An Inside Look into the Suffolk Online MBA World Class Clusters Course Taught by Dr. Carlos Rufín

An Inside Look into the Suffolk Online MBA World Class Clusters Course Taught by Dr. Carlos Rufín
An Inside Look into the Suffolk Online MBA World Class Clusters Course Taught by Dr. Carlos Rufín

Dr. Carlos Rufín is a professor of international business at Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University. He teaches courses in a variety of areas to both undergraduate and graduate students, including globalization. For 15 years, he has led travel seminars to Brazil to expose students to the wider context of world business.

A researcher and consultant for governmental entities and multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, he works with developing countries like Latin America to support the energy sector with a focus on access to basic services for the urban poor.

Originally from Spain, Dr. Rufín has a Ph.D. in public policy from the Kennedy School at Harvard University; a master’s degree in economics from Columbia University in New York; and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Princeton University.

What led you to teach at Suffolk?

I wanted to be in an institution that would recognize the kind of research that I do which is much more applied and practical, working with policy makers rather than being necessarily just academic research. Suffolk gave me that opportunity. They valued the research and gave me the space to do that. I also identify very much with Suffolk’s mission of offering educational opportunities to people who might be first generation college students lacking the same kind of prior opportunities that students from better off households may have had. Finally, Suffolk’s location at the heart of Boston is also very attractive. After starting at Suffolk, I learned that the business school has a h3 culture of collaboration among the faculty, which creates a very positive working environment.

Can you describe the course that you teach, Understanding World Class Clusters?

When we redesigned the MBA curriculum a few years ago, we decided that we wanted to leverage as much as possible the extremely rich and dynamic business environment of Boston as a means to create opportunities for students but also to prepare them better for the kind of business landscape that they would find in a city like Boston. We realized that the Boston economy is very different from other places. It’s dominated by a very dynamic set of smaller firms and startups that are focused on innovation, leveraging scientific advances that are generated by the universities and turning them into successful businesses. We built our MBA around those clusters of innovation in the Boston area.

We thus needed to introduce the concept of clusters to help students to understand this phenomenon at the beginning of their MBA studies. The course starts off as a traditional business economics course, but very quickly we show the students that to some extent those previous concepts have been superseded by a new world of innovation. It’s a mixture of collaboration and competition among businesses in places like Boston and around the world. Our main goal is to expose the students to this new world and open up opportunities for them to be a part of these clusters of innovation.

What can students expect to learn and take away from your course?

The first thing they can expect to learn is basic business economics, which they will need, fundamentally, as a way to understand how competition works and what are some of the benefits of competitive markets, what are the implications of competition, and then, perhaps even more importantly, why some of those traditional concepts of economics need to be supplemented by new concepts around this idea of clusters and innovation. This phenomenon of innovation that we are living in, through the mixture of collaboration and competition, is something very different from the way innovation happened in the corporate world say 20 or 30 years ago. Therefore, students need to be prepared and understand some of the forces that have been transformed and how can they, as students, as future managers, be successful in this kind of environment.

What is your favorite section of the course?

My favorite section of the course is the section about social capital. That comes maybe from the fact that it’s a concept that came into use in the economic world and started to be explored when I was pursuing my doctoral degree at Harvard. It's a concept that helped me to understand the world around me far better, and thus I have continued to pay attention to it for many years now. It is a particularly important concept to understand the phenomenon of clusters, but it is also a concept that is not commonly taught in a business school setting. It may seem contradictory to what many business students might expect. It’s a concept that has to do with collaboration. In the world of business we typically think about competition, but not so much about collaborating with other companies out there. We don't understand what would be the purpose of that kind of collaboration. The concept of social capital provides new light on how collaboration among companies can be an important other side of the coin for innovation and for business. I very much enjoy introducing that notion.

What is social capital?

The way I explain social capital to the students is with a metaphor or comparison that they are all familiar with, which is LinkedIn. I tell them that they will have, or most of them already have, an account. So, I tell them to think about the relationships they develop through LinkedIn. These are not necessarily your friends or people close to you with whom you share a lot of experiences. They are acquaintances in a professional way. You come across them and sometimes they might ask you for a favor to introduce them to some of your acquaintances. Or you exchange important information about business insights. And some other times, you may rely on them to help you if you’re looking for a job. That’s what social capital is about. It’s a network of people that you collaborate with and exchange favors within a professional setting. And by doing that, everybody benefits. That’s very important about social capital. We all benefit by having these kinds of networks and relationships. We can exchange significant information, we can help each other and work with each other in order to do things that we may not be able to do individually.

