University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 34: Alan Ellstrand Discusses the Success of His Freshman Business Connections Class

August 21, 2019  |  By Matt Waller

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Alan Ellstrand is the Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Research in the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Each year, Alan teaches Freshman Business Connections to first year students. This class helps students transition from high school to college, understand the resources available to them, and learn the importance of networking in business.

Episode Transcript


00:05 Matt Waller: Hi. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today.


00:31 Matt Waller: Today I have with me Alan Ellstrand, who is Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Research. He's also a professor in the Department of Management. And thank you so much for joining me today.

00:45 Alan Ellstrand: Thanks for having me, Matt, it's good to be here with you.

00:49 Matt Waller: The list of things you've accomplished since you've been in this role is long. But one I would like to talk a little bit about is our freshman business connections class that all of our students have to take their freshman year, and I've always thought that's such an important class. We need to give them a gold... Our standard needs to be gold.

01:11 Alan Ellstrand: Absolutely.

01:12 Matt Waller: And you've done a lot of experimentation and thinking about it. One thing in particular you've done is partnered with Engineering. Would you mind talking about that?

01:21 Alan Ellstrand: Sure, no, it's my pleasure to talk about it. I had the opportunity to teach our standard freshman business connections a few times. I taught it the last two years, really wanted to get inside of it to understand what we do in that class. I was at the Walton College block party, I guess it would have been August of 2017 and ran into... Actually was introduced to a colleague from Engineering, a guy named Karl Schubert. It's one of those people that you meet on campus and you're kind of amazed that we have someone so talented and accomplished here as a colleague.

01:57 Matt Waller: Yeah, he was the CTO, Chief Technology Officer, of Dell and he's done... His real, I guess, claim to fame would be that he's been a turnaround CEO. A lot of investment companies bring him in to turn around companies that need to be turned around and he, of course, he has a PhD from the University of Arkansas, I think in chemical engineering.

02:22 Alan Ellstrand: Yeah, mm-hmm, surprisingly, given where his career led him. So Karl started telling me about a variation of the freshman engineering class, which is the analog of freshman business connections for students over in Engineering, that was very focused on innovation. And innovation is so important to the Walton College and wanting to instill a greater interest in innovation in our students as early as possible. Get them thinking as entrepreneurs and just the innovative thoughts, no matter what part of the curriculum they plan to drive through. Having a little part of their brain dedicated to innovation can only be helpful. So Karl and I started talking, I told him I had an interest in partnering with him and I remember that day, we agreed to get back together, which we did. And over the course of last academic year, 2017-18 year, we met periodically. He introduced me to his colleague, Leslie Massey, who is a bio-engineer and she's a faculty member over in Engineering who has been tasked with developing this innovation approach for their freshman engineering.

03:48 Alan Ellstrand: So we had multiple meetings during the year, talked about how it would make sense to bring business students into this class. I was really excited about it, because I thought it would be a really great opportunity for our students to get a little bit broader perspective on things, see what it's like for engineering students, who have a very different curriculum. And probably also think very differently. Now, keeping in mind these are in the door freshmen, so other than a professed interest in engineering or business, they don't really have much experience with it.

04:24 Matt Waller: What has been the feedback so far from the students?

04:26 Alan Ellstrand: Oh, the students have loved it. I think students have felt that they've really been pushed to produce at a level that they didn't know they could. And I've noticed when you set high expectations for students, they rarely let you down.

04:44 Matt Waller: How has this affected your vision for the future and our relationship with the College of Engineering?

04:52 Alan Ellstrand: The thing that has impressed me the most for sure is just the student response. We had six or seven weeks where we focused on bringing experts into the classroom, who know the innovation process from start to finish. I think it's great, our business students certainly have the interest and capacity for it, but the engineering students benefited a lot. Because getting them thinking in a much more practical way, avoiding the pitfall of falling in love with your technology when maybe you take it a little bit too far and there's no commercially viable way of using that technology, getting that in the back of their minds from day one I think is incredibly invaluable to them. Well, this all culminated after about six, seven weeks with putting out a charge to students to form groups, but also asking them to come up with a business idea. But it's pretty cool to think about actually coming up with a tangible prototype of these ideas. And some of them just really blew me away. We had everything from apps to encourage socialization on campus, things that students assure us there are no app to do what they'd like to do.

06:13 Alan Ellstrand: Apps for safety on campus. Let's say you're a female student, and you're at the library and you're studying late and you feel a little bit concerned about making the walk back across campus on your own. They wanna develop an app that will kind of crowdsource people for you at that time in real-time, to find people who are going where you're going, meet up with them and then walk across the campus...

06:36 Matt Waller: What a great idea.

06:36 Alan Ellstrand: Isn't that a cool idea?

06:38 Matt Waller: I like that.

06:39 Alan Ellstrand: I love that idea. Another one came up with an idea which, hey, I'll buy this if it actually works, is a way that you can charge your cell phone using kinetic energy, using a backpack for the receptacle for the energy. Now, I'm a little bit skeptical that kinetic energy can develop enough power to be able to actually charge your cell phone. But if you could do that during the day so that your cell phone didn't run down, I think that would be pretty cool.

07:13 Alan Ellstrand: And then interestingly, one of the groups is very interested in alternative energy, and solar power in particular, but what... The idea that they came up with is really more of a financing service, so that you could have solar panels installed at your home, but you could develop enough power off that, that you could sell the power that would actually finance the investment you made to put those solar cells on your home. And a lot of that really goes to the finance, not the solar cells themselves. So that was really interesting. And again, this is a place where clearly the business students influenced the engineering students into thinking it's more than just the technical specs of the solar cells, it's the ability for people to be able to make the finances work on this, that's gonna make this attractive.

