my capstone experience

Amber Richardson '09, a Business Administration major from Shelburne, Mass., discusses her team's Capstone project, which was to run a hypothetical airline. The Capstone project, which involves extensive research and presentation, is the culmination of each student's academic experience and part of the Liberal Education Program at Colby-Sawyer College.

While at Colby-Sawyer, Richardson was the vice president of the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) team during her sophomore and junior years, and was president as a senior. At a SIFE competition in Warwick, R.I. this spring, the Colby-Sawyer team was recognized as regional champions, moving them forward to the national competition. She was also an active member of the Dance Club and a peer tutor at the Student Learning Collaborative. She plans to pursue a job in marketing in the Boston area.

Describe your Capstone project and why you chose to focus on this subject.

The Business Administration department works a little differently from most of the others. We form teams at the end of the fall semester and when we return for the spring semester we assign roles to each teammate. We then begin to operate an airline. We create a name, devise a strategy, and make decisions as to what to charge, how much to pay employees, and which markets to fly in. We run our airline for a total of 3 years, or 12 quarters, and compete against other student and professor-run airlines.

I was the CEO of our airline, SolAir. Pamela Bohanan was the CFO, Gabrielle Boulay acted as the COO, Lyndsey Feliciano was our director of human resources, and Christopher Gaeta was our director of marketing. We chose to make SolAir a discount airline that offered a high volume of flights at a low price. Three other student teams chose to operate in the mid-range market, and one team operated as a luxury airline.

Each quarter, our decisions were entered into a computer simulation, and then each team received results and decided, after a great deal of analysis, which steps to take next. We were expected to predict things like the passenger load factor, revenues and profits, and stock prices. This sometimes proved a challenge. The airline industry can be volatile; our team recognized nearly $1 million in profits one quarter, and then made no profit the next quarter due to industry-wide low demand. This helped my team learn how to be flexible and how to better deal with disruptions that are outside our control.

What kinds of research did you conduct for this project?

Our team researched Southwest Airlines a great deal after we decided to operate SolAir as a discount airline. We modeled our strategic plan and mission statement after Southwest, and when we needed to create an annual report we looked through those posted by Southwest.
Our entire class read a great deal of strategic management theory for class, including articles by Porter, Selznick, Schein, Mintzberg, Andrews, Wheatley ... the list goes on and on. It was very beneficial to learn the different views and thoughts of the authors and make connections and/or criticisms. Class discussions and lectures led to the realization that there is no one correct theory of management that applies to every organization; one needs to be aware of a variety of theories and apply a few aspects of each.

My team also used these readings to help develop our focus strategy, and another reading encouraged us to be flexible and aware of emergent strategies. That reading helped us realize that a low-cost strategy would actually be more beneficial for us. Reading a great variety of theory turned out to be not only interesting, but immensely useful when we applied it to the airline simulation.

What did you learn through your Capstone project, and in what ways is it a culmination of your learning experience at Colby-Sawyer?

I learned how important it is to be able to work with a group of people. My team spent upwards of 20 hours a week together outside of class time. While taking the class seriously, we also took the time to enjoy each other and the time we were together.

One of the learning outcomes at Colby-Sawyer is to be able to think critically and creatively. I tend to be a very critical thinker in most cases, but thanks to my Capstone experience, I learned just how important it is to be creative. I was lucky to work with people who are very innovative and tend to think outside the box. It is thanks to them that we took our airline discount, and ended up winning the simulation competition. I am lucky to be taking that knowledge with me when I graduate; it will help differentiate me from others in my field who are afraid to let their creativity shine through.

What was most fun and rewarding for you in the process of creating your Capstone?

Our final presentation was the most rewarding experience of the Capstone process. Our presentation was in the form of SolAir's Annual Shareholders Meeting and took place during Scholar's Symposium. We addressed our classmates and members of the community as though they were shareholders of our company. We addressed issues we encountered, as well as accomplishments, and explained our financial position. We created an annual report that featured our logo and slogan (“Fly SolAir. We'll Get You There.”), as well as a letter to shareholders, goals we had set and achieved, and consolidated financial statements. Everyone who attended our presentation received an annual report, as well as a bottle of water with our logo. Each of our team members addressed the particular area they focused on throughout the semester, and we opened the floor to questions at the end. Our presentation was a great opportunity to share what we accomplished during the semester, and it was great practice for presenting in the future.

What did you find most challenging and difficult about the project?

We were expected to predict each quarter's revenues, expenses, profit and stock prices. This all relied on the passenger load factor, which is a percentage that tells you how full your planes were. This number proved extremely difficult to predict from quarter to quarter. Our team usually had relatively high passenger load factors due to the fact that we were the only discount airline and our planes only seated 19 people, but there were instances where our passenger load factor fluctuated by more than 10%, which threw our predictions way off. Our team learned from this that nothing is ever set in stone, and one can never sit back and rely on a “sure thing.” We learned the importance of being flexible, as well as the importance of being prepared for unstable economic climates and low customer demand.

What do you hope will be the lasting value of your Capstone project, both for you and others?

As CEO of my team, I learned that people are more willing to listen to you if you treat them with respect, and open your mind to what they have to say. Before this semester, I already considered myself a leader, but after my Capstone experience, I think that I have the capability to be a transformational leader, one who is encouraging, promotes harmony within a group, and enhances morale and motivation.

I know that my entire team is walking away from this Capstone experience with added skills and open minds. Everyone is headed into different fields - one member wants to own a bakery, another wants to become a Certified Public Accountant - yet we were all able to come together and use our unique skills to help each other work our way through assignments this semester. Between the five of us, there was always someone there to lend a hand when one of us needed help.

The best thing I am walking away with after this experience is what is bound to be a lasting relationship with four great, hardworking people. This experience led me to bond with my peers on so many levels: as co-workers, classmates, fictional executives and, most important, as friends. I could not be more grateful that my journey at Colby-Sawyer College led me to experience my Capstone with people who I will be connected with for years to come.