Stories of Engagement

Justin Chi, '17

In the business of community: The Portland MBA celebrates 50 years

Value proposition: Leader in community-embedded experiential learning

Justin Chi was primed for a pivot.


After over two years working as a professional services consultant at Daimler Trucks North America, the young environmental engineer craved a more people-focused role.


“I wanted to pivot into something I was passionate about that also used my engineering brain,” said Chi. “I liked engineering, but it wasn’t my true calling.”


To make the move happen, he’d need to hone his business acumen and analytics skills, plus broaden his professional network. Colleagues and friends talked up PSU’s MBA program, so he did his research and decided to apply.


The Portland MBA has attracted strivers like Chi since its inception in 1968, offering a platform for launching meaningful careers that emphasize the time-tested fundamentals of a rigorous business education, said PSU School of Business Dean Cliff Allen — things like accounting, strategy and finance.


But as Portland blossoms into the backyard for big players like Daimler, Intel, Nike and adidas, and as digitization reshapes global business relationships, emerging leaders must master an additional set of business essentials — things like analytics, innovation and sustainability.


“When you think about it, in our 21-month MBA program, we’re training people today to be effective three or four years from now as executives,” said Allen. “And that means we have to be constantly current.”


PSU was ranked the ninth most innovative school in the country by U.S. News & World Reports in 2017, and in a fast-changing era, you have to stay ahead of the curve by maintaining strong community and business relationships, says Tichelle Sorensen, MBA program director.


“We’re constantly enhancing our curriculum to make sure it’s leading edge, and we’re always thinking about what’s next,” she said.


Today’s Portland MBA students can choose from seven certificates: Athletic & Outdoor Industry, Business Analytics, Finance (specialization), Global Supply Chain Management, HR Analytics, Social Innovation and Taxation. Starting in Fall 2019, students will have an eighth option: Business Blockchain.


Chi earned both Business Analytics and Athletic & Outdoor Industry certificates while studying at PSU, and he describes his MBA experience as profoundly “eye-opening.” Chi pushed past his comfort zone, seeking connections in non-engineering-related fields and exploring ways to put that big engineering brain to work in the service of more people-centric challenges.


These competencies proved a powerful differentiator: Chi ultimately landed an internship at adidas, which paved the way to a permanent post-graduation job as an adidas talent partnering manager — exactly the front-facing career pivot he’d hoped for.


“I felt really well equipped to speak to HR with a business lens,” said Chi. “It changed my perspective of the business world and gave me an immeasurable amount of tools and an added network in the HR world.”


Being downtown opens a constant dialogue between the business world and The Portland MBA, said Associate Dean of Graduate Programs Melissa Appleyard. PSU MBAs are community-minded, pushing forward thinking on regional challenges, from housing instability to sustainable growth. 


“Our students create so much value through their capstone experiences and project-based work,” said Appleyard. “Our organizational partners can interact very closely with students, who benefit immensely from that connection, and it’s a harmonic circle, because the capstone is a great way to see who you want to hire.”


“It’s a continual exchange of partnerships through the capstone projects, internships and our new PSU CO-OP program — you name it,” Deal Allen agrees. “We’re so interwoven with the community.”


And on the evening of The Portland MBA’s 50th anniversary celebration on October 12, 2018, students, alumni and business professionals had a shiny new space in which to conduct those exchanges: the newly constructed Karl Miller Center, a sprawling, six-floor, LEED Platinum building.


The center boasts 22 classrooms and 11 student meeting rooms in a stacked box design, its open plan emphasizes group spaces and easily accessible technology, and it even has a green roof.


The Karl Miller Center cements PSU’s status as a testbed for sustainable innovation. The building is also a gathering place for Portland’s business community, notes Sorensen, and its flowing layout reflects that welcoming vibe.


“It is not intended to be insular,” she said. “It’s intended to invite people in.”


The same can be said for The Portland MBA at large. As each graduated class deepens and diversifies Portland’s hiring pool and MBA alumni rise in ranks around the region, that harmonic circle keeps widening.


There’s definitely a “warm feeling of camaraderie” when two Portland MBAs meet, said Chi — he himself has helped to hire several PSU alumni at adidas, and two classmates even ended up in his wedding party.


“That’s what PSU is all about,” he said. “Being connected to the community. It really resonates with what we’re being taught and transformed into: advocates for the community, and for greater-Portland-area businesses as well."

L-R, Alexandra Strnad and Jessica Gallagher

PSU undergraduate capstone harnesses the power of community and collaboration

Value proposition: Leader in community-embedded experiential learning

Since 2011, The School of Business has fostered nearly 600 relationships between local businesses and students through an immersive undergraduate capstone class. PSU is one of the few schools in the nation to offer an undergraduate business consulting capstone program that works with real-world clients.


“We train the next generation of business leaders while providing valuable business consulting services to clients who often are unable to afford them,” said the director of the capstone program, Bill Jones.


Capstone clients are diverse, ranging from corporate and nonprofit, one employee to 100,000, and startup to well-established organizations.


