Ivy League MBA candidates usually don gray suits to intern at Wall Street investment banks and expensive consulting firms. But this summer, four Harvard Business School students are going more Kerouac than corporate. They're hitting the open highway in T-shirts and jeans, taking their skills on the road to places such as Detroit, Albuquerque and New Orleans, where they will consult for small businesses for free.
Hitting The Road
"I don’t remember who first threw it out," said Harvard MBA candidate Michael Baker, who is on the road with three of his classmates. "But what’s really strange is that it literally was Casey, Amaris, Hicