If things go as planned, in two years, students enrolled at the Golisano Institute for Business & Entrepreneurship will be ready to launch entrepreneurial careers with potential to transform the local economy.
The institute, located at the site of a former Paychex building in Brighton, opens its doors to its first cohort in early September. Paychex founder Thomas Golisano announced plans for the school last November.
“It could change the economic trajectory for 250 students a year,” says Ian Mortimer, president of the Golisano Institute. “And 250 entrepreneurially minded graduates will go into the community every year. Which, the economic impact over time, (Tom Golisano) thinks will re-escalate Rochester as a city that’s known for entrepreneurial activity and innovation.”
At a time when business school applications are declining, the Golisano Institute’s approach to enrollment, curriculum building, and student support is an attempt to counter that trend through financial dedication from its founder and a staff inspired by the mission.
“We have a really rare opportunity here,” says Scott Baker, chief academic officer and vice president for academic affairs. “We have an opportunity to do all the right things that higher ed can do and avoid all the traps and pitfalls that can happen.”
Golisano believes in the transformative potential of entrepreneurial activity; he also is certain that business education programs need to change how they operate.
“We created this school to make a great business education within reach of anyone who wants it,” reads a quote from Golisano on the school wall.
That sentiment is shared by the employees of the Golisano Institute. One admissions staffer with experience as a high school guidance counselor, for example, says she feels the school is “filling a huge void” for students who need pathways to careers that are not college-based.
“There are 1.9 million people in the state of New York who have some college (education) and no degree. They often have debt, they don’t have meaningful work, they’re struggling to figure out where they fit,” Mortimer says. “I think we can help them in ways most institutions can’t.”
“I meet a lot of folks in the community and part of it is there are a lot of businesses that can’t move forward because they don’t have the proper tools and one of those tools is education,” says Ja’marr Myers, vice president of operations, mentioning the need for working adults to have business training as well.
“Some folks don’t have an exit strategy because they don’t understand what that even is,” Myers adds. “I was helping an elderly couple, trying to help them find someone to purchase their business, and they could not get out of it because they didn’t know to have an exit strategy.”
Building a culture
Emblazoned on the hallways of the Golisano Institute is a snapshot of its stated mission: “Golisano Institute for Business & Entrepreneurship empowers individuals to become entrepreneurially minded owners of their personal success, sought-after contributors to their employer, and drivers of regional economic growth.”
Part of living up to that mission statement is creating supportive cohorts by including everyone in the building. Staffing hires and student admissions are reviewed by every department in the organization and the guiding principle has been: “Philosophy fit over prestige.”
Mortimer adds that while system fit and motivational qualities are the most important, instructors still have been hired from prestigious universities. Baker, for example, comes with 18 years’ experience as a professor and dean at Champlain College in Vermont. He says his belief in creating an alternative path to the business world is shared by many instructors he has hired over the past year.
“(The institute) is one of the coolest things happening, if not the coolest thing happening in Rochester,” says John Mordaci, vice president for partnerships. “Just through the opportunities it creates for students and families, the opportunities it creates for our (company) partnerships, and the opportunities it will create for Rochester.”
In addition, the student application process for the Golisano Institute is intended to put more weight on the school interview and goal focus of the applicant rather than work experience or standardized tests. (ACT and SAT scores are not required by the institute)
Similarly, the physical space is intended to create a collaborative culture and avoid departmental silos. The former Paychex building’s interior has been transformed from rows of cubicles into sets of classrooms with wide windows, desk clusters and large monitors intended for group work. Outside those classrooms are open public seating areas, and instructor offices are only a few strides away.
The hope is, these factors together can create a collaborative culture for the Golisano Institute. Through the philosophy of “creative collisions,” spontaneous social interactions and exchanging of ideas are the steps to innovation.
That belief is one of the reasons the Golisano Institute is not an online program, although those have grown in popularity since the COVID pandemic. During the 2020-2021 academic year, students enrolled in online MBA programs outnumbered those in in-person programs by a few thousand.
Since then, applications to online programs have fallen, but confidence in online learning has not waned. In fact, a recent study from the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy found that 71 percent of employers viewed online business degrees as equal to or better than traditional programs, which is up by 10 percentage points since 2019.
Even still, sharing a room with others is integral to the Golisano Institute’s approach.
“(An online program) would go against our cultural value of human connection. You need to be together, in the same room, to build that culture we want,” says Mortimer.
A new approach
Students at the Golisano Institute will experience a brand new curriculum and approach to business education. The 24-month program is separated into eight quarters of 11 weeks each.
The initial quarter is focused on developing an entrepreneurial mindset with fellow students and goal setting for the final quarter, which is intended to launch students’ careers, help them start their own business, or move on to complete a bachelor’s degree.
Between those quarters are more traditional business school courses as well as mathematics, coding bootcamp and supply chain management, which typically are not business school requirements. The real difference is in the philosophy of education, Baker believes.
“I don’t want any student to ever ask why they’re sitting in any one of their classes,” he says, reflecting on his years as a faculty adviser. “The first discussion of every class period is the why. Why are we learning what we’re learning, because oftentimes students don’t know.”
Along a similar line, instructor mentorships and student support are important factors for Baker. Without a strong foundation, students’ success can be hindered, he observes.
“For a lot of higher ed, it just says (the final grade) is based off the sum total of your biggest assignments. Your final exam or your final paper probably has 30 to 40 percent bearing on your final grade,” says Baker.
“We don’t want students, as happens in other institutions, to be so afraid of getting a bad grade, because they’re taking on so much debt to even be there, that they’re afraid to be innovative, to think outside the box,” he continues. “They just want to know, ‘What does this professor want so I can get a decent grade so I don’t have to tell mom and dad why I failed and have to retake this class?’”
