No Textbooks, No Lectures, No Theories
An unconventional course offers real-world learning, plus free food.
By John Crawford
Green watches classroom tapes of current and former Babson professors Steve Spinelli, Bill Bygrave, Les Charm, and the late Jeff Timmons. “They are master teachers.”
A FAVORITE HOBBY
Fantasy football and baseball. Before the seasons start, he buys 15 fantasy magazines and puts their player rankings in a computer. Last baseball season, seven of his 10 teams finished first.
Green and his wife, Lois, may have bought a Florida retirement home, but he has no plans to retire. Whenever he goes to the pool, Green hears conversations about the supermarket. “They’re talking about the price of tuna fish. I’m not ready for that.”
Photo: Patrick O’Connor
On a rainy Thursday morning, all was warm and cozy in Olin 102. A trumpet player serenaded arriving students while a video of a burning yule log played on the screen behind him. Cups of hot tea waited to be sipped.
Len Green, adjunct lecturer of entrepreneurship, took in the scene. “I have no idea what this is about,” he admitted, but he wasn’t concerned. It was just another typically untypical day in his class, “The Ultimate Entrepreneurial Challenge.”
Loosely modeled on The Apprentice, the Donald Trump TV show, Green’s course aims to test students with realistic business challenges. The class, which usually garners a long waiting list, has no textbook, no set schedule, and no lectures. The syllabus encourages students to break their pens so they don’t take too many notes. “There is no theory in my class,” says Green, who, while developing the course, thought back to the many boring lessons he sat through when in school. He wanted to create the opposite of that, a practical classroom environment that keeps students on their toes. “I’m doing what is done in the real world,” he says.
A consultant and investor from Holmdel, N.J., Green commutes nine hours round-trip every week to teach the class. That’s obviously a big commitment, especially considering he works some 80 hours a week. But Green keeps in mind an important lesson from his teenage years. Someone he admired told him: To be successful, be prepared, work hard, enjoy what you do, and strive to be the best you can. “I have never forgotten that mission,” Green says. “I apply it to my business endeavors and to teaching, both of which I have a passion for.”
The first order of business in Green’s class is the dividing of students into teams, a process he tries to keep as true to life as possible. When student CEOs begin drafting team members, for instance, a chosen student can refuse to join, just as a job candidate can turn down an offer in real life. On the other hand, if teams are uncooperative, CEOs can fire members or resign and join another group.
Throughout the semester, teams strive to accumulate points or “dollars,” which they earn by analyzing a whopping 30 case studies, working on consulting projects with nonprofit and for-profit organizations, and taking responsibility for bringing food or drink to class one day. That last assignment comes with one critical rub: The team procuring the food can’t pay for it. Teams negotiate with restaurants, offering help with website interactivity, social media marketing, or whatever else comes to mind, to receive free food.
Groups are encouraged to present their food or drink to the class in a creative way, which explains the trumpet player and yule log. Instead of just bringing in tea, that team was hoping to create a “lounge feel” for the class through music and a fire. Other memorable presentations have included one team holding a taste test with pizza from six pizzerias, and another team going to eight restaurants to obtain enough food not just for Green’s class but for every 8 a.m. class in Olin. “Each team tries to outdo the others,” says Green. This seemingly simple project ends up challenging students’ negotiation skills, presentation abilities, and creativity.
Besides fostering a real-world environment, Green wants to empower students. After they initially sign up, they receive an eight-page input sheet asking about their aspirations for the course. Throughout the semester, students take surveys asking how the class is going and what can be done to make it better. “As in the real world, it is important to have what I call ‘gut checks,’” says Green. “That is, how is a business or a class doing compared to its mission statement and its goals and objectives?”
Green gives students control of classroom discussions, letting them call on each other to talk and tap on their desks if someone goes on too long. When discussions become vibrant, Green leaves the room or even lies on the floor to make sure students remain the focal point. “This is my way of getting out of the discussion,” Green says.
When not teaching, Green reviews tapes from class to critique his performance and check on students’ participation. He also has plenty else to keep him busy. He sits on the boards of various charities and a publicly traded printing company, Cenveo, and he’s an owner or investor in 14 businesses, including an accounting and consulting firm, pet food company, real estate firm, and racehorse stable. He also finds time to run. Babson’s cross-country coach, Russ Brennen, prepares a weekly training schedule for him, and Green has run the Boston Marathon three times and participated in the Jimmy Fund Walk four times. Despite these many commitments, Green relishes working with Babson students. “They’re so smart,” he says. “It’s a privilege to teach here. I’m inspired.”