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Why These Stanford MBAs Are Focused On Middle America

Current second-year MBAs and trip organizers of the Midwest Global Study Trip. Pictured from left to right are Ted Murphy, David Ma, Supriya Hobbs, Sithara Kodali, and John Goedert. Courtesy photo

Lima, Ohio is not the typical spring break destination — especially not for a group of second-year MBAs from one of the world’s most elite and exclusive business school. But that’s exactly what happened earlier this spring when a group of 19 MBAs from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business descended upon the town of less than 40,000 in northwest Ohio. Part of a Global Study Trip, the MBAs road-tripped from Pittsburgh to Chicago for a little over a week, their goal to explore disruption and the future of work as it pertains to Middle America.

Built on agriculture and blue-collar labor jobs, many once-thriving Midwestern towns have been considered “left behind” while coastal hubs change the way of work with huge shifts like artificial intelligence and the emerging gig economy. But that narrative is not always accurate, says Supriya Hobbs, who moved to St. Louis, Missouri with her family before she started high school. “There are a lot of places with really strong economies and they are looking for great people for good jobs,” say Hobbs, who worked as an engineer in Eli Lilly’s Indianapolis, Indiana headquarters before enrolling at Stanford.

According to the most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary, published last week (May 8) by the U.S. Labor Department, jobs — especially in the Midwest — are booming. Job openings hit 6.6 million, the highest level since the report began being collected and published in 2000. The majority of job openings are located in the Midwest and U.S. South.

GLOBAL STUDY TRIP PART OF GLOBAL EXPERIENCE REQUIREMENT

Stanford GSB’s Global Study Trips are one of a few ways in which full-time MBAs can fulfill their required global experience. Often including 20 to 30 students and lasting a little more than a week, previous trips have led students to places like Greece, Hong Kong, Ghana, and Togo, among many others. In 2017, it led John Goedert to the Appalachian region of the U.S. Reflecting on that experience led Goedert to kick around the idea of organizing a similar Global Study Trip to the Midwest, where he has spent his entire life before enrolling in the MBA program at Stanford. “It was a perfect marriage of something I care about and a place I love,” Goedert says of the idea of exploring the future of work in the Midwest.

In classic Midwestern fashion, Goedert says the trip came to reality while him and other team leaders “watched football or sat around the fire pit.” The team assembled an itinerary looked at where the Midwest used to be and where it’s headed and advertised it to their classmates, half of which to make the trip were international students. In Pittsburgh, for example, the team met with U.S. Steel, which still employees around 30,000 people and also met with Uber’s Advanced Technology Group. In Detroit, they met with General Motors and Rock Ventures, a real estate development and investment firm focused on Midwestern cities.

But it was also key to meet with community organizers and government officials, the team soon learned. The team met with Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as well as local entrepreneurs and business and community leaders in Bellefontaine, Ohio, a town of around 13,000 people in western part of the state.

The group tours Dan Gilbert’s office in Detroit. Gilbert is the founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans and owns multiple sports franchises including the Cleveland Cavaliers. Courtesy photo

‘THE IDEA THAT TALENT EXISTS ONLY IN CERTAIN AREAS IS A MYTH’

Right now, the team says, jobs are not the issue in the Midwest. It’s attracting and keeping top talent. The plethora of tech talent already in the Midwest is under-estimated, Goedert says. “You have massive universities churning out tech talent,” he says, mentioning Big 10 universities, in particular. “The idea that talent exists only in certain areas is a myth.”

So the focus of many community leaders is less job creation and more community attraction. “They’re asking ‘how do we actually get people to come and stay in the city,’” Goedert explains. “And millennials are asking ‘what are we going to do here?'”

The issue is at the forefront of conversations among community and business leaders, the group reports. “We recognize the topic of disruption or job displacement is being tackled by a lot of people from a lot of angles,” says Ted Murphy, another trip organizer, who grew up in South Bend, Indiana. Murphy, who also worked for Eli Lilly in Indianapolis before enrolling at the GSB, says showing off innovations happening in Midwestern towns was a big draw for him when organizing the trip. “I knew there were people doing cool things in the area to make these towns a better place,” he says.

One focus is revamping downtown spaces, Hobbs says. “We heard a lot about the importance of downtown living and how millennials want that,” she says. Many towns talked about the renovation of high-end pizza restaurants and breweries. “Lifestyle improvements to make things more fun,” Hobbs says.

‘A VERY STRONG, PALPABLE SENSE OF COMMUNITY’

For those reasons — and others, like large manufacturing and agricultural businesses closing or move — has stagnated revival compared to coastal and even Sun Belt cities. Another is housing. “Young people are coming to town and there is no place for them to rent a place to live,” Hobbs says, noting like offering apartments for rent can make a big difference — something she says they saw on the trip. “It really only takes a couple passionate people to make a big difference in the city,” she adds.

A strength that could help attract and keep talent is the Midwest’s innate strong sense of community.

“There’s a very strong, palpable sense of community in these areas and that could be something that attracts people in the future,” he says.

While the team leaders said they didn’t plan on immediately returning to the Midwest after graduating with their MBAs, they all said they planned on returning eventually. For now, the team says they were thrilled to share their Midwestern roots with their classmates, many of which, had never ventured to the Middle of the country.

“People from the coasts that had never been to the Midwest said they could imagine themselves living there,” Murphy says. “One participant was looking at real estate in Pittsburgh and another fell in love with Detroit.”

DON’T MISS: WHAT I LEARNED AS A SECOND-YEAR STANFORD MBA or MEET STANFORD GSB’S MBA CLASS OF 2019