Cairn G. Cross: In UVM’s new MBA program, it’s not business as usual

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Cairn G. Cross, co-founder and managing director of FreshTracks Capital I and II. He is on the board of advisers for the University of Vermont’s Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA)

I have spent my career in Vermont financing entrepreneurial companies first as a banker and then as co-founder of FreshTracks Capital, a small Vermont-focused venture capital firm. When we first started FreshTracks Capital in 2000 and raised our first fund we would see on average 50 business plans per year. During 2013 we saw more than 200 business plans cross our desks. This increase in early stage business activity led us to start our third venture capital firm which we launched in October 2013.

There are a number of reasons why entrepreneurs are starting businesses. Technology advances such as cloud computing have dramatically reduced the capital requirements to start certain types of companies. Changes in business practices allow firms to “rent” on a service basis complex software applications that would have been prohibitively expensive previously. Open source development and lean startup practices have been adopted by young entrepreneurs.

I am particularly impressed with the number of applicants who see business as a force for social good and who plan upon graduation to start their own company.


Vermont is a particularly attractive place for young entrepreneurs who, following in the footsteps of the iconic Vermont entrepreneurs who founded Ben & Jerry’s, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Gardener’s Supply, Burton and many other firms, are attracted to Vermont’s sense of community and lifestyle. It is possible to live in Vermont and create a worldwide brand. The Vermont entrepreneurial ecosystem has strengthened during the past two decades led primarily by values-driven growth companies. We definitely approach business differently here in Vermont and are able to balance community needs with sustainable profitable entrepreneurial practices. So it’s not surprising that when the University of Vermont designed a new masters of business administration program, it decided to create something entirely different than typical offerings: a 12-month long MBA program in sustainable entrepreneurship called “SEMBA.”

The timing for this new SEMBA program is perfect. Traditional two-year classroom-focused MBA programs are increasingly under attack from experiential nonacademic entrepreneurship programs such as Tech Stars, and Founders Institute and Startup Weekend. On Dec. 10, Cliff Oxford a columnist for the New York Times blog “The Boss” wrote a fairly scathing review of the efficacy of most U.S. MBA programs for entrepreneurs. He noted that traditional MBA programs are “classroom centric” and students have “little real access to business leaders.” He’s right, and on this measure the UVM SEMBA program excels. The SEMBA program is designed to give students immediate and ongoing access to Vermont entrepreneurs and business leaders. The program features either considerable work experience within Vermont entrepreneurial companies, or students that are more interested in starting their own venture can spend their practicum time conceiving and birthing their company utilizing community mentors and advisers.

As an advisory board member of SEMBA, I have been able to connect with many of the applicants for positions in the inaugural class. I am particularly impressed with the number of applicants who see business as a force for social good and who plan upon graduation to start their own company.

If you are a disruptor, an innovator and a visionary and are not content with “business as usual,” please enroll in the UVM SEMBA program. Give us one year and you will be prepared to live differently, lead differently and profit differently.

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  • Dick Williamson

    The problem with the approach UVM is utilizing is that it cuts out an entire swath of individuals who can’t afford to enroll in a full time graduate degree program. Many working class young Vermonters will now not have the opportunity I had to enroll on a part-time basis, while working and raising a young family. I think this is a mistake creates an unnecessary hurdle for the working individual.

  • Cairn Cross

    Dick as someone who got an MBA and worked full time I understand your issue. However, it is important to note that in Vermont at present there are a number of different affordable options for part time MBAs at various schools. Also I am assuming that when you got your MBA there were limited or no online programs for part time students. That was certainly the case for me 25 years ago. Many part time students will choose an online program or an online hybrid or executive MBA programs which provide this type of flexibility and affordability.

    The primary problem that UVM’s previous MBA program had was the proliferation of competitive programs with part time options and limited ability to differentiate competitively against those options. This resulted in declining enrollments and threatened viability. The new program is positioned well in this regard and the 12 month full time structure, and the focus on both sustainability and entrepreneurship are competitive advantages. Finally as I note in my article, the trend in entrepreneurship education is away from academic institutions and toward full immersion accelerators. SEMBA should compete well against these programs.