By Natalie Pompilio

In one of the last meetings before the final presentation to their client, the consultants reviewed the data they’d gathered. They had customer surveys — compiled by hand at four different business locations — as well as secondary research, studies of competitors, and a communications analysis.

Still, more work had to be done. The team needed to finalize staffing dates, create a web advertising strategy, and figure out how to process some customer responses. So the consultants decided to meet over the weekend. One member asked if he’d be free by 8 p.m. Saturday night, since he had social plans.

Probably not, he was told — even though the meeting was scheduled to start at noon.

Such commitment is to be expected from highly paid business consultants. But these weren’t highly paid business consultants. They were students in Professor Anne Greenhalgh’s Management 100 class, the gateway course to a Wharton undergraduate degree that takes students out of the ivory tower and into the real world, working with real businesses, real money and real people’s livelihoods.

“They’re being tossed out there into the world. That’s the test. Then they come back and reflect upon what happened,” says Greenhalgh, director of the Undergraduate Leadership Program and adjunct professor of management. “The course is upside down and backwards. They’re used to studying, studying, studying and taking the test, not taking the test and then studying. My job is to pull that life experience into the classroom and connect it to the readings and exercises.”

Wendy born of Metropolitan Bakery says Wharton students "ask questions you've been deflecting."

That’s why this particular group of consultants — called “The Breadwinners,” as they were working on behalf of Philadelphia’s own Metropolitan Bakery — was working so hard, and so long. The team was tackling an external communications analysis for Metropolitan Bakery, spending countless hours poring over statistics, analysis and field work. And, because they’re still fun-loving students, they also weighed more idiosyncratic issues — like whether or not they should wear chef ’s hats during their final presentation.

“This is something completely new to our entire team. Nobody knew what to expect,” says Rob Goldstein, 21, a junior transfer student concentrating on finance. “It’s been really nice to apply what we learned to a project that’s true to real life. It’ll definitely help us with any business career we enter. I think our recommendations will be valuable to her and hopefully to us, too.”

The “her” is Wendy Born, one of Metropolitan’s owners. She says she’s successfully worked with Wharton students before and jumped at the chance to do so again when Wharton’s Small Business Development Center asked if she’d be interested in partnering with students from Greenhalgh’s class.

“Any time I can learn something that can help my business, it’s always good,” Born says. “And I like working with students. They ask questions you’ve been deflecting or never thought about. It pushes you. Your day-to-day management is so all-inclusive and encompassing you don’t get a chance to step back and get perspective.”

Business schools regularly have students work with real companies, particularly at the MBA level, says Jerry Trapnell, executive vice president and chief accreditation officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. “They get that experience first in an initially safe environment with a mentor or faculty member before they’re thrown in postgraduation. That’s very valuable,” says Trapnell. “They get out into the real world and see what it’s like — that round pegs don’t always fill round holes — and they can begin to apply some of the skills they’ve learned.”

But Wharton seems to go further than most other schools. The School puts students out there through MGMT 100 and then repeatedly throughout the academic experience. Students may find themselves working with a local business owner, an international corporation, and a wannabe entrepreneur — all in one semester.

Last year, undergraduates in one of Whitney M. Young, Jr. Associate Professor and Associate Professor of Marketing Americus Reed II’s classes developed a new product line for Nike, presenting their work to a team of company representatives. Other students have worked with L’Oreal Cosmetics, the Philadelphia Eagles and Johnson & Johnson. This spring, Reed’s MBA students dedicated their energies to a customer analysis for Payless ShoeSource.

“There’s an old saying: ‘It’s very easy to make the lion disappear on stage, but can you do it in the jungle?’” Reed says. “One thing we do at Wharton is try to be relevant. Most students say this is an incredibly valuable introduction to reality.”

During the student presentations for Nike, Reed recalls three company representatives — professionals with a combined four decades’ worth of experience with the company — being truly interested in what the students had to

say. With good reason, too. The students had actually picked up on the same trends Nike had noticed in its own research, says Kathy Hines, Nike’s Director of Business Development.

As the Nike people left, Hines says, one commented on how impressed he was by the Wharton MBAs. Hines was amused. “I said, ‘Those weren’t MBA students,’” she recalls. “‘They were undergrads.’”

