Executive M.B.A. programs, or E.M.B.A.'s, typically offer weekend courses to fit students' demanding schedules. But some executives with unique professional or religious responsibilities require even more flexibility—a need that business schools are increasingly trying to accommodate.
In the wine industry, even executives get grape stains during harvest season, explains Robert Eyler, director of executive M.B.A. programs at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. "If it rains during harvest time, everybody from the CEO of the company on down to the latest field worker that was hired might be out picking grapes simply to get them off the vines," he says.
That's why Sonoma State created a wine-intensive executive M.B.A. that will launch in April. The 17-month program in California's Napa Valley is designed to avoid interfering with wine harvest season, Eyler says.
Business schools have long tailored custom courses to particular industries, Eyler says, noting that M.B.A. programs in Las Vegas have hospitality-related offerings, and schools in the Midwest may focus on agricultural study. But it's a new development for schools to customize schedules for such specific student demographics, Eyler says.
Catering to the schedules of working professionals has always been part of the E.M.B.A. tradition, says Jason Price, director of EMBA World, an independent resource for E.M.B.A. applicants, and publisher of Insider's Guide to the Executive MBA. Administrators at the new programs, such as the one at Sonoma State, may have noticed an opportunity in an already targeted market, which only graduates about 6,000 E.M.B.A.'s per year, he says.
"Perhaps [they] have done their analysis and said, 'Of the 6,000, there's a sustainable population that we can satisfy on an ongoing basis because we specialize in a particular niche that will always have a steady flow of students."
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Although Aaron DeBeers, general manager of Teucer, a cabernet sauvignon producer in southeastern Napa Valley, was accepted to Sonoma State's other on-campus E.M.B.A. program last year, he told the university that he couldn't attend due to scheduling conflicts.
"They were having their international trip during harvest, and I said, 'How ridiculous is that? You're the Wine Business Institute! You need to consider who your market is,'" he says.
When Sonoma State created the wine-intensive E.M.B.A., DeBeers decided to apply, in part because of the specialized curriculum, which includes courses such as Wine Distribution Strategies, Global Wine Operations, and Leading Sustainable Wine Enterprises.
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Across the country from Napa Valley in Washington, D.C., George Washington University offers an E.M.B.A. program called STAR (Special Talent, Access and Responsibility), which caters to athletes and celebrities.
Brendon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, says he was in an M.B.A. program at University of Baltimore when a Ravens adviser told him about the GW program, which began in spring 2011. When he retires from the NFL, Ayanbadejo says he hopes to become the athletic director at University of California—Los Angeles, his alma mater. "I had the sports background, but I needed the business background," he says.
It helps that GW's degree is scheduled in the spring and summer, so it doesn't conflict with the NFL season, Ayanbadejo says. He will have to miss some voluntary off-season Ravens training sessions, he says, but he's been told by the E.M.B.A. staff that the program won't conflict with mandatory mini camps. "I'm sure that will take some jostling. That's not easy to do," he says.
But not everyone thinks athletes need special schedules. Liz Swaney, a professional bobsledder who earned an interdisciplinary master's in design studies, which was taught, in part, at Harvard Business School, says even full-time athletes can go to school full time. "The majority of athletes—and many others with similar time-consuming commitments—can do fine in many full-time programs if careful planning is involved," she says.