, DataBank

Leeds is listening to its network, too, which helps shape its approach to academic programs. For instance, the school recently created an MBA pathway in natural and organic products in response to the needs of both small local businesses and large internationals seeking insights in an organics stronghold like Boulder. Students in this pathway spent their summers interning at companies like Jack & Annie’s, Danone and Clorox—proof that the perspective taught in the program is sought at companies of all sizes. 

“Because natural and organics has become so competitive, it’s much more difficult to turn a passion project into a thriving business,” said Heather Kennedy, a teaching assistant professor and consumer marketing specialist who’s held marketing leadership roles at Whole Foods and Kraft. “These entrepreneurs need business acumen, so they can get their products to market. On the flip side, large consumer packaged goods companies see the growth of the natural industry and realize that, to stay competitive, they need to move in this direction.” 

That, of course, speaks to the blurred boundaries between business and business school.

“Work has become almost a continuation of business school,” Gerson said. “Things come at you quickly, and you have to figure out how to prioritize them, solve problems and plan ahead.”

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Curricular Updates

At Leeds, faculty leverage relationships in industry to ensure that when curricular changes are considered, they meet both current and future needs of the workplace.  

Joshua Neil, faculty director of the accounting and taxation master’s program, said input from both the Big Four professional services companies and changing requirements for the CPA exam drove Leeds to add more technical courses to the curriculum.  

“The accounting firms have been asking us what we’re doing in this space, probably for the last five years,” Neil said. “For students that were analytically inclined, we were able to steer them into some specialized elective courses. But data have become more mainstream in the last 18 to 24 months—you’re seeing textbooks now with tools like Tableau embedded in them, you hear from our students that they’re asked to use tools like Alteryx on their internships.”  

This fall, an analytics course offered by Kai Larsen is being modified for accounting master’s students, with an emphasis on bringing in people from industry to show how these skills are used to help accountants do their jobs better. 

“The CPA is doing the same thing—they’re responding to the industry, saying we need a license track in this area,” Neil said. “We’ve gone from what was a novel intersection to realizing we’re going to need a lot of jobs in this space, and you might be at a real competitive disadvantage if you don’t have these tools.” 

Leeds also is increasingly intentional about hiring industry-qualified instructors, who bring real-world knowledge around topics like licensing requirements and disclosures—which may change faster than a textbook can reflect. 

Ahead of the Curve

Close connections to industry and a roster of top faculty have helped Leeds create programs that meet—or anticipate—real-world demands. A few examples:  

BASE. The sophomore year capstone each Leeds student completes, BASE—or B-core Applied Semester Experience—follows industry-intensive dives into each business discipline. Students learn to combine lessons from those disciplines on a real-world project that helps them determine their areas of emphasis as upperclassmen.  

Business+Engineering. Much of the change driving the business world comes from technology and engineering. This program—symbolized by the new Rustandy Building—offers structured cross-collaborative opportunities between business and engineering students and faculty.  

Buffs With a Brand. Developed by the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship in partnership with CU’s Athletics Department, this program gives scholar-athletes tools to help them navigate the new rules around name, image and likeness use. That foresight helped CU roll out a partnership with INFLCR to create the Buffs NIL Exchange.