All undergraduate business students are required to participate in the final 10-week capstone class, giving them the opportunity to learn important business skills while serving local organizations. PSU holds Carnegie Community Engagement Classification, in part because of the business capstone program. The evidence-based classification recognizes the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.


Collaboration is at the heart of all capstone projects, and student teams are created to represent an array of business disciplines based on the client’s needs. In spring 2019, a team worked with Dirkse Consulting & Counseling — a small family-owned and operated local disability education and training business — to identify and establish the market need, appropriate pricing for training programs, competition assessment, financial plan and recommendations for marketing tactics.


“Our team came together with so many viewpoints from different areas to find creative solutions and strategies for our client, and the project gave us valuable experience working with diverse teams,” said capstone student Andrea Strnad.


Dirkse Consulting & Counseling owner and CEO, Heidi Dirkse, felt inspired and motivated by the new energy and knowledge the students brought to the table.


“The students helped grow and improve Dirkse Consulting & Counseling by helping us identify how to best expand our disability diversity training services,” said Dirkse. “The capstone project created a forum for a meeting of the minds as we worked collaboratively with the students to generate new ideas that we would not have come up with on our own.”

MRED Students at RECon

Centers of Excellence rooted in industry engagement

Value proposition: Leader in community-embedded experiential learning

Retail disruption is a predominant theme bridging the Center for Retail Leadership (CRL) and Center for Real Estate (CRE). This year over a dozen business students had the opportunity to attend global retail conferences where they learned about the rapidly evolving industry and networked with an expansive web of firms and professionals.


Six Master of Real Estate Development students attended RECon, the world’s largest gathering of retail real estate professionals. Hosted in Las Vegas by ICSC (International Council of Shopping Centers), the students had a first-hand look at how current retail trends affect real estate demand and value. They also received an annual membership to ICSC.


“Our goal is to expose students to a wide variety of opportunities,” said CRE Executive Director Julie Gibson. “RECon is just one way students engage with real estate leaders outside of the classroom. Site tours, mentorships and job shadows also cultivate a network of employers, which is vital for those seeking full time work upon graduation.”


The CRL, which manages the Athletic & Outdoor Industry Certificate and the Food, Beverage and Consumer Goods Certificate, sent student delegations to Outdoor Retailer in Denver and Private Label Manufacturers Association Trade Show in Chicago. Each event gave students a chance to interact with big brands that are pushing boundaries.  


“We’re rewriting the story of retail,” said CRL Executive Director Jennifer Nolfi, who’s positioned the CRL as a proving ground. It’s a place that unites students, faculty and industry behind a singular vision: that retail is the place where ideas come to life; a moment of truth for innovation, where concepts meet customers and needs meet solutions.


“We’re combating the notion that retail is dying,” Nolfi added. “It’s different and it’s thriving. And because of our deep industry engagement, our students have a competitive edge.”


The CRL boasts a 100% job placement rate for students who have attended trade shows.


These immersive experiences are made possible by the Centers’ industry partners. Flights, lodging, registration and meals are funded by companies and associations who are committed to developing future generations. The payoff? A talent pipeline with candidates who are on the forefront of their field.


New PSU CO-OP allows students to earn while they learn

Value proposition: Leader in community-embedded experiential learning

PSU students are working in paid jobs related to their major through PSU CO-OP, a new cooperative education program that combines classroom education with career experiences at Portland-area businesses.


Since PSU CO-OP began in winter 2019, 13 undergraduate students have been matched to positions in 11 area businesses. As the program grows in coming years, PSU leaders hope hundreds of students will sign up for cooperative education, a form of hands-on learning that already flourishes at other universities. 


“Traditionally, cooperative education programs have placements in technical and engineering fields, and PSU CO-OP will have those opportunities for all of our students," said Cliff Allen, dean of The School of Business and chair of the PSU CO-OP task force. "But our program goes much broader, offering positions in disciplines like the arts, communications and business."


Marketing student Diane Hoang saw PSU CO-OP as an opportunity to gain work experience through a structured program and build her network. After participating in PSU CO-OP’s orientation, Hoang applied for three positions and was ultimately hired by PGE’s product marketing team.


“Business is all about people and negotiation,” she said. “Observing my coworkers at PGE taught me how to communicate in the workplace. I was an integral part of meetings and was able to bring a more diverse dialogue to the table. My opinions were valued.”

PGE Product Marketing Manager Anne Snyder Grassmann supervised Hoang and said she’s a critical thinker who offered great feedback and additions to discussions.


“She was eager to be involved, have a role and be in service to the team,” Snyder Grassmann said.


Hoang worked part time at PGE for six months while maintaining a full course load. 


“It wasn’t easy and time management was important,” she said. “I sacrificed events and time with friends to fulfill a demanding schedule, but I would do it all again if I could. It made my learning complete and I’ll be more marketable when I graduate.”


PSU CO-OP experiences can be full or part time and can last six months to a year, or longer. Employers who are interested in participating and gaining premier access to PSU’s highly diverse, qualified talent pool can learn more at