Laura Uribarri

The University of Texas at El Paso has radically grown its master's of business administration offerings since moving classes Downtown in 2009, meeting its goals for growth a year earlier than planned.

In addition to its long-offered Accelerated MBA program, the university has developed new full-time MBA and Executive MBA formats. The first Executive MBA class graduated in July.

Leading the MBA program through that growth and its expansion into a permanent Downtown location in the Chase Building, the first physical expansion of the College of Business in 25 years, is Laura Uribarri, UTEP's assistant dean for MBA Programs.

Also during that time, UTEP's MBA program received its first national ranking in Hispanic Business Magazine in 2008, and achieved the No. 1-ranking in 2010 and 2011.

Instead of resting on her laurels, Uribarri has her eye on the global economy.

UTEP recently began offering its MBA students Mandarin classes and Spanish workshops and is offering students more opportunities to take trips overseas to learn how business is done in places like Hong Kong and Europe.

"The key to building this community at its very core is building human capital," Uribarri says.

With a bachelor's degree in International Relations from Stanford University and a master's degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, Uribarri says she began her career pursuits with an interest in public policy.

Uribarri, 37, worked for the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce in government relations before joining Mayor Joe Wardy's administration. Then she was El Paso Electric's senior government affairs representative in Austin for two years.

While at the chamber, she helped garment workers laid off in the summer of 1998 make the transition into new jobs. And she worked with El Paso Water Utilities to help convince Pentagon officials, who were considering growing Fort Bliss, that the El Paso region wasn't running out of water.

Uribarri sat down with El Paso Inc. and discussed how graduates are finding jobs and getting promotions, UTEP alum Mike Loya's $10 million donation, and why she is looking beyond the border.

Q: Are UTEP's MBA programs becoming more internationally focused?

The College of Business, in general, is very focused on global enterprise. This is a natural phenomenon for us and it is something we absolutely need to, and have been, embracing and capitalizing on.

If you think about our students, the students who grow up in this region, for most of them doing business internationally is second nature. It is something that we as a community take for granted. For example, there are MBA students from up North that used to come to the maquilas as one of their international research courses. Well, we grow up with that. This isn't an interesting field trip for us; this is how we live and breathe and do business on a daily basis.

Q: If the school has an edge because it's located on the border, do employers care about that international experience?

It does give the school an edge. As I have talked to employers about where we are and this nascent ability of our students, they are very much attracted to that.

The fact that the majority of our students are bilingual is a huge asset, but it is something that we as a community often take for granted because so many people in this community are bilingual. But if you go to other places in this country, that is not necessarily the case.

Q: But what about international experience beyond this region?

So we have to ask, "OK, how do we take this nascent ability of our students and build that up so they can go beyond this region and, for example, do business in China?" We just started offering Mandarin classes a couple of weeks ago, and we are excited to offer Spanish-language workshops for our full-time MBA students.

The other piece of it is the faculty is absolutely focused on global enterprise through their research and that percolates into the classroom, because faculty members then have the ability to share their research interests with the students.

Almost every semester, our students have the opportunity to do an international engagement. Normally, it's about a nine-days abroad. We're about to send another group abroad in January to look at financial markets and financial institutions in the European Union. They will be in Madrid.

Q: Where else have students gone?

We've sent students to Hong Kong; Paris; Basel, Switzerland; Frankfurt; and this is our second trip to Madrid. We took a group in May. That group focused on marketing strategies and visited the headquarters of BBVA, a Spanish banking group, for example.

Now we see this enormous growth of BBVA in the Southwest of the U.S., so it was a really interesting experience for them to see what the company looks like in Spain and what their marketing strategies are there, versus what they are doing here.

The next group is going to focus on finance and take a financial course there.

Q: Given the European debt crisis, a trip to Spain seems especially relevant. Is it any coincidence that students are going to Spain to study?

It ought to be a very interesting time to be there - a very relevant time. When we went in May, the youth movement had just taken over the Plaza del Sol in Madrid. It was interesting to see the beginnings of that and now see it move into the rest of the U.S.

Q: How many students are enrolled in the MBA program?

We have a total of about 400.

Q: How much growth is that?

Six years ago we were at about 250 students, so we have seen a significant growth, about 60 percent.

Q: How many are from El Paso?

The majority of our students are from El Paso.

Q: So MBA students tend to stay in El Paso, while other graduates have tended to leave town after getting their degree.

Brain drain happens here, it happens in Austin, it happens in a lot of different places. I've spent a lot of time in Austin, and I remember when I was living there people talking about the brain drain in Austin. Anytime you have an institution of higher learning that is creating and producing talent at a certain volume, it is going to outstrip the capacity of that community, which means in order for those people to really be at their career potential they are going to have to go somewhere else.

That said, we do see a number of our students who stay here and become members of the business community or in the government and non-profit sectors. But we also see a lot of students who go away who are picked up by major companies. And if they do come back, they bring that experience with them and it makes us richer as a community.

Q: You've met the goals for the program's growth. What are you focused on now?

We are focused on expanding our corporate partnerships so our students continue to have meaningful corporate engagements and so our corporate partners get to see who our students are.

To the extent that we can, we are trying to expand the horizons of our students through things like these corporate partnerships and the international research courses.

Q: Who are the corporate partners?

We are working with several Fortune 500 companies. For example, we have had a relationship with DeWalt for several semesters. They have been working with our students on a number of marketing research projects. So they'll come in and will work with five or six students on a specific project.

