A Harvard Team’s Surprising Vegas Spring Break

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is running a $350 million project to reinvent downtown Las Vegas

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is running a $350 million project to reinvent downtown Las Vegas

Sin City for Spring Break? Yeah baby. It was a no brainer for second year Harvard Business School MBAs Lindsay Hyde and Amy An. On March 14 (today), they flew from Boston to Las Vegas with six of their classmates. They’ll crash in the plush condos of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, they’ll schmooze with the city’s civic leaders, but primarily, they’re here to make a big bet.

Far from the night clubs, high-dollar tables, and Cirque du Soleil shows, the eight-person team is wagering that a well-planned community project can boost urban renewal and entrepreneurship in downtown Las Vegas. More specifically, the team is piloting an apprentice project that pairs current and recent undergraduates with small businesses and startups in downtown Las Vegas. If all goes as planned, the model will feed into a larger effort to jumpstart the city’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, reinvigorate an area hit hard by the housing bubble, and provide a blueprint for community rejuvenation worldwide.

The origins for the MBAs’ urban experiment stretch back to 2011, when Zappos’ Hsieh, a Las Vegas resident, poured $350 million of his own funds into the Downtown Project, a Las Vegas urban renewal initiative.  His mission? To transform Las Vegas into the “most community-focused large city in the world.” The group has created startup offices out of shipping containers, hosted free cultural events such as First Friday, and developed innovative education models–even going so far as to open a school.

Hyde recalls being impressed by Hsieh’s efforts after meeting several teams from Zappos at an entrepreneurial event in New Orleans. Having founded and run her own socially minded mentoring program–Strong Women, Strong Girls–she was drawn to the idea of empowering an entire community. Hungry for a new challenge, she accepted the invitation of David Gould, a member of the Downtown Project team, to start a new initiative that would add to the community movement. Gould, also a public scholar at the University of Iowa’s Obermann Center, had already led teams of undergraduate students in social experiments around the city, but he was eager to push the boundaries a bit further with the help of Hyde and a handful of Harvard MBAs. “I could tell she was intrinsically motivated to really do something,” Gould recalls of their early email exchanges. “If you have the mindset of a social entrepreneur, there’s a real attraction to know what’s going on here and to participate … this is a Disneyland for entrepreneurship that’s being built,” he says.

Harvard MBAs Lindsay Hyde, second from left, and Amy An, far right, connect with member of the downtown Las Vegas community

Harvard MBAs Lindsay Hyde, second from left, and Amy An, far right, connect with members of the downtown Las Vegas community

That was certainly the case for Hyde and her early project partner, Amy An, a five-year Wall Street veteran in capital markets. The MBAs do not receive funding, class credit, or official support from Harvard for the program. They pay for nearly everything out of pocket, aside from accommodation. So why do it? “It just struck me as an incredible opportunity to be at the very beginning of the creation of an entrepreneurial ecosystem and really learn best practices for how you would replicate this type of model in other geographies,” Hyde explains. For An, who shares her entrepreneurial bent, it was a chance to step outside HBS’ academics to  “do something special with the potential to make a real difference.”

In January, the two flew out to Las Vegas for a scouting mission and met with 45 community leaders ranging from policemen and small business owners to performers and filmmakers. “The whole focus was on doing something Las Vegas was passionate about,” Hyde says. “We really got a good sense of places where more could be done to have a huge impact.” Gould describes the visit as a “listening tour.” “It could very easily have looked like a lot of experts parachuting in and flying out. We didn’t want to go that route,” he says.

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