Duke University MBA student Liz Spence in Durham, North Carolina, October 6, 2015. (Photo by Sara D. Davis)
Duke University MBA student Liz Spence in Durham, North Carolina, © FT

For MBA student Liz Spence, business school was about a lot more than making piles of money. As former project director at the Nature Conservancy in California, where one of her tasks was to work with fruit and vegetable producers to manage water usage, it was also about the environmental trials of farming.

“The writing was on the wall in 2012 and 2013. The intersection of water and agriculture was a tough, important challenge,” she says. “I knew that the business side was what I needed.”

She opted to study on the three-year Master of Environmental Management/MBA programme at Duke University in North Carolina, and in her first year co-founded the Fuqua Food Forum with a fellow dual-degree student.

Complex sector with challenges to solve

“Part of the starting point for the Food Forum was [that food production] is such a complex industry to navigate, from retailer to food producer, to farmer, to seed producer, ” she says, and each presents a different set of issues. “It struck us there was no formal way to dig into these challenges.” As well as keeping students up-to-date with the industry, the founders wanted to increase job opportunities for Duke students.

With the world population projected to increase by more than 1bn within 15 years, it is unsurprising that two years ago, veteran US investor Jim Collins exhorted young people to pursue careers in farming rather than finance. Ms Spence is not the only one to have taken heed. From land management to consumer choice in supermarkets, the food business is proving increasingly attractive to MBA and other masters level students.

Food careers gain more attention

“Interest in agribusiness has been cyclic for as long as I can remember but it is certainly on an upswing now,” says David Bell, a professor of agriculture and business at Harvard Business School. “I have never known a period in which there is so much interest in food. Interest in diet and cooking has been growing for years but now there is an interest in understanding where food comes from.”

For some students, it is a moral issue as well as a commercial one, Prof Bell says. “Generally speaking I think there is a strong trend among a non-trivial subset of students to be doing something ‘real’. Feeding the world, or at least feeding the world more nutritiously, is seen as a noble pursuit.”

It is a tale retold at Chicago Booth, where students set up a student group in 2011 called Fead: Food, Environment, Agribusiness and Development. The group now boasts about 150 members, more than 10 per cent of the full-time student population, says Julie Morton, associate dean. As at Harvard, more and more entrepreneurial MBAs are setting up food-related businesses.

1bnProjected increase in world’s population in 15 years

Although business schools report that interest in food careers are on the up, evidence is largely anecdotal. Insead, for example, works with recruiters from companies such as Cargill, one of the world’s biggest agricultural trading houses, and awards scholarships from Syngenta, the agrochemicals company. Few schools have hard data on how many students go into the food industry or agribusiness — a term coined by Harvard professor Ray Goldberg.

While there have long been management programmes in France, Australia and California related to the wine industry, business schools are increasingly launching research and teaching programmes in the food sector.

Last year SDA Bocconi in Milan created a Food and Beverage Knowledge Centre, headed up by Massimiliano Bruni, who started Bocconi’s Master of Management in Food and Beverage seven years ago. The centre’s research topics include the impact of ageing populations on consumer spending, and the impact of migration, as food cultures merge. “It is about the evolution of the food experience,” says Prof Bruni. “It’s about devoting time to create a better customer relationship.”

Focus on farmers and the environment

In Canada, York University’s Schulich school in Toronto runs executive short courses on the food industry and plans to launch modules on the MBA in 2016, says its dean Dezsö Horváth. Teaching in the area is limited because of the shortage of experienced professors, he adds. “We can deal with the more downstream organisations and help them increase production. What is more difficult is the upstream, the farmers,” he says. “I really want to corner the upstream — that is where the huge advantage will happen. ”

The business school at neighbouring University of Alberta has solved this problem by launching a MBA/MAg degree jointly with the university’s agricultural college. The biggest recent trend has been around students interested in environmental conservation, says Chris Lynch, senior director for recruitment and admissions.

In the US, this dual-degree strategy is also followed at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, while Purdue University’s Centre for Food and Agriculture Business has teamed up with the Kelley school of Business at the University of Indiana, to teach an MS-MBA in Food and Agribusiness Management.

A similar cross-school alliance between Audencia in France and Brazil’s ESPM (Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing), has resulted in the jointly-taught MSc in Food and Agribusiness Management, launched last year.

In the UK, the University of Reading combines expertise from its agriculture school with that from Henley Business School. Victoria Edwards, director of rural programmes at Henley, is in charge of the MSc in Rural Land and Business Management and believes part of today’s appeal is that farms and estates have become more of a business enterprise than a decade ago. This includes the use of renewable energy, flood alleviation and even tourism. “It’s the complexity that makes it more interesting,” she says.

Emphasis on business

Meanwhile, the Royal Agricultural University in the UK is moving from agricultural training into business and management, with two specialised MBAs and a whole raft of other degrees.

Stephen Thomas, head of the School of Business and Entrepreneurship,says demand is booming. The RAU is working on a series of partnerships with universities globally and already co-teaches degrees with the applied economics department at Utah State University in the US and Shandong Agricultural University in China. “Food safety and traceability in China is the coming issue,” says Prof Thomas.

As for Ms Spence, she has run the whole gamut of the food and drink business. Her two internships have involved working for Walmart in the food division and working for an investment fund focused on farm assets. Having started her career investigating production processes in California’s fields of citrus fruits and grapevines, she is now looking at a career in agriculture investment. “Institutional investors are flooding into the area.”

How perceptions influence the food we choose to buy

These days consumer behaviour is the topic that rocks, and behavioural economists are the stars of business schools the world over. Many of them are focused on the food industry.

Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor at Duke University, is an expert on non-conscious influences on consumer behaviour and has been working with Chartwells, suppliers of school meals in the US, to promote healthy eating. They came up with the idea of a “fruit and veggie challenge”, in which students got a sticker for every extra piece of fruit or vegetable they ate. The classes competed to collect the most stickers, turning what is often seen as a chore into a rewarding act.

“It’s a really important domain and more and more of our MBA students are gravitating that way,” he says.

In Europe Carolina Werle, associate professor of marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management, also researches how external cues can influence food consumption. “My research shows that people will think that local food products [are] more tasty, more [healthy], and of higher quality than the same food product with a national label,” she says. “The mechanism explaining this is that participants can more concretely imagine [its] production [and] cultivation process .”

And in Singapore, the Institute of Asian Consumer Insight at Nanyang Business School has been researching how consumers relate to energy drinks. “The way they treat [these] drinks is not functional at all,” says Lewis Lim, deputy director. “Many do it [just] to give an impression of an active lifestyle . . . It is seen as cool.”

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