Adds Mortimer: “The economic consequences of that model are significant. Not being able to receive credit for a course puts them behind for graduation. Oftentimes that course is a prerequisite for another course and it’s only offered in a particular semester so there’s a double billing aspect to it. It’s very jarring to the system, which assumes you progress at a standard rate for four years with no hiccups.”
Curriculum-wise, group and experiential learning is part of the institute’s approach to give students an applicable business experience, rather than the theory of business. Exploring small, local businesses, working with a team on real-world projects, and through internships with employer partners are all planned ways to build that applicable experience.
Current partnerships are in place with companies including Paychex, Wegmans, Kodak, M&T Bank, Greenlight Networks and Iron Bay Capital. In addition, the Golisano Institute campus will also be the headquarters for a Brighton chapter of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy.
“They have a local chapter which meets once a week and that’ll be done right here. Their offices will be in our building too, so it’s a very close level of partnership,” Mordaci says.
These partnerships do share similarities with other work experience programs, such as the Cooperative Education program at Rochester Institute of Technology or the now-required internships for Simon Business School students at the University of Rochester.
However, Mortimer still sees a difference between the Golisano Institute’s efforts and other partnership programs, as well as other certification programs.
“We’re not trying to be all things to all people,” he says, referring to the institute’s tight focus on business careers.
The partnerships at the Golisano Institute are particularly important for students looking for immediate employment. For those wanting to start their own business, plans for a business accelerator and incubator program by the first cohort’s eighth quarter are already in place.
For students who wish to pursue a bachelor’s degree, the institute’s higher education partners are meant to establish a quick entrance to further learning. Currently, the partners include Syracuse University, Alfred State College, and Roberts Wesleyan University.
The Golisano Institute plans to have a maximum of 500 students when it is fully operational. Enrollment and the application process is still ongoing for the institute, but Mortimer is encouraged by the number who have already applied or are incoming for this fall. He did not disclose the number of students enrolled, given ongoing student recruitment.
As for the ideal applicant, what matters most is the culture fit, focus on a business career, and willingness to learn in the Rochester area.
“The student interview is very similar to the employee interview in terms of what we’re looking for: What are the reasons for looking at us? What are your motivations?” Mortimer says. “They have to have a sense that one of the three outcomes is what they’re aspiring to. And if not, we don’t want someone in here that isn’t going to be a good fit.”
Accepted students into the inaugural cohort are from all phases of the career path, including recent high school graduates, working adults, and degree holders who want to upgrade their skills.
For example, one incoming student already runs a granola factory and is looking to gain experience in scaling up his company. Another has a doctorate in organic chemistry and wants to create a more efficient chemistry business.
Health care, financial services and technology are other areas of interest for prospective students. Mortimer feels this type of business education has potential to help people in the trades as well, meaning the institute can cater to a wide range of fields.
Broadly speaking, higher education enrollment for business has constricted since reaching a high point during the COVID pandemic. The 2022 Applications Trends Survey from Graduate Management Admission Council shows only 44 percent of schools in the U.S. reported growth of applicants to MBA or other master’s of business programs that year.
That value is still much higher than the 23 percent of schools reporting growth in 2019, perhaps suggesting a non-COVID applicant bump. However, that growth is largely powered by foreign students. With the exception of 2020, domestic applicants in recent years have been trending downward at business schools; by contrast, the number of international applicants are steadily increasing.
“The reality is MBA programs grew fast because of the ROI on them. So, if you’re an elite school and you have an MBA program, you can justify 60 or 70 grand a year because your graduates come out with 105, 107 grand, whatever the number is, salaries,” says Mortimer. “Because of that, people ran to it and it became saturated. That’s why a lot of schools are exiting the MBA market because it’s tough to be distinctive.”
The cost for an advanced business degree has risen steadily. Historical data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows an average tuition of $49,000 in 1999-2000 for MBA programs with that average rising to $62,000 in 2015-2016.
Including tuition and other costs, MBA programs at UR and RIT are both about $78,000 a year. SUNY Brockport, a public institution, lists semester tuition for its online MBA program at $7,500 for state residents.
“I kept wondering, why does someone have to pay $50,000 a year for a decent business education? Then, have to take the highest-paying job, which may not be what they want to work in, because they have to pay off their loans,” Baker says. “They get stuck in this rut.”
“Or they’re trying to work on their business while they’re on their day job, but they never launch their true passion because they can only work on it from 12 to 2 a.m.,” he continues. “We can help be the solution for that.”
The Golisano Institute lists tuition at $8,900 per year. This lower cost was decided on and only possible through founder Golisano’s deliberate attention, notes Mortimer.
“Tom is putting about $19,000 of his own money a year into every student who walks in the door,” he says. “I’m not sure I know of another institution in the country from which a benefactor is literally investing in every student with their own resources. There’s nowhere else like this place in the nation.”
Mortimer’s approach to the future of the institute currently appears to be “one thing at a time.”
“If we do what we do well, then that’s enough for now,” he says.
Still, there are plans to expand the institute’s company and educator partnerships as well as develop an accelerator and incubator program for students along the entrepreneurial trajectory. Baker is interested in connecting to BOCES in order to give trade school students more business education when setting up their practices.
It is the far future, after many cohorts have graduated, that Mortimer is uncertain about. He is certain, however, that the institute will carry on.
“This will be endowed in perpetuity, so this will never go away, which is really unique,” Mortimer says.
“In a lot of ways, our role is really as facilitators or connectors,” he continues. “The best thing we can do is bring students to a lot of different things and let them figure out how they fit into the world or the next step. Rather than assuming we know everything, because we don’t.”
The students, he adds, are “the ones who will create that change.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].