Unlike “You’re fired!”—the two words that defined the reality television show “The Apprentice”—business students at Towson University have heard a much more welcoming refrain.
The contest at Towson is based on “The Apprentice,” which debuted in 2004 with a stern Donald Trump supervising 16 contestants who were vying to win the “ultimate job interview.” Week by week, one by one, Trump cut the contestants with a decisive, “You’re fired!” until only one remained to earn the prize of an apprenticeship with Trump himself.
Laleh Malek, then the director of professional experience and outreach at Towson, immediately saw potential.
“Every time I talk about the ‘Associate’ in an interview, my potential employer leans forward and says, ‘Tell me more about that.’”
– Reanna Dempsey ’05, Customer Experience Director, Les Mills East Coast
“In my classes I would use cases from Harvard Business Review and the students never found it interesting,” recalled Malek. “One day I asked them if they’d been watching ‘The Apprentice’ and they said yes. They got excited—they loved marketing—and the discussions went on and on. So I went to the dean of the college and pitched the idea.”
Towson’s “Associate” program was founded in the spring of 2005, and for 10 straight years has recruited senior business students to compete with their peers for the opportunity to win a job upon graduation.
In Towson’s version, a “Donald” is chosen from among the Maryland business community. High-profile executives such as Ken DeFontes Jr. of Baltimore Gas & Electric and Alan Wilson of McCormick and Company have played the “Donald” in past years—and companies like Target and Bank of America have issued weekly challenges for their real-world business dilemmas. The students work in teams to develop and present solutions to those challenges, and week by week are evaluated—and potentially eliminated—by a panel of judges.
All participants benefit from the networking, hands-on learning and interview experience they gain from the program, but it’s the last student standing who receives the ultimate prize: a guaranteed job offer from the “Donald.”
Ten years in, the ripple effects of the “Associate” are felt far and wide. Seventy students have participated in the program—with a resulting 10 winners and 19 job offers—and each of them admits to being changed by it.
“I tell people that I made two really smart decisions as a young person,” explained Amanda Knott ’05, a financial planner with Equity Planning Inc. “Number one: I went to Towson University. And number two: I participated in the ‘Associate’ competition. Nowhere else would I have had the ability to get a little peek at what reality is like outside of college.”
Knott was named co-winner during the “Associate’s” inaugural year, when Ed Hale Jr., then CEO of First Mariner Bank, served as the “Donald.” Also a winner that year was Reanna Dempsey ’05, now director of customer experience for Les Mills East Coast, a company that produces group fitness and team training programs.
“When I found out I won my job as a senior in college, and didn’t have to send out resumes and hit the pavement and go through the interview process, it was such a relief,” Dempsey said after learning she was a winner. “The hard work I put in while my friends were out partying all of a sudden paid off.”
Make no mistake: the competition is definitely work.
Cameron Williams ’09, now a health insurance specialist with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, recalled: “I was a resident assistant. I was a member of the business fraternity. I had my girlfriend and classes. I was also in my Professional Experience class and had an internship at the courthouse. I almost lost my mind that year.”
So is it worth participating in the “Associate,” even for those who don’t win?
“It doesn’t matter if you get eliminated first or if you make it all the way to the end—you’re going to get invaluable experience,” said Dempsey. [“It’s] an experience you just can’t get in the classroom.”
Williams, who made it to the final round, agreed: “One of the [case] presenters, her husband was a lawyer and he ended up writing my recommendation to the University of Baltimore School of Law. So if it wasn’t for the ‘Associate,’ I probably wouldn’t be in the law school that I am now.”
And it isn’t just the student participants who benefit from the program. Dozens of companies—from small, family-owned businesses to international brands like Hershey, AOL and Constellation Energy—have reaped the rewards as well.
“We’ve gotten terrific new employees out of it … and were able to execute some of the things proposed by the students to our actual business cases,” said Laura Gamble, regional president of Greater Maryland for PNC Bank and the “Donald” of 2013.
“It’s a real win-win. We’ve gotten great people, great ideas—and beyond that, it’s a tremendous amount of fun to work with these students. Their energy and approach to business issues are very fresh.”
WHAT ALUMNI ARE SAYING:
JAVIER BERMUDEZ ’12
Sales and Service
Coordinator, PNC Bank
AMANDA KNOTT ’05
Equity Planning Inc.
CAMERON WILLIAMS ’09
REANNA DEMPSEY ’05
Customer Experience Director,
Les Mills East Coast
“Nothing makes me prouder than seeing our students doing so well and representing all of our 3,000-plus students in such a wonderful way,” said Shohreh Kaynama, dean of the College of Business and Economics. “It makes me a very proud alumna and dean.”
This spring marks the start of another “Associate” competition— the 10th—when another batch of business students will face its own challenges and reap its own rewards.
“[The students] become an inspiration to you as a business professional,” said Lisa Michocki ’07, “Associate” alumna and current director of the program.
“You learn so much from their case presentations but also from them as people. You see their strengths continue to grow week after week.”
“My proudest moment was standing in the boardroom in the final round,” recalled Javier Bermudez ’12, now a sales and service coordinator for PNC Bank. “I was like, ‘I made it. This is it. Here is where everything is going to end.’”
But he may have miscalculated.
For Bermudez, Knott, Williams and Dempsey, and all the students before and after them, the “Associate” competition is just the beginning.
By Emily Koch. Photos by Kanji Takeno and Desiree Stover.
Video by Jeremy Farkas, Laura Braddick and Lisa Michocki.