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Jim Washam: Today’s Business Students Are Tomorrow’s Community Leaders

6 min read

Jim Washam  became dean of the College of Business at Arkansas State on July 1 after a time as interim dean. He joined the university as an instructor of finance in 1988, became an assistant professor in 1992, and was promoted to associate professor of finance in 2000. He holds the McAdams Frierson Professorship of Bank Management.

Washam received his bachelor’s degree in finance from A-State in 1986 and his MBA the following year, also from A-State. He earned his Ph.D. in finance from the University of Mississippi in 1993.

Washam has developed customized programs for Scotiabank, Procter & Gamble, Fidelity National Information Services, Verizon, eBay and the United Nations.

What are today’s business students most interested in learning? 

Although preferences differ from student to student, current students are most interested in areas where they see direct applications. Business students enjoy the opportunity to learn while solving problems through cases and projects. Learning by applying what they have learned in the foundation classes to solve problems allows them to be more engaged in the process and think across disciplines.

Students need to recognize that a major business project involves and impacts several areas. For example, students may initially think of a new product launch as a marketing problem. But that product launch will involve analytics, supply chain and financial planning and analysis, along with other areas of the business.

Although business leaders are not required to be an expert in every area, they do need to understand the relationships and be able to gather the right information from other parts of the business. I think this is one reason that the entrepreneurship and small-business management classes are popular and important. Those classes provide students with an overview of the entire business in an active learning environment.

We are also seeing growing interest in business analytics as businesses need to gather and analyze data to evaluate performance, make investment decisions, improve forecasting and identify potential issues and opportunities.  Experiential learning through class projects and internships has always been important, but the importance of this area is growing as future business leaders will continually face new challenges. 

Surveys show business leaders are often more trusted by Americans on issues of social concern than government officials. How must we prepare the next generation of business leaders to deal with these social responsibilities? 

I think about this issue from a couple of different angles. One is that we need to make sure that students understand early that business leaders typically become community leaders as well. They will be expected to lend their analytical and management skills that they use in running a business to help solve problems faced by their communities. This year, our students will begin developing relationships with the business community during their first semester. As they get to know members of the business community, they will better understand the level of community leadership that is provided by business leaders.

The other way to begin to address this issue with students is to look at the purpose of business. I have been reading some of Colin Mayer’s work lately and you will see him quoted frequently on the topic. The fundamental point from Mayer’s work that has stood out to me is that the purpose of business is to find profitable solutions to problems faced by people. I really like that philosophy. Businesses exist to provide solutions.

When I think about the profitability part of the statement, I link it to feasibility. A business will not be able to develop and provide a new product to the market unless it can pay suppliers, employees, creditors, investors, etc. You can also apply the same idea to not-for-profit organizations. Those organizations won’t be able to provide long-term solutions unless they have funding to pay suppliers and others. The sources of funds may be different, but the feasibility issue is still there.

In the Neil Griffin College of Business, we are being intentional about introducing social issues to students during the first semester. For a few years, our first-semester students read “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond, and we linked topics in their classes to issues related to affordable housing and had guest speakers come in from organizations including Habitat for Humanity.This year, our first-year reader will be “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash” by Edward Humes, and discussions will focus on sustainability and developing solutions to our growing issues with waste management.

From the very beginning, we want our students to understand that they are gaining knowledge and skills with the ultimate goal of solving problems, whether that problem is providing a new product that will make our lives easier, finding more affordable ways to deliver renewable energy, or addressing food insecurity in their local communities. Students also need to understand that maximizing the long-run value of a business is achieved by addressing the needs of all the stakeholders including investors, creditors, suppliers, employees and the community.

What can business colleges do to raise up more Black and minority, as well as women, business leaders, owners and entrepreneurs? 

Raising up more minority business leaders, owners and entrepreneurs is essential for our communities. Increasing opportunity and diversity means that businesses will provide a broader range of solutions and products to meet specific needs. Businesses exist to solve problems, and we are best at identifying problems that come from our own experiences.

If you watch an episode of “Shark Tank,” you will notice that most of the entrepreneurs on the show came up with a new product as a solution to a problem that they faced or observed. That means you are probably best equipped to identify problems that you see frequently and develop solutions to those problems. And the solutions you develop will meet needs from your perspective. Many of my experiences will be different from someone from a different economic or cultural background. Their unique experiences will allow them to identify problems that I may not see, and they will most likely provide better solutions to those problems.

The role of business colleges includes making sure our students understand that diversity improves business performance, reaching out to women and minorities so they understand the unique role and responsibility they have in identifying and solving problems, and providing mentors. The Women’s Leadership Center (WLC) in the Griffin College is a great example of what can be done in this area. The WLC provides internship opportunities for approximately 60 students every year and provides them with professional development, community service opportunities and mentorship. The program began on the Jonesboro campus. It has been expanded to Mountain Home, and this year we will be looking for ways to expand the reach of the WLC to our online students and students on our Queretaro, Mexico, campus. 

What are today’s business students being taught about ethics? 

Ethics is integrated across the business curriculum and is essential for our students since they will be in trusted positions as future business and community leaders. Our students are taught models for ethical decision making, study crises that resulted from ethical failures, and discuss difficult questions in class. In our finance classes, for example, we look at the financial crisis of 2008 and discuss ethical issues around lending practices in the housing market leading up to the crisis.

Our students also engage in discussions surrounding daily business issues, such as the responsibility to watch for bias (intentional or unintentional) when building forecasts. We often think about ethics in the context of events like the financial crisis, fraudulent accounting and deceptive marketing that leads to the downfall of a company. Business students need to be aware of, and understand, the more subtle ethical issues that we face on a routine basis and the impact those can have on business and society. 

How has business education changed in the years since you entered the profession?

The first college class I taught was in 1988. To put this in perspective, the internet wasn’t a thing when I started. Business education has seen huge changes related to technology, the availability of information and globalization since that time. There is a foundational knowledge required for business students that has remained constant, but technology and the availability of information allow us to dive into applications and produce analytics that I couldn’t dream of when I started. The level of interconnectedness between economies around the world now means that business students need to keep up with international events and assess the impact on their businesses and communities.

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