Higher Learning

Where The Schools Are

Harvard's executive education program is generally considered the best in the country. Even the number-two-ranked Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia admits that. Why? Not only does it boast the greatest number of programs, but Boston-based Harvard also has the most intensive executive education program designed for small-business owners.

Enrollment in Harvard's 21-year-old Owner/President Management Program (OPM) is limited to major equity owners and general managers or CEOs with a minimum of 10 years' business experience. It's the only program that limits attendance by that criteria, according to Professor Norman Berg, faculty chairman of the OPM program. "That's an important distinction," says Berg. "It establishes a key commonality among the participants."

Another factor making the OPM program like no other is its length and time span. The nine-week course is split into three three-week segments, each separated by a full year. The reasons for spreading the program over three years are many. "The primary reason," says Berg, "is there's no way you could get entrepreneurs to come to a single nine-week program. Virtually none of these people could be gone--or would want to be gone [from their businesses]--for nine weeks at a time."

The time between three-week sessions also gives entrepreneurs a chance to test the techniques they learn in the course and come back to class the following year with new perspectives on the information they learned the last time. Last but no least, "you don't get as tired at the end of three weeks as you would at the end of nine weeks," says Berg. "We can maintain a much [more intense] pace for three weeks than we could for nine."

Each session covers five main topics--finance, general management, marketing, human aspects of business and management control--in increasing depth. For instance, in the first finance session, students learn the nuts and bolts, unit two covers the subject in greater depth, and unit three is oriented toward public offerings or passing the business on to the next generation. In addition, the program covers topics such as negotiation, the Internet, and business and government in the international economy.

Perhaps the most useful part of the program, however, is the networking that takes place and the friendships forged between participants. "The friendships seem to be reinforced between sessions," says Berg. "It's almost like a homecoming when students return for units two and three." It's a supportive environment, and the bonds formed in the OPM program last a lifetime, he says. Students reside on campus for the three weeks, participating in extracurricular activities during off hours, which helps make the program an intimate intellectual and psychological experience.

By the time Jacqueline Leventhal attended her first OPM session in 1993, she already had some 20 years of entrepreneurial experience as owner of an Emeryville, California, rubber stamp design and manufacturing company, Hero Arts Rubber Stamps Inc. But all those years of hands-on practice hadn't made her the best business owner she could be.

A former photographer, high school teacher and self-described "creative type," Leventhal felt confident in her capabilities as an inventor before attending OPM, but after the first session, she realized there was a lot more to running a rubber stamp business than brainstorming and drawing pictures. Since finishing the program, Leventhal has overhauled her accounting department, developed an inventory system and upgraded the company's computers. The Harvard program "gave a lot more dimension to how I see my business," she says. "Now it's like [being] in a helicopter above the business rather than being down inside it." Today, Leventhal's company is among the top three rubber stamp makers in the United States.

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This article was originally published in the August 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Higher Learning.

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