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ELITE Program Trains Today’s MIE Students to Become Tomorrow’s Corporate Leaders

“According to a new study of 36 million Facebook profiles, 3,337 company founders and CEOs across all industries hold an advanced degree in engineering, while 1,016 have advanced business degrees.” This news was reported in an article entitled “Move over MBAs: Here Come the Engineers” in the January 31 edition of the Wall Street Journal. That’s the kind of reality that motivated the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department to add a powerful leadership component to its curriculum, the brand new Engineering Leadership, Innovation, Teaching, and Entrepreneurship (ELITE) Program. The ELITE Program will equip some of the department’s best and brightest students with the leadership, entrepreneurial, and communications skills to expand the pool of engineers who become CEOs, founding officers, supervisors, directors, managers, and teachers.

“We look at the ELITE Program as the first step along that swelling pipeline of leaders,” says MIE Department Head Don Fisher. As the Journal article concluded, "The demand for engineers is voracious."

The ELITE Program was Professor Fisher’s brainchild, originally inspired by the 2011 Tang lecturer, Dr. Edwin L. Thomas ’69 ME, The William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineeringat Rice University. His Tang lecture dealt with enhancing the leadership skills in engineering students.

Inspired or not, the ELITE Program owes its very existence to alumnus Bob Hagerty, who graduated from the department in 1974 with a B.S. in what was then called Industrial Engineering and Operations Research and rose to become the Chief Executive Officer for iControl Networks. His challenge grant of $12,500 allowed the MIE department to choose the first six students for the ELITE Program this semester: Alexander Chan, Anthony Bernasconi, Carlo Domaoan, Chris Martin, Frank May, and Natalie Zucker.

The new program, only weeks old, is already making waves. “Through your support of this program,” said Chan in a letter to Mr. Hagerty, “the discussions and lessons with our department leaders have already made a meaningful impact on me and my future goals.”

Hagerty is the perfect role model for these six future leaders, whom he is helping to educate with his gift. Prior to iControl, he was the Chief Executive Officer for Polycom, where he delivered 50 sequential quarters of non-gap profit and 49 sequential quarters of positive operating cash flow. Bob grew the business from a speakerphone company to a market-maker in the communications industry with a broad range of collaboration tools, including telepresence, VoIP, video, and voice solutions. He increased revenue from $37 million to $1.1 billion through organic growth and 11 key acquisitions—including Voyant Technologies, ViaVideo, Accord Networks, PictureTel, MeetU, ASPI, and Circa-Communications— to build the largest collaborative communications company in the industry.

Now Hagerty is passing on his own dynamic leadership legacy to the students in his alma mater through his challenge grant. With his support, the MIE department has put together the ELITE practicum, taught by MIE Professors Fisher (engineering leadership), Bob Hyers (entrepreneurship), and James Rinderle (teaching pedagogy). Its purpose is to endow our future leaders with entrepreneurial spirit, excellent communications skills, and exposure to innovation. In addition, each ELITE student gets a $1,000 stipend, courtesy of the Hagerty gift.

“In my time at UMass and Virginia Tech, where I spent freshman year,” said Martin, “I have never had the opportunity to be in a classroom environment as interesting and inspiring as this one is.”

That inspiring classroom environment includes 10-14 classes, alumni speakers, the chance to serve as teaching assistants, and lessons in teaching methodologies. The program will also provide ELITE undergraduates with entrepreneurship opportunities and personal mentoring by faculty and alumni.  

“Since becoming interested in engineering, I have always wanted to start up a company in my future, using the engineering design skills and innovation to start something new and exciting,” said Bernasconi. “With the help of this practicum, with seminars and speeches from alumni and Professor Hyers, I feel that this will help me toward my goal in life.”

Those first six ELITE candidates were chosen from a body of idealistic, unselfish, and ambitious students who had previously volunteered as teaching assistants to help address a real need in the department in return for academic credits. Now, future student teaching assistants in the MIE department will have an added incentive to volunteer, for it will also qualify them for possible inclusion in the ELITE Program and a $1,000 stipend.

“There were numerous professors looking for student teaching assistants,” recalled May in a thank-you letter to Mr. Hagerty, “but there were not many incentives for students to take up these requests. I am very glad that you saw this as an opportunity to not only fund incentives for undergraduate teaching assistants, but also advance student learning into leadership topics.”

In addition to a wealth of teaching experience, the ELITE corps will attend seminars from industry representatives and leaders, take field trips to corporations, and participate in entrepreneurial activities such as the UMass Innovation Challenge business plan competition and the Entrepreneurship Club.

The ELITE practicum is based not only on practical skills but on ideals, ethics, and values, characteristics that have been sorely lacking in some corporate leaders who have made unfortunate decisions and bad news in recent years.

“Part of leadership is establishing in an organization a value-driven philosophy that’s transparent from top to bottom and helps people grow as individuals and people,” says Fisher. “Leadership can also be creating an environment where people can grow and care professionally and personally.”

Such a “value-driven philosophy” is already shining through the brand new ELITE program. As Zucker explained, “I would generally like helping improve the quality of life, because I believe that is truly rewarding.”

What will the ELITE Program ultimately do? Like the rest of the MIE curriculum, it seeks to support our students with the best experiences possible with one end result in mind: to create new knowledge and to serve as a leading economic engine, sending forth capable leaders and entrepreneurial contributors. (February 2012)