The fourth year of Harvard Business School’s Short Intensive Programs (SIPs) came during a month of national upheaval and under the ever-darkening cloud of the global pandemic. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that one course, held the week following the January 6 Capitol insurrection, had the entire class openly in tears. But there we were, Zoom screen after Zoom screen of emotional, vulnerable participants reacting to the deeply personal reflections of Bozoma (Boz) Saint John, the CMO of Netflix, in Professors Frances Frei and Francesca Gino’s SIP, Anatomy of a Badass.

The class was one of 13 SIPs offered during winter break. Now in their fourth year, SIPs are no-credit, no-fee elective courses, offering MBA students an opportunity to engage deeply in a single subject with professors, practitioners, and experts in the field. With all classes running virtually, and one in a hybrid classroom, we observed four: Anatomy of a Badass, Startup Bootcamp, Climate Finance, and The Business of Space.

Anatomy of a Badass

Anatomy of a Badass was inspired by Saint John’s guest participation in Gino and Frei’s Inclusive Leadership class last year; Frei and Saint John had worked together to turn around Uber’s toxic culture in 2017. Gino thought Saint John’s powerful presence and resonant messages, on the value of courageous authenticity and the urgency of living life fiercely, aligned with themes in Gino’s 2018 book, Rebel Talent, and would be ideal for a short exploratory class.

Those who break the mold and set their own expectations, says Gino, are often seen as rebellious troublemakers. But those very traits are the keys to a successful, happy, and fulfilling life and career. That can be a difficult concept, she says, for MBA students on their way to a demanding and busy future. The class aimed to embed the value of maintaining one’s own priorities, following individual goals, and embracing the role of a constructive rebel—a badass—who will change the world for the better.

Saint John kicked off the first session grooving to Carl Carlton’s “She’s a Bad Mama Jama,” challenging the class to show up at work, and in life, as their true, authentic self. “We are all artists in our capacity,” she said. “If you embraced that, if you were no longer tied to the idea that you are one thing—how would that unlock you?”

Saint John asked students to examine their own lives through the lens of her own. Day one, authenticity; day two, releasing yourself from others expectations; day three, demanding your own worth; day four, aligning your spirit, body, and mind; and day five, living your life with urgency. She shared her own circuitous career path, the highs and lows of her life—the loss of her first child, the death of her husband, the love she showers on her daughter—and in doing so, shattered the notion that online spaces are devoid of emotional connection.

“Boz transports you into her life in a way that is truly unique,” said Gino. “We spent the week laughing, crying, and reflecting hard about life. We felt transformed by the time that we had together. She is a true rebel; a true badass. Frances and I are on a journey, trying to embrace the same approach.”

“When you think about it, what are you waiting for?” asked Saint John in the final session. “We don’t know what tomorrow brings. Why wait to have the conversation that you’re supposed to have? To live the fullness of life? We operate as if the bad things are supposed to stop us from living life. But life doesn’t stop. The bad things help you to appreciate how beautiful that is.”

“The last class really spoke to me; I took the message of living life with urgency to heart,” recalls Lailah Thompson (MBA 2021). “It’s really what I needed, especially for a time like this. I see my future self in Boz; she is an amazing, beautiful Black woman who has triumphed despite adversities and maintains her authentic self in the c-suite. It was the best and most refreshing class. It was reaffirming, it was real, and it provided me with strength.”

The class was an illustration of great leadership, says Frei. “Boz made everyone in our classroom better during the week, and did so in a way to last far into her absence. She built trust with us early on and we were able to go so much deeper as a result.”

Startup Bootcamp

Over at Startup Bootcamp, which in 2017 pioneered the concept of short January courses (SIPs), organizers Allison Mnookin, Martin Sinozich, and Christina Wallace expanded the one-week course to two, and restructured the focus to address the unique challenges and opportunities of this moment in time.

Limited to first-year MBAs, the class immerses entrepreneurially-minded students in the startup world, building critical skills via experiential learning. The course is designed for all levels of interest—founders in the early stages, joiners seeking practice in the field, or those debating if the entrepreneurial path is right for them. Teams of three to four students are matched after acceptance into the program, and progress through 15 days of workshops, interactive lectures, mentoring office hours, fireside chats with successful entrepreneurs, and one-on-one coaching. Bootcamp culminates in final presentations that are evaluated, critiqued, and advised by a team of experienced investors, entrepreneurs, and/or operators. In past years, many winners of the annual Rock Center New Venture Competition were Bootcamp participants.