DeWalt has flown students out to Maryland to their headquarters to present their project and they have just been thrilled with the results.

We just started a similar relationship with Coca-Cola and a couple of other companies that, because of the nature of the project, want to remain unnamed. In some cases, they are companies that may want to go public.

Q: Are the MBA students mostly working professionals?

I would say about 70 percent of our students are working professionals, or if they aren't currently working, have some sort of work history or work experience. Some come from maquilas, some from the military, some are entrepreneurs, some from government, financial institutions, the non-profit sector. We have a really good mix.

Q: What are the job prospects like for MBA grads now given the weak economy, volatile markets, tightening regulation and anti-bank protests such as Occupy Wall Street?

It is very competitive, and it's certainly a very tight market. We just took a group of students to the National Society of Hispanic MBAs conference, and you just get a sense that there are fewer employers and more students.

It's all the more reason for students to be honing in on things like the Mandarin classes to be able to set themselves apart.

The corporate engagements are a big part of what we are doing to give our students an edge as well. If they have that direct contact with these companies, the companies are more likely to say they might want to bring a student on board because they know who they are, they have experience with them, and the students know at least some aspect of the company.

You're seeing government budgets contracting, non-profits in a very difficult position, and a lot of people in those areas are saying everything's got to be run like a business. So they're coming into the program to learn business disciplines.

It's an interesting time to be in the MBA program because we are seeing a huge diversity of people coming into the educational process.

Q: As higher education becomes more expensive and many struggle to pay off student loans, some are asking what a degree is worth. Is the UTEP MBA worth it, and if so, who would benefit most?

As you look at the job market, it is incredibly competitive. Whatever you can do to set yourself apart is worth it.

If you look at comparative costs of MBAs, at UTEP we have the ability to offer an accredited degree more inexpensively than probably any program you can think of with AACSB accreditation (Association to Advance Schools of Business). It's certainly the least expensive in the state of Texas.

Although we have a very accessible MBA program from a financial perspective, there is a lot of investment by the university into the program itself, not only through the faculty but all the other resources I've mentioned - the corporate engagements, the language workshops and a number of other professional development initiatives.

Q: As students graduate, are their degrees paying off as they expected, getting that promotion or the position they were looking for? And is that position or promotion happening in El Paso?

What we see with our students, the ones who communicate with us about the results, is that most who were working professionals when came into the program will tend to stay with that organization.

And we have seen many examples of the outcome being they've received a promotion. They have had an opportunity to step into a larger role within their organization. We have lots of examples where that has happened.

Q: Could you highlight one or two of those success stories, specifically?

In our Executive MBA, one of our students, a chief warrant officer in the Army, was promoted right before he graduated. He attributed that directly to the completion of his degree.

A couple of students in the Executive MBA have started business ventures together. They have promised that they'll have a big announcement for us in the next couple of months.

In the Accelerated MBA, a number of graduates who worked for banks or credit unions have seen promotions to VP positions almost immediately following graduation.

Q: What is the cost?

Our Accelerated MBA and our full-time MBA are about $22,000 for the program, tuition and fees. Our Executive MBA is $36,000 for tuition, fees and books. It also includes involvement in an international research course.

Q: How difficult is it to get accepted?

Probably six years ago it was nominally competitive. It has become much, much more competitive in the last couple of years. I'd say we probably have an admission rate of about 80 percent.

Q: What's the completion rate?

I'll speak mostly to the Accelerated MBA because that is the one that has been around the longest. We're seeing about 80 percent to 85 percent completion rate, which is huge.

That is incredibly high for a program that consists primarily of working professionals. Normally, in programs for working professionals you see between 40 percent and 50 percent drop off.

We've got something very special in the Accelerated MBA. It has a structure that working professionals can handle, in terms of the demand on their time and the rigor of the academics.

In addition, because they stay with one group of people for the entire 24-month period, they form a support network as well.

We've had a number of incidents where somebody is just about to quit because they feel like they just can't handle it anymore, and their cohort just steps in and says "don't do it" and helps them through it.

Q: UTEP alum Mike Loya recently donated $10 million aimed at bringing together the business and engineering worlds. What's got to change to make it happen?

There are still a lot of details being worked out, but the initiative itself is really focused on bringing together the skills that the engineers have with the business curriculum, so that not only do they have the technical ability but they also have that edge to be able to excel in the business environment.

There are those folks who are incredible technicians in the purist sense of engineering and science, they know that world. But they cannot speak to the finance person in that company because their language is just different.

But if you are able to match those two skills together, that person is invaluable within a company because they have the ability to move between those two worlds.

Q: That seems to have worked for Loya, who graduated from UTEP's engineering program, got an MBA from Harvard and is now a president of one of the world's largest oil trading companies.

Are employers interested in engineers who also understand business?

Yeah, Mike Loya has lived it, and we see it with the employers who come to talk with us. They're very interested in students who have engineering or science backgrounds who have married that with the MBA.

Going back to your question about brain drain, one of the things we need to think about or just be focused on as a community, is that our resources and our strengths as a community are not bound by the jurisdiction of our city or our county.

We have friends of El Paso, ex pats of El Paso, all over the world. We have UTEP alumni like Mike Loya all over the world, and it is our job to do what we can to build this community.

We have alumni in major companies all over the world who are eager to reach back and help us create opportunities for our students.

So we've got to be thinking, in the spirit of the recent World Series, we've got to be thinking about our bullpen - that it's much wider than El Paso. People don't have to be in El Paso to be a part of what we are doing here.

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E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.