In Rogers, Arkansas a startup called Recycled Hydro Solutions sells products dedicated to mitigating threats to water supplies. Founder Chris Gilreath uses the startup as a livelihood for his family. In Amity, Oregon, Jimmy Brooks founded Brooks Winery, a completely family-run winery the community rallied to develop in his name after he tragically passed away in 2004. In White Sulphur Springs, Montana, woman-owned and run Red Ants Pants produces workwear for women because founder Sarah Calhoun grew up on a farm and spent five post-college years doing outdoor education and trail work and became fed up with having to wear men’s pants because women’s pants kept ripping.
These small businesses all had something in common this summer. They had weeklong visitors from MBA students from some of the top business schools in the country. MBAs Across America takes intelligent and intrepid students and puts them on a six-week long summer road trip across America to help small startups with their business issues.
Eight teams of four students each came from Babson College, Columbia Business School, Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business and have just finished or will be finishing the journey that is estimated at 40,000 miles driven between teams. The idea behind MBAs Across America was featured earlier this summer and was founded by four Harvard Business School graduates planning to lead a movement seeking a better world through entrepreneurship—outside of New York City and Silicon Valley. The results for this summer? The program really works, according to founder and CEO Casey Gerald.
“The most powerful thing about this is it is a human exercise,” says Gerald. “When you send MBAs out into the most difficult experience that they have likely had, they are changed as people. When you provide an entrepreneur the opportunity to work with thoughtful and committed people, it is a relation that lasts beyond the summer. And then of course there is the business impact for both sides.”
Here are the stories of a few of the teams completing the summer project.
Imagine you are going on a six-week road trip across the country. Now imagine you are going on a six-week work trip. Now imagine you are doing it with people you have either never met or know little about. That is what three students from Michigan’s Ross and one from Berkeley’s Haas did.
They began in Bozeman, Montana with restaurant owner Tiffany Lach. Their task? Explore technology solutions to enhance the customer ordering experience. Lach is now exploring different point-of-sale systems based on the team’s recommendations.
WINE, TEA, DOGS: DIFFERENT COMPANIES, DIFFERENT LEADERHIP STYLES
The team then traveled to Amity, Oregon, to Denver to Detroit to Nashville to Durham, N.C., working with a winery, a dog product manufacturer, a tea producer, a local products curator and an online retention automation platform. They created market and competition landscape analyses, logistic-based cost models and made connections with marketing email platforms.
“Being able to see six different companies, entrepreneurs and their staff was a valuable learning experience,” says Ross student Nydia Cardenas. “We got to experience six different leadership styles this summer.”
As Gerald states, the students’ growth came as much from the challenge of solving tough business problems within a week as it did connecting with the communities. The Ross/Haas team took in a softball game in Bozeman, conducted a dog-owner focus group in Denver and a gourmet pizza dinner in Durham, all in the name of connection with the entrepreneurs and communities they were working with.
Like many of the other teams, the group was challenged with building relationships deep enough so the entrepreneurs would trust them to make pertinent decisions or recommendations for what is essentially their business babies. So the team got creative. They stayed in consistent communication with the entrepreneurs and created a pen pal system with them.
ESTABLISHING RAPPORT THROUGH THE POWER OF STORIES
“We started having the entrepreneur we spent the week with write down . . . their stories and offer support,” Cardenas says. “It really helped establish rapport for us and help the entrepreneurs feel connected to others around the country.”
The result created connections not just for themselves, but a coast-to-coast support system for the small business owners they helped this summer.