ROHNERT PARK – As the third cohort of Sonoma State University’s executive MBA kicked off last week, faculty said that they are confident that the nearly 2-year-old program is advancing their goal of becoming a hub for North Bay professionals who are seeking to obtain the degree locally.

[caption id="attachment_40539" align="alignleft" width="154" caption="Robert Eyler"][/caption]

There have been a handful of adjustments to the course since it began in January 2010, and demand has grown. Program Director Robert Eyler said that, before the third group has even begun instruction, nearly half of the seats in the fourth cohort are already spoken for.

The first group from SSU’s executive MBA graduated in May, a cohort of 19 students. Twenty are enrolled in cohort two, and 24 signed up for the third offering.

It is the first executive MBA to be offered by a public university locally in the North Bay.

“As a percentage, it’s a significant boost,” said William Silver, dean of SSU’s School of Business and Economics. “Now that it’s had a couple of years, the word is starting to get out.”

The enrollment is still less than the university’s part-time MBA, which currently includes 59 students.

Yet that smaller size is part of the design, an approach popular in many executive MBA programs around the region and one that Mr. Silver said is unlikely to change. The program, and others like it, caters to professionals that are already established but are looking to add an MBA and the corresponding skills to their resume.

There have been some changes since the first run of the 18-month program, however.

Those include increased usage of a computer-based business simulation that links students to other business schools nationally. In the first cohort, the simulation was implemented toward the end of the program, but student feedback suggested that it have more prominence.

Another change is an updating of the approach to teaching leadership skills, based on recent thinking in the field.

But in the young program, quantifying change is difficult—each small class, or cohort, is adjusted for its students, varying greatly depending on those who attend.

“Everything we do is customized to the individual students,” said Shalyn Eyer, coordinator for executive and professional programs and co-creator of the executive MBA.

That customization includes a trip abroad to expose students to a spectrum of economies. Organizers will soon decide on destinations for cohort three, with Singapore and Malaysia currently under consideration. Cohort two returned this month from Argentina and Chile, while the original group visited Vietnam and China.

Mr. Eyler said that bringing students outside of their comfort zone was an important element of the trip, exposing the students to how professionals and entrepreneurs were running businesses in unfamiliar environments.

“In these countries, we met with officials who provided information about the business ecosystem,” said Clay Bilby, a graduate of the first year who is returning to teach the new group. “We also visited a number of companies in each country. The hosts from these local companies provided detailed information on all aspects of doing business, from local laws to trading internationally.”

Having worked the past five years on mergers and acquisitions for Agilent Technologies and with several management positions in his history, Mr. Bilby said he wanted to pursue an MBA to fill what he felt was a gap after his bachelor’s degree.

While comparing programs, one appealing aspect of SSU was the price, Mr. Bilby said. Current students pay $41,000, compared to more than $150,000 for the Berkeley-Columbia Executive MBA.

“It comes down to return on investment,” said Mr. Silver, the dean. “If you’re going to go be an investment banker on Wall Street and make $1 million a year, then those programs might make sense.”

Mr. Silver said he saw SSU’s program as a regional hub, one that focused more closely on North Bay economic issues. Other programs, he said, often have a more national and big-business focus.

“We have a set of regional economic challenges that we can prepare our students for,” he said.

In the SSU program, Mr. Bilby said that one of his most memorable experiences was an element that remains unchanged in cohort three: an early sailing trip to San Diego for what Ms. Eyer called “an intense four days.”

During the visit, the students learn to sail 30-foot boats, an experience that highlights the leadership skills that the program coordinator said are goal of the program.

“It’s all about utilizing the methodology of sailing—but how does that use your skills in leadership?” Ms. Eyer said.

Mr. Eyler said that the third cohort is a group with a strong background in the medical and nonprofit fields, representing the wide appeal of an executive MBA.

Enrollment for the fourth group will begin in November, with classes beginning in Oct. 2012. Those unsure about the course can also apply for an “EMBA for a day” spot by contacting Mr. Eyler at eyler@sonoma.edu.