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Ross MBAs Learn Leadership Skills and Raise Funds for Charity

9/8/2011 --

Student orientation solidifies school's commitment to leadership development and social responsibility.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—First-year MBA students kicked off their Ross experience by raising nearly $70,000 for charity, performing improv, and cleaning up some blighted neighborhoods in Detroit. The activities were all part of a unique orientation package delivered in the form of the Ross Leadership Initiative (RLI) Foundation Session.

The annual Foundation Session introduces students to RLI, an ongoing series of co-curricular leadership development activities designed to complement quantitative and analytical coursework throughout the two-year Ross MBA experience.

The weeklong orientation generated leadership lessons from unlikely sources. Chicago's famous Second City improv group worked with students on creativity and innovation skills, while Laura Jackson, music director and conductor of the Reno (Nevada) Philharmonic Orchestra, demonstrated how successful conductors must be leaders.

The musical session struck a chord with Stefana Vutova, MBA '13, from New York. "Laura taught us that it's not just important to be a good individual performer, but you have to listen to everyone to be a great team."

The timing of that lesson was ideal, as this year's Foundation Session featured a new action-based learning element, the Ross Impact Challenge. Student teams competed to raise nearly $70,000 in 48 hours to support the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Michigan. At its core, the challenge was a creative leadership task that drew on students' skills in finance, accounting, marketing, and general management.

"More importantly, the challenge aimed to demonstrate to students that they can lead to make a positive difference in the world," says Gretchen Spreitzer, co-director of RLI and professor of management and organizations.

Incoming MBA students first learned of the Ross Impact Challenge at 4 p.m. Monday, Aug. 29, and had til 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 31, to raise $45,000. By Wednesday morning they had already surpassed their goal. Ultimately the students presented $66,945 to the foundation, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening conditions.

"We're so proud and impressed that the students rose to the occasion and exceeded our expectations," says Scott DeRue, co-director of RLI and Bank One Corporation Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations. "This sets the tone for the action-based MBA experience at Ross and defines the school's ethos of leadership, collaboration, and social responsibility."

Getting started on the path to fundraising success, however, proved difficult at first, says Ghana native Karen Darkwa, MBA '13. Students had barely met and been assigned to their core sections of 85 students apiece before they embarked on the high-speed competition.

"Initially it was chaos in our section because everyone wanted to lead," Darkwa says. "But then we took a step back and came together as a group, and we ended up exceeding our goal."

Students launched a host of creative awareness campaigns during the two-day competition, using everything from social media, raffles, and corporate partnerships to a flash mob on the steps of the U-M Union. Some spread across campus dressed as a banana and gorilla; others sported fairy wings and asked passersby to name their wish. But the power of the students' own networks proved most effective in the fundraising efforts.

"It was amazing to see how effective our personal networks are," says Uzoamaka Agusiobo, MBA '13, from Nigeria. "I learned that it's limitless what you can do, once you start."

This is the first year Ross students have engaged in a fundraising challenge as part of student orientation, and the first time a challenge of this kind has been undertaken on such a global scale. But Spreitzer stresses that dollars raised were not the primary goal.

"Students were charged with creating as much value for Make-A-Wish as possible during 48 hours," she says. "Of course this includes money, but also awareness of the organization and its mission. We wanted our students to leverage the strengths of their classmates and their own creativity and innovation skills in order to make a positive impact."

That message resonated with students. "We all need to learn to work together as a team, and Make-A-Wish is a wonderful place to start," says New Yorker Sheryl Sukolsky, MBA '13. "It was cool to have a challenge that focused on the common good, instead of just entertainment."

"It was a good opportunity to get involved in the community and put our business skills to use immediately," echoes Michael Brackney, MBA '13, from Chicago. "What a great way to kick off business school."

The RLI Foundation Session concluded with the annual Global Citizenship Day, in which first-year MBAs volunteered with Detroit-based nonprofits for a day of community service. Students pulled weeds, painted, razed blighted areas, and served meals to the elderly. An unusual start to their business school careers, perhaps. But one that left its mark.

"As aspiring leaders, we certainly can make an impact with our hands," says Dan Itsara, MBA '13. "But since the need is so great, perhaps the best thing we can do is make an impact with our minds, in order to affect lasting change."

The day of service also was a way for students to apply the lessons of RLI. "We improved upon our mistakes from the Impact Challenge and collaborated to make our volunteer project more effective," says Amit Joshipura, MBA '13, from Chicago. "As we start our b-school careers, we know that someday we'll be very successful. But we can't lose sight of the need happening all around us. We have a responsibility to help improve the community we live in."

Deborah Holdship and Amy Spooner

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 647-1847,