Blockchain in business school: Interest among MBA students hasn’t waned despite crypto crash

Blockchain in business school: Interest among MBA students hasn’t waned despite crypto crash

BY Anastassia GliadkovskayaSeptember 07, 2022, 1:21 PM

Illustration by Martin Laksman

Few sectors are as volatile as cryptocurrency. In the last year, the value of digital currencies surged and then plummeted, eventually imploding with a widely reported market crash, layoffs and losses. Despite the uncertainty, academic interest in the sector hasn’t waned, professors say. 

“The price of crypto is going up, going down; the interest does not correlate with that,” says Gregory LaBlanc, who is a lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and the University of California—Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “Crypto is one of those things that people think they need to know about if they want to be an educated person in today’s business world.” 

And crypto is no longer niche. Businesses across the board, from legacy banks to sectors beyond finance, are increasingly exploring crypto options. As a result, business students in MBA programs need to be familiar with digital assets and the benefits—and drawbacks—of a decentralized banking system. 

“There’s no question that there’s still a lot of uncertainty and immaturity and hype in the blockchain space,” acknowledges Kevin Werbach, professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Wharton digital asset and blockchain project. Even so, the need for business schools to incorporate this emerging industry into their curricula remains. “We need people that are going to work for big traditional firms who understand it, as well.” 

In response to interest from MBA students and demand among potential employers, some top-ranked business schools are incorporating blockchain and crypto into their curricula. Here’s what you need to know.

How to evaluate an MBA program’s crypto content

Though the idea of teaching crypto in business school is relatively new, there are a number of schools that offer relevant courses: Stanford, Columbia University, Fordham University (Gabelli), and Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami. Because of the content overlap, these classes might be housed in a business, law, or engineering school—or even taught in conjunction with these schools. 

Whatever program you choose, first aim to obtain a baseline understanding of the barter system, gold standard, and modern checking accounts—this history will help contextualize decentralized finance. Without understanding the basics of business, technicality alone won’t help you succeed, and vice versa.

“In general, for most people the breadth that you get is more valuable than something that’s narrower,” Werbach says.

For those merely interested in understanding the concept, a crypto course could serve as a jumping off point to explore other domains, like data architecture, payments infrastructure, or contract execution. “Crypto really serves as a clearinghouse for a whole bunch of areas of business,” LaBlanc says. 

For those interested in founding or working for a crypto startup, an extra training step will go a long way—like an accelerator program, which Berkeley Engineering offers. 

Because of how quickly this field evolves, it’s important to seek training not taught solely by academics. Like with other sectors, a program that brings in guest practitioners will help balance out the theoretical concepts with hands-on learning. 

“It’s almost like trying to hit a moving target,” says David Yermack, professor of finance and business transformation at New York University (Stern) who helped spearhead the school’s early crypto course offerings. The school was among the first in the country to do so in 2014. 

Location could also be meaningful, according to Yermack. Some schools are near major employers, offering a tailored curriculum to meet the demands of the local economy—and this proximity could be invaluable when job hunting. Programs should also ideally be housed in schools with a naturally strong tech focus, and ones that do at least some research in the area. 

Ultimately, even if your top choice of an MBA program doesn’t offer a class in crypto, look for other related courses, like fintech, cybersecurity, and risk management. Though Berkeley doesn’t currently have a faculty-led crypto class, its fintech class has relevant elements in it. The school does, however, have student-led courses in crypto available for credit. LaBlanc will teach finance at Stanford Business this fall, where he plans to incorporate crypto lessons. 

MBA grads in blockchain, crypto roles will still learn on the job

Students looking for jobs post-graduation in blockchain or crypto should expect to face tight competition. With many startups going out of business this year, that trend is likely to continue into the future. 

“There are some people that like to take risks, and MBA students tend to fit that profile,” Yermack says. “In many ways, crypto is ideal for them.”

Business school students should also be prepared to continue expanding their skillset post-graduation. “A field as fast changing as crypto—no matter how much you learn in an educational program, you’re going to have to learn a tremendous amount on the job,” Werbach says.

Wherever you end up working, whether in the field of crypto or outside of it, there will be demand for this expertise. In Werbach’s view, one of the best positions to be in is working for an employer not predominantly focused on emerging technology, but where you have more expertise than others in it. 

Students should aim to develop a “personal knowledge network” after graduation, engaging with resources, like podcasts, and a community, like an online forum, that is relevant to them, Werbach says. Doing so will help stay up to speed on the latest trends and developments. 

Professors are slowly building out available graduate school offerings on crypto and digital assets. It’s an area “where both the teaching and research needs to move,” Yermack says. That will take time, but it is inevitable. 

More businesses will be looking to blockchain for a range of management strategies, like supply chain coordination. “These things will become so unexpectional, it will just be part of the normal business landscape,” LaBlanc says. When that time comes, there will be no need for special crypto courses; it will be ingrained in the business curriculum. For now, the field remains green.

“It’s really important to develop a healthy skepticism and BS detector, because there’s lots of incredibly exciting tech,” Werbach says, before cautioning that some developments might turn out to be a scam. “In order to succeed, you need to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.” 

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