What are the benefits of building social capital?

I would add that specifically, in the context of the course, the benefits of social capital we emphasize have to do with innovation. These benefits are a bit more specific and we try to make sure that the students understand that, in the case of innovation, it’s very interesting that typically we’d think of keeping our trade secrets to ourselves because we’re afraid of imitation. Why would you share information with another company that might be a competitor? But in fact, we know social capital is very beneficial and it drives the innovation economy. We have come to realize that when people from different backgrounds talk to each other, somebody has a bit of an idea and somebody else has another element of an idea, and by means of the conversation those partial ideas come together and the result is something totally new, totally different. And then, this result can be transformed into a successful business innovation. That is the strength and the value of social capital in these kinds of innovation clusters that we examine in the class.

Where do graduates of the Suffolk online MBA generally land? Do most choose careers in the Boston area?

By and large, our online program is bringing in students increasingly from other parts of the country so we see students also pursuing opportunities in other kinds of clusters across the country and we hope, eventually, across the world. So far our experience has been that our students in the classroom and online programs are based in the Boston area so many continue in the Boston area and they go on to work in the dominant clusters in Boston. I see students that are going into financial services, biotechnology, and information technology. I think many of them end up working in these clusters in one way or another. Some of them may be part of a company that is trying to develop a new approach to financial services using technology. Others may be, for example, in human resource management in a biotech firm, so their involvement in these clusters is in the form of recruiting and retaining talent.

Why is Boston’s metropolitan area thriving and how does this help Suffolk students?

This is a great question. Boston was first a commercial hub of traders, then it transformed itself into a manufacturing hub. It was a town of factories for the longest time. Throughout the 20th century, and certainly after 1945, that kind of economic activity went into crisis. Like many other American cities, it faced a tough issue of transforming itself into something else. The fact that it had so many great educational institutions led to a number of successful new businesses and the development of these clusters in biotech and financial services that have become globally successful, creating a very dynamic economy which then offers a great opportunity to Suffolk students. In the past I've been asked to talk about the history of Boston and how we got here. It’s a fascinating story which I love to tell.

How can students benefit from social capital in the online MBA program and in the business world?

I think the benefit of social capital to business students is more obvious because business students understand quite readily the importance of networking and cultivating a network of acquaintances which is going to be a major help for them. Most jobs are obtained through word of mouth and referral rather than through job ads. A network is important for advice and mentoring and sharing of information. It means that they should be open to sharing information with other people. We help students understand better how social capital works and we give them an assignment that requires them to identify a working professional in a cluster and learn from that person how social capital has worked for that person, so that it can help them in their careers in the broader sense of leading them to career success as professionals.

Where can we see a high degree of social capital in the U.S. economy?

I would say that we can see it in the places where we find these innovation clusters. We see it in Boston; we see it a lot in Silicon Valley. We talk about Silicon Valley because in many ways it has been far more successful than Boston in information technology, software, and we find that there is a high degree of social capital. There are conversations going on, companies have redesigned their office spaces to ensure that people are having side conversations, that they're encouraged to talk to other people. We see it in Seattle, Austin, New York, and probably, if we look further, we’re going to find other locations within the U.S. where known clusters are doing well.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Something that we try to do in the online MBA program is experiential learning. Not only do we introduce these concepts, but we let students experience these concepts. I mentioned the project on social capital where students have to talk to someone who has had a professional career in a cluster and learn how this person built their social capital and leveraged it. We also develop a student-led project with a company because we want the students to understand how the company uses or can use a cluster. We want to make sure that these concepts don’t remain theoretical and that students see how they’re working in practice. We want the students to start going out there to start building their social capital, either in Boston or wherever the student may be. We encourage them to find out the dynamic aspects of the local economy, and look for opportunities to get to know what’s going on there and make those connections. That’s where the opportunities are going to be for these students and they need to look to where the opportunities are being created.