Students get crash course in business

MIDDLEBURY — For 16 Middlebury College students, the average weekday this January includes studying neuroscience, selling books, learning to haggle, doing market research for a local dairy farm and meeting an ex-CIA spy.
Their MiddCORE course isn’t targeted for those students who are hoping to get out on the ski slopes often during the one-class J-term semester. Instead, they spend at least eight hours each weekday learning about business and entrepreneurship with guest speakers and competitive challenges.
CORE stands for creativity, opportunity, risk and entrepreneurship — skills important for the business world that are not often taught in other Middlebury College classrooms.
During the first week, the students learned about selling by taking a stack of “Life is Good” books and selling them in the community. The books were provided by Roy Heffernan, “Chief Operating Optimist” at the New Hampshire-based Life is Good company.
Teams of students were challenged to sell between 25 and 30 of the books within 24 hours, with support from Life is Good employees. One of the objectives of the activity was to force the students outside of their comfort zones; they could not sell on the college campus, and they could not sell to family members.
That’s not the only task that takes the students out into the local community. This month, one of the businesses they are working with is Millborne Farms in Shoreham. Owner Gert Schut, the company’s founder and owner, spoke with the class about his drinkable yogurt product and his hopes for expansion — hopes that the class is helping to further with their own research in the community.
And this week, the students will be learning about creating social movements by reaching out to community businesses, peers and college administrators to expand the consumption of rainforest-certified goods.
Sophomore Eric Wilson said that it was the course’s promise of experiential learning that drew him to register for the class. He said he was there to get practice with things like public speaking and negotiation — “skills that I had had absolutely no experience with.
“It’s an entirely new environment,” he added. “It’s all experiential.”
Middlebury economics professor Michael Claudon founded the class three years ago with the express goal of pushing students to do things that traditional classes had not prepared them for. In his statement on the class, Claudon likens a college education to learning to ride a horse — from a distance.
“Students learn how to ride horses by listening to experts lecture, reading academic literatures, taking exams, making presentations and writing papers on the technique and history, etc. of horse riding. Only rarely do they actually see, and almost never actually mount a real live horse,” he writes.
MiddCORE, with its tagline, “confidence for the road ahead,” attempts to change this idea, touching on topics as broad as creating business plans, speaking persuasively and managing and working in teams.
And all of that comes at a price. Claudon said the experience is intense.
“We start out the first week by saying, ‘For the next four weeks, we own you,’” he said.
Still, the 16-student waiting list attests to its popularity.
“The goal of MiddCORE is to take students out of their comfort zone — to force them to take risks they may not otherwise take,” said associate professor of economics Jessica Holmes, in an email. Holmes is co-teaching the course this year, and will be taking over from Claudon when he retires.
“They learn tangible life skills,” she said
Last Tuesday, the students paired off into buyers and sellers, engaging in heated negotiations over the price of the Batmobile.
It was a seemingly simple exercise, but during the follow-up lecture by Jason Meek, a lawyer who had flown in from California for the class, it was clear that the exercise wasn’t just about haggling for a used car. As Meek talked about the neuropsychology of communication, he connected the bargaining and negotiation skills that the students had just practiced with everything from interpersonal relationships to interactions between soldiers and civilians in Iraq.
In conjunction with the personality tests that the students had taken the day before, Meek said this class structure allowed him to give the students a more personal take on the skill of negotiation than he teaches in most business and law school classes.
“We’re really getting at the human element of the experience,” said Meek. “It’s like negotiating from the inside out. How do I react when I show up in a situation that feels uncomfortable, and what can I do?”
Meredith Gu, a sophomore studying philosophy, said that she took the class with an eye to the future. “I’m interested in business, but I’m not interested in economics,” she said. “I wanted to take the class leaving with the feeling that I can do whatever I want, careerwise.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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