08:08 Alan Ellstrand: There are other projects as well, some other really neat ones, but I was just very inspired and in fact there was one day when students were presenting and I was just sitting there and thinking, "This is a freshman, an 18-year-old student up in front of the room." And if you didn't know, you could walk in the room and say, "Hey, who's the expert talking about solar energy up there?" It makes me feel very good about future generations. If these are our future leaders, I think the world is gonna be a better place for it.

08:41 Matt Waller: When you look at the vision of the Walton College through our teaching, research and service to be thought leaders and catalysts for transforming lives, I really think, Alan, what you and Karl have done in creating this course is really a catalyst for transforming lives.

09:01 Alan Ellstrand: I appreciate that, but I think you're right. One thing that these students will take away from here, the business students will have pierced into the black box of what it is to be an engineer. At the same time, the engineering students, I think, gain a tremendous amount by stepping back from their technologies and thinking about the practical elements of these. And who knows, maybe some day, somebody in an engineering firm will be more open to talking to the business people there because they had this introduction to it way back when they were freshmen in college.

09:40 Matt Waller: The networks you develop when you're an undergraduate are important to the rest of your career. And a lot of times students don't realize that, but I always tell students, you're starting your business, you're starting your career, you're developing your network right now as a freshman.

09:57 Alan Ellstrand: That's a great piece of advice to give our students and by extending that network over to the engineering school, who knows what kinds of collaborations could come of that.

10:10 Matt Waller: But what you have done through this course is greatly expand the possibilities for these students.

10:20 Alan Ellstrand: One day in class, we were just chatting with the students and asking them, they're four or five weeks in, asking them how it's going so far, how's college been, now that you've been here for a month or two. There was one young woman, I won't forget this, who was kind of upset and a little conflicted and she said, "I'm gonna be switching colleges," this is about mid-semester, and I think she was one of our students and she said, "I really wanna be a nurse and so I'm gonna switch to Cohab." And she said, "I hope you're not too disappointed." And we all said, "Look, if that's where your passion is, that's great." That's what coming to college is all about. If you find what you really wanna do, even if it's not in business or engineering, we're perfectly happy with that.

11:11 Alan Ellstrand: We just want you to go on, have the best journey you can, realize what makes you tick, and what gets you up in the morning. But we asked her, "How were you able to realize so quickly that this is not where you belong?" And she said, "You know, after spending six weeks with students, I just don't think the same way they do. I just don't think the way they do." And it's like, if you can determine that, you have figured out something really important to your life that takes many of us years and years, not as freshmen too, we realized that.

11:49 Matt Waller: There's so many opportunities here in the Walton College and I really think when you look at our values, excellence, professionalism, innovation, collegiality, being collegial doesn't mean that we agree on everything. Being collegial doesn't mean that we debate, but being collegial means that we respect one other. I actually think it's a little bit like a family. Being truly collegial is being a little bit like a family. We're really trying to use business in a way that gives students a tool to make the world a better place. Business is about people transacting with one another, building relationships, satisfying unsatisfied needs. Most successful entrepreneurs find a problem that exists and they solve it.

12:46 Alan Ellstrand: Yeah, that's really what entrepreneurship is all about is finding that pain point and figuring out a way how to reduce the pain. When it comes to collegiality, I think we're able to accomplish more here because we do have a genuine collegiality spirit baked into the culture of the college. I think as colleagues, people work together more constructively, are more willing to look for partnerships. I think transmitting that to our students, I think it's really important. And I think it makes our students more valuable on the job market, because there's no question that having students or having employees who can get along with each other, who work constructively together, I can't imagine any company not wanting to have people like that.

13:41 Alan Ellstrand: We've attracted a lot of students from other states in recent years, and I can remember when I was department chair once, I got a call from somebody's mom of a future student and I picked it up and she had a technical question about a curriculum that I couldn't answer, but I told her I'd find the right person to, but I said, "So tell me, it sounds like your son or daughter is gonna be coming here." "Yes, we live in Texas and my daughter is switching from UT and she's gonna go to Arkansas next year." And I said, "That's great. What brought about the change? Why is she making that switch?" And she said, "She has so many friends who go to the University of Arkansas and are in the Walton College, and they're always just so happy." And I thought, "If we can be the college where students are happy and productive and successful, it's worth a lot to us too."

14:36 Matt Waller: Well, as you know, I've got four kids and one's in high school but... And one's graduated from the Walton College and then another one's in the Walton College and another one's in the College of Engineering here, and Molly Rapert, my neighbor, who's a professor here, has four kids and has had the same situation; one graduated from the Walton College and two are in the Walton College, and our kids wanted to go here, we wanted them to go here.

15:05 Alan Ellstrand: Right, right.

15:07 Matt Waller: It's because we know, I mean, you're a building a network here with other students, but also we have senior executives here all the time from the biggest companies on earth. Our alumni have done quite well, which is remarkable coming from this small state in the middle of the country.

15:23 Alan Ellstrand: Yes, I think one of the things that's always impressed me here is, we are in this amazing industrial ecosystem with three large Fortune 500 companies: Walmart, Tyson, JB Hunt, and then well over 1000 companies that are suppliers to Walmart. Some of the biggest CPG companies in the world have offices here. But the thing that's impressed me the most is, many of those companies have opened their doors and encouraged their executives to work with us, even though those people were not graduates of the University of Arkansas. And we've had so many successful partnerships with folks from that environment. The old line used to be that people were sent to Northwest Arkansas kicking and screaming, and then once they got here, when they were told about their next assignment, they didn't wanna leave. And so they leave kicking and screaming. There's something about coming here. It's a very genuine place, it's a very friendly place, and I just think it brings that out in people who come here.

16:45 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching beepicpodcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast and now, be epic.


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

Be Epic Podcast

We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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