“There’s a difference between information and insight,” adds Reed. “Information is something you can just gather, like the average age of customers, but translating that into an insight that’s exercisable for the client? That’s exciting. I’ve been doing this for eight years and I’ve never been disappointed. I always have at least one team where the client and I will say later, ‘Wow. That was really insightful.’”

Beyond the Textbooks

After working through the nuts and bolts of business success through courses in economics and management, marketing and entrepreneurship, it can be easy for students to forget that there’s much more to making it in the real world than what they read in their textbooks.

That’s why Jerry Wind, Wharton’s Lauder Professor of Marketing, brings guest speakers to his 800-level “creativity” class for MBAs most every week. The speakers came from diverse fields — museums to medicine, apparel to architecture — and offer students real-world proof of Wind’s semesterlong message: That creativity matters.

“The idea is to show them that, regardless of what discipline it is, creativity is valued,” Wind says. “It’s much more powerful to communicate it if they hear the same thing from an architect, a scientist, a curator, a choreographer, and so on.”

Students end up building a rapport with the speakers, some of whom are big names in their fields, Wind says. Some even email the speakers for advice. Most of the time, the speakers are delighted to help.

Wind also is sure to bring the real world into his other classes, presenting students with case studies involving everything from growth strategies, to employee issues, to competitive realities. Then he invites company executives to talk about the problems in person. The students advise the entrepreneurs — and the entrepreneurs listen.

“A textbook can be as complete and powerful as a guest lecturer,” he says. “The real difference is the extent to which the text or speaker or assignment or class can excite the students enough and motive them to try something. If you happen to have a good speaker to motivate people, or you have a good text or article, that does the same thing, that’s great. That’s what we’re really looking for.”

There are other benefits to these interactions, too.

Last year, after Pom Wonderful founder Lynda Resnick addressed one of Wind’s classes, one of his students struck up a conversation with the executive. The conversation eventually turned into a job with Pom, which explains why, when Resnick returned to Wind’s class last year, she jokingly asked: “Last year when I was here, I took a very lovely young woman home with me. Anyone want to come home with me today?”

More than one hand shot into the air.

Prof. Anne Greenhalgh says her course is about tossing students "out there into the real world."

Greenhalgh, too, has seen how working with outside businesses can change students’ perspectives. One student was so taken by the nonprofit organization he worked with that he later joined the board. Some students stay in touch with their clients in a collegial advisory role. Others realize the value of the course and, after graduation, return on the opposite end of the relationship — as the clients.

And Reed noted that while working with the different companies he brings in is not an apprenticeship, “every while and again, one or two of my students will get a job opportunity from this.”

“It’s recruiting,” Reed says. “It’s learning.”

‘Labor on the Cheap’

Students aren’t the only ones to benefit from these interactions. Haskel and Aviva Weiss are proof.

The Merion Station couple started Fun and Function, a small toy company focusing on children with special needs, about two years ago. They run the business out of their home and fill every role possible — “accountant,” “product designer,” “customer service rep.” They also stay busy raising their four children, ages one to seven.

Market research? Not enough time.

“Until now, we’ve done market research on a small scale, interviewing 15 to 20 customers and asking them how we can improve,” says Haskel Weiss.

With the help of Greenhalgh students, Fun and Function is finally getting the full-fledged market analysis it needs. A student group that’s taken on the name “Dynamic Synergy Consulting Group” has sent out more than 10,000 customer surveys, and culled results from 300 responses.

“We’re going to incorporate all of that data and implement anything we can find out from them,” Weiss says. “We’re always looking for ways to improve the company and the best way to do that is to listen to your customers.”

Since the Weisses discovered Wharton’s resources, they’ve taken small business classes, gotten advice from professors and worked with other student groups on different aspects of their business.

“When you run a business, you get very busy with the everyday grind,” Aviva Weiss says. “With Greenhalgh’s students, they bring that freshness and they’re not scared to have an idea, whereas someone else might say, ‘That can’t be done.’”