Relationship-building became a focus of the re-imagined virtual experience, both within the participants and the curriculum. Virtual socializing events were scheduled throughout the course to build community, and programming explored how to create and grow cohesive teams with a tribe of supporters and advisers. “We saw this as a moment to focus on the human side of learning and connecting in a remote world,” said Wallace. “How do you build a startup when you’re all in different locations? How do you develop the depth of communication and trust that get you through the challenges of building a company? We aimed to arm participants with the tools to build startups in a world where remote, distributed, asynchronous teaming will be commonplace, if not the default going forward.”

It was also an opportunity to dig into the international entrepreneur environment. Without locational and travel challenges, the team could expand their global network and offer exposure to a real diversity of learning and entrepreneurial playbooks. The roster of 103 guests was the most diverse yet: 47% women and 45% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), including EverlyWell founder Julia Cheek (MBA 2011), therapist and author Esther Perel, author Eric Reis, Tristan Walker of Walker & Co Brands, and Nina Vaca of Pinnacle Group.

In a session focused on the co-founder relationship, Perel dove into the similarities between marriages and co-founder partnerships, using therapy sessions from her How’s Work? podcast to discuss their unique challenges and virtues. “The quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life,” she said. “Sixty-five percent of startups fail due to conflict between partners. That is a lot of relationship mayhem, but it is also a waste of very good ideas that may never see the light of day.”

Partnerships, she says, are even more complicated than marriages. The pressures from courting investors, managing employees, speaking to the public, and meeting the bottom line create strains in even the best teams. Building what she calls a “relational dowry” that can be drawn upon during those difficult moments, requires intention, commitment, and time.

It’s essential to enter into business relationships carefully, she says, and to ask “portal questions” of potential partners. Rather than discussing concrete skills such as marketing or sales experience, aim to gain insight into one’s influences, family history, and internalized messages: When you're overwhelmed, do you seek support or are you more likely to hide for fear of being seen as a burden? Were you raised for autonomy—self-reliance and independence—or loyalty—interdependence and being part of a network of connections and relationships? “These questions are crucial when you are choosing partners, working out issues with partners, or letting go of partners,” said Perel.

In an evening fireside chat, Cheek echoed many of those sentiments while discussing her decision to not seek a co-founder, how she looks for complementary skills in her leadership team, and why she sees her career coach as crucial to her success. Cheek also discussed the challenges of having a baby while the company was growing at hyperscale, the changing face and escalating real estate costs of her hometown and company hub of Austin, Texas, and how developing the first FDA-approved at-home COVID-19 test was not a pivot but a natural extension of EverlyWell’s values and business plan.

On the final day of Bootcamp, all teams had 30 minutes to present their work and obtain feedback from three coaches. Each team specified areas for which they wanted advice—such as their understanding of the customer problem, their experimentations validating key business assumptions, whether they had accurately communicated the financial opportunity, or viable next steps. While not a true venture pitch given the startups’ nascent stage, it was an opportunity to practice and get feedback from seasoned entrepreneurs and practitioners. We sat in on three sessions: Hue Beauty (Nicole Clay, Sylvan Guo, and Janvi Shah), which aims to improve the at-home makeup shopping experience with skin tone-matching technology and samples; CareTech (Vivek Agrawal, Felicia Hanitio, and Mili Sanwalka), a personalized learning platform for domestic care workers; and Space Factory (Conan Cooper, Cyrus Hessabi, Malory McLemore, and Aaron Yang), software infrastructure supporting next-gen aerospace and defense projects.

“Bootcamp truly supercharged our startup's development,” said the Hue Beauty team. “We went from an idea to a prototype with real paying customers in a matter of weeks. The final pitch presentation gave us invaluable insight from experienced VCs who helped us think through the biggest risks in our business plan that we need to further investigate. We left Bootcamp with incredible momentum and intend to continue to build this startup through the semester and summer.”

Business of Space

While 2020 is a year for the record books for a host of troubling reasons, it is also one in which a private company launched people into space in their own rocket. Space, says Professor Matt Weinzierl, is one of the most important industries for the future of humanity. In the Business of Space, which he taught in a hybrid classroom, Weinzierl aimed to energize students with the many exciting opportunities and innovations in the sector, and to engage them in critical questions about regulation and organization.

“We now have companies with the capability, and the desire, to put people in space. That's really the inflection point for having the roots of a space for space economy,” said Weinzierl. “We're still probably a long way away, but we're at an incredibly important point. There is real demand for students to be a part of the sector, incredible opportunities, and a lot of pure intellectual excitement about this subject.”

