M.B.A. Students Hit the Road to Help Small-Business Owners
By EILENE ZIMMERMAN, boss.blogs.nytimes.com, 07-03-2014
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At a party in the fall of 2012, Casey Gerald, Michael Baker, Amaris Singer and Hicham Mhammedi Alaoui — all first-year students at Harvard Business School — were talking about potential summer jobs. “We thought, ‘What if we ditch the cubicle and spend the next summer on the road learning from and working with entrepreneurs?’ ” Mr. Gerald said.
All of the students had spent their early careers living through the recession.That gave them a view of jobs and careers, Mr. Gerald said, that was much different than it would have been had they gone to school in better times, when a good job after graduation could be taken for granted. Mr. Gerald, in fact, was a summer intern at Lehman Brothers in 2008, and on his first day, the firm fired thousands of people. “That changes you,” he said.
The four students would end up creating MBAs Across America, an organization formed to enable them to travel across the country and offer free assistance to business owners. “Business school is primarily focused on training future business leaders who will help create jobs, growth and fiscal progress here and around the world,” Mr. Gerald said. “You can’t do any of that without understanding the role and the life of entrepreneurs.”
Last July 4th, the four students hit the road in two cars for an eight-week trip to visit eight cities (in this order): Detroit; Boulder, Colo.; White Sulphur Springs, Mont.; Las Vegas; Albuquerque, N.M.; New Orleans; Asheville, N.C. and Washington, D. C. They targeted cities that either lacked a well developed start-up ecosystem or were models for it, where they could learn best practices.
With $13,000 they raised from family, friends and alumni and a lodging donation from Starwood Hotels in four of the cities, they set off. To find entrepreneurs in need of help, they created an online application and spread the word through community groups in each city, including Detroit Soup, which holds a monthly dinner to finance microgrants for creative projects in Detroit. Mr. Gerald and his partners also reached out to everyone in their personal and professional networks — about 500 people in total — to find business owners.
Along the way, they ran into some skepticism. It’s not every day that a bunch of Harvard M.B.A. sudents show up at a business’s door offering free help, and small-business owners have been known to question the value of academics in general and M.B.A.s in particular. One owner told the group he wasn’t really sure what to expect and had “visions of egotistical men in suits trying to change our company.” But Mr. Gerald said their experience trying to overcome those concerns proved to him the value of the adage that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
The students sought to help the owners tactically, with nuts and bolts tasks like setting up a database of customers, creating revenue projections and engaging talent. They also helped with broader, strategic issues like determining the best strategy to build a business. When the summer came to an end, Mr. Gerald said, the group members felt they had made an impact. “That’s what the entrepreneurs told us,” he said.
One of them was Sebastian Jackson, founder of Social Club Grooming Company in Detroit and the first entrepreneur MBAs Across America tried to help. Mr. Jackson had expected the students to come into his barbershop and give him advice about what he could be doing better. “They did just the opposite,” he said. “They asked me all kinds of questions, trying to get to know the business, the clients, the employees, what Detroit was like. I found out a lot about the business and myself by answering those questions and by seeing the questions I couldn’t answer. That’s where we started.”
Before his sessions with MBAs Across America, Mr. Jackson offered haircuts, colorings, shaves, and a variety of other services like facials, waxing and tanning. The shop also had an environmental bent, composting the hair it cut. But with the help of Mr. Gerald and his fellow students, Mr. Jackson refocused on his core services: haircuts, shaves and coloring.
The students helped Mr. Jackson see the shop’s sustainability ethos as a way to tell its story, but not a way to attract new clients or employees. Instead, the students suggested that Mr. Jackson redesign the shop’s interior to reflect that ethos and reinforce it. They helped him build relationships with community leaders, who helped him obtain wood from a house from the 1800s that was being torn down. Mr. Jackson used the wood to refurbish his shop. “We literally took the house apart and took all the wood that was usable,” he said.
Before the help of MBAs Across America, Social Club Grooming Company was earning about $6,000 a month. Mr. Jackson said revenue has tripled since then, and he recently received a $100,000, no-equity investment from a local investor.
Mr. Gerald has applied for nonprofit status for MBAs Across America. This summer up to 40 M.B.A. students from around the country will join its inaugural class, embarking on a six-week road trip to help entrepreneurs. Students will work in teams of four with up to 60 entrepreneurs nationwide.>>>