Born, of Metropolitan Bakery, agreed that students can bring a unique perspective to a business. Recently, she says, she became curious as to what effect social networking sites like Facebook could have on the bakery’s marketing efforts. Getting help from the Facebook-savvy Wharton students, she says, seemed natural.

“A small business doesn’t have a budget for marketing and public relations,” Born says. “And I’m old and these are young people who are in the business program and, by nature and demographic, social networkers. I knew they could help me explore the communications side of doing business now.”

Indeed, Born says Metropolitan has in the past benefited from its association with Wharton. One student group focusing on business acquisition strategies, Born recalls, offered an impressively comprehensive analysis of what a potential buyer for the bakery might look like. The students brought up issues Born hadn’t even considered before.

“In small business, you change every day. What it did was give me an insight into what changes we needed to make,” she says. “We’ve really built our business on a solid infrastructure, and that’s been helped by the work we’ve done with students.”

“The analysis that the students do is about 95 percent the same as if they went out and engaged a quote-unquote ‘real’ consulting firm,” Reed says. “With Payless, you have 50 MBAs who are going to collectively expend 2,500 hours on this so you can imagine what that would cost. In a way, it’s labor on the cheap, a really cost-effective way to get some insights. If one or two interesting ideas come out of this, it’s worth it, and the businesses find since the students at this school are so thoughtful that there are a lot of really creative insights that come out of it.”

The Client Comes First

If Greenhalgh could rename her course, she would call it, “Foundations in Teamwork,” because while the time consuming course is certainly ‘high task,’ it’s also ‘high touch,’” she says. It teaches students another important real-world lesson.

That lesson? “Relationships matter — with your teammates, your client, your T.A.,” she says. “The fact that the course emphasizes relationship building is unnerving for them. They’re unaccustomed to being assessed on their interpersonal skills. These are all soft skills that, although soft, are no less difficult than the hard skills they’re used to being assessed on.”

Greenhalgh's students learn a valuable lesson: the client comes first.

MGMT 100 has a reputation of being time-consuming, and it is: Groups meet two or three times a week outside of lectures and, in the home stretch, before their final presentations, they think nothing of an eight-hour-long meeting on a weekend.

So the first challenge for students, in some ways, is learning to working as a team. “The project really forces you to spend time together,” says Greg Hamill, 21, a junior member of The Breadwinners. “Everyone understands that we’re all in this together. The network of support the whole class provides is really comforting. A lot of other classes don’t have that.”

“When you work with people outside the classroom, you have to take initiative [to get things done],” adds Colin Lee, a 20-year-old sophomore. “It’s a lot harder than just meeting in class.”

Working with the clients presents another challenge. Greenhalgh jokes that her East Coast students seem to operate on “California time,” working late into the night and then being surprised when they don’t have answers back from clients first thing in the morning. “It brings you back to your college days,” Born says. “One thing I’ve noticed is I’ve gotten emails at 3:30 a.m. That just corroborates the evidence I see on campus when students are drinking coffee at 8 p.m.”

Born and her Breadwinners had a somewhat rocky start. A lost email and poor early communication hampered their efforts. Within weeks, the problem was corrected, but those sort of rough patches can actually help Greenhalgh drive home the point to students that the client comes first.

She often reminds them that, for many entrepreneurs, a business isn’t just their livelihood, but also their baby. So if the client wants to change something, the consultants have to adjust. No matter what they think is right.

That’s what the Dynamic Synergy Consulting Group faced. After originally directing their efforts to one of Fun and Function’s newer products, the group was later asked by the Weisses to instead focus on the company’s established speech-therapy line.

The students adjusted and, very quickly, got to work. “There’s some negotiation that’s involved. You have to change to what they want to do because the client is always right,” says Sarah Brown, a 19-year-old sophomore. “And it turned out to be more interesting.”

Sophomore Cameron Berns said that after countless hours of thinking about Fun and Function while working with the Weisses, analyzing their finances and talking to their customers, he can’t help but be a fan.

“We’ve invested a lot of time in this project and we definitely want to see them succeed,” Berns, 20, says. “I’m a big proponent of classes like this. At the end of the day, you can be very book smart, but you have to know how to interact with your clients. Everything is different when it’s real. It’s invaluable.”