Vandy's Accelerator program prepares students for real world

Wednesday, June 29, 2005 at 1:00am

Last year, The Apprentice debuted on NBC, with men and women performing business tasks under the scrutiny of Donald Trump.

The prize: a position managing one of Trump's subsidiary operations.

This year, Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management started a program called Accelerator, a 28-day intensive training course in which 53 undergraduates from around the country came to Nashville to gain practical business knowledge and apply what they absorbed to help Nashville-area companies.

The prize: real-world business experience that will facilitate the Accelerator students' education and marketability when job hunting.

"We're watching everything and we're providing feedback on everything, and you're seeing their understanding of what to do and how to do it increase by leaps and bounds on a daily basis," said Mike Sicard, a professor of management and faculty director of the Accelerator program.

Accelerator started partly because of employers' complaints that business schools have become too reliant on theory at the expense of practical business knowledge. To address this, a year ago the Owen School approved Accelerator to help students be better prepared for life after college.

"It's been really nice to delve out of the theoretical academia into the actual applied experience of learning," said student Kevin Kush, a Nashville native attending Tulane. "That's what really drew me to the program."

That preparation for the real world often translates into 16-hour days. The students must arrive at 7 a.m., sharply dressed in either suits or business casual depending on the day. They then usually sit down for a business breakfast with officials from several different companies.

Following breakfast, the students meet in six-member teams to work on their projects. They also have some classroom time that corresponds to whatever business principle, such as finance, that they are currently focusing on.

The projects for the inaugural class included working with the Music City Motorplex to attract more fans to the fairgrounds' speedway by allowing them to be not just spectators but participants. The Motorplex offered Accelerator students a chance to compete to put their promotional ideas into practice during the weekend of June 17-19.

First, however, the students had to formulate their ideas, which were to be limited only by creativity and business sense. On June 6, the students split into teams. Three days later, each team presented its plan to Motorplex officials and one team's marketing strategy was chosen for each of the three nights.

"They were very receptive to pretty much all of our ideas and are going to be implementing them throughout all of the next year, piece by piece," Kush said.

On the first evening, Kush's team promoted a frequent-fan pass. Each time a fan attends races at the Motorplex, she gets tickets entered into a raffle. The winners of the Friday raffle got to participate in what Kush's team called "Race With the Ace," in which they had the choice of driving blindfolded with a race-car driver sitting shotgun and directing them or vice-versa.

The evening drew 4,500 fans, the most the Motorplex has drawn in five years. When two of the junk cars bumped the first lap around, the crowd cheered and the people came out beaming, Sicard said.

"It was hysterical," he added.

Saturday's promotion plan included an infield dance party and Sunday's had a country-and-western theme.

Each night the teams had difficulties they had to adjust to. Friday, one of the junk cars for Race With the Ace had a flat tire. Saturday, the dance party had a speaker problem.

"All three teams gained a very healthy respect for how tough running a business is," Sicard said.

Other Accelerator projects extended to the fairground's flea market, where the teams competed by running their own booths. But in order to get funding for their respective businesses, the students had to make presentations to venture capitalists. The most funding they could receive was $500, and the winner was the group that earned the most profit.

"It's really competitive because everybody wants to win, but everybody wants each other to win as well," said Curt Mayer, a recent Vanderbilt graduate.

Tasks like these are when Nashville meets New York and the Accelerator resembles The Apprentice.

But unlike Trump, Sicard isn't yelling "You're fired" from West End.

"It's much more cooperation than competition," Kush said.

"It's like The Apprentice without really rich people in it," Mayer added.

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