A SIP allowed for the same experimentation and breadth of experience and perspective among students that are essential to the field itself, said Weinzierl. The class consisted of students who had worked in the space industry, who planned to work in the industry, and those who were simply curious. The last 20 years of space innovation have been driven by that same combination. “There are people from the inside who have really important experience and technical expertise, and then there are outsiders who come in with a completely different perspective. And that's what's created the magic in the sector. A tremendous amount of innovation comes from that mix; you want the same thing in the classroom,” said Weinzierl.

Topics over the four days covered the basics of how the space sector works, how private and public sector roles have changed over time and how they might evolve, and why there’s so much excitement, talent, and capital flowing into space. Course materials included Weinzierl’s cases on SpaceX and Blue Origin, with guest speakers from those companies and other industry leaders and investors, as well as recommended movies such as Gravity, The Martian, and Apollo 13.

Omar Aboulezz (MBA 2021) is firmly in the experienced and committed student group. As a child he dreamed of being an astronaut; as an adult he dreams of taking his decade in the mining industry straight to the moon—a concept that was the lynchpin of his HBS application essay. But because many space industry jobs are defense related and thereby closed to foreign nationals, Aboulezz, as a Canadian, had just about given up on his dream. The SIP, he says, revived his passion, and he is now considering immigrating to the US. “Learning about the co-innovation challenges of the industry—the idea that there are many complementary technologies that must be developed in parallel to create economic value—has helped me rethink the specifics of what kind of space venture I would like to be a part of one day,” says Aboulezz. “HBS teaches us to be leaders who will make a difference in the world. My mission is to be a part of the work that makes a difference in several worlds.”

Aboulezz’s roadblock as a foreign national is emblematic of the field’s challenges in diversity, says Weinzierl. While there are notable women and people of color in the industry, diversity is an issue that the sector is trying to address. “It’s why it's so great to bring in people from outside the sector, and is one of the reasons why I think it's so important to have a course like this at HBS,” says Weinzierl. “Let's get our diverse student body interested in the space sector so that we can make more progress.”

Climate Finance

The new Climate Finance SIP was the result of a collaboration between students, faculty, and the Business and Environment Initiative (BEI). As part of a student sustainability associate project last spring, Rob Self (MBA 2021) and Lauren Buchanan (MBA 2021) found a high level of student interest in a short class on climate finance—an area they had identified as a gap in curricular offerings. They brought their findings to the BEI, and Associate Director Lynn Schenk spearheaded discussions with Professors George Serafeim and Vikram Gandhi.

Bringing climate change into the curriculum was already a topic of discussion between Gandhi and Serafeim; the new data spurred their conviction that a SIP would be an ideal vehicle for experimentation. “Climate is a collective action problem,” said Gandhi. “It's no one's immediate problem, but everyone's problem. We saw that there was a little bit here and there in the MBA curriculum, but nothing comprehensive.” An experimental class could bring together aspects from across the curriculum with concepts from each of their Elective Curriculum (EC) classes; Gandhi’s investor lens from Investing Risk, Return, and Impact, and Serafeim’s business impact lens from Reimagining Capitalism.

Schenk worked with Gandhi and Serafeim to develop a syllabus and the speaker lineup came together through connections from students, the BEI, and faculty. “It was a really quick, organic, and seamless process of students bringing their efforts to BEI, the BEI acting as a hub to connect it to the faculty, and all of us turning it into a SIP,” said Schenk. “It's a perfect example of how the Initiatives can bridge faculty and student interests and projects.”

With the goals of both raising overall climate awareness and inspiring innovative solutions via finance, technology, and regulation, each of the four days focused on a separate strategy: public market opportunities and risks, large scale investments through pension funds, measuring and integrating physical risks into investments, and scaling early stage technology solutions. Guest speakers included senior investment professionals from assets managers, pension funds, hedge funds, private equity, and venture capital firms.

For Buchanan, the SIP was an exciting and gratifying progression of interest in and action around sustainability that she has seen grow over her time in the MBA program. “There was a lot of demand for this class, and it was great to help it all come together and to see the enthusiasm from students and professors,” she said. “Sustainability and climate touches so many different business verticals, whether it's operations or finance or strategy, so a SIP is a great way to bring together students interested in many different subjects. Hopefully it will be increasingly more important going forward.”

“As students go into the investing or operating world, it’s critical to keep the impact on climate in mind,” said Gandhi. “We wanted to achieve that overall awareness. No one is going to remember every single case they read, but a few concepts will stay in your brain and affect what you do in life. We hope climate will be one of them.”

This article was originally posted on the HBS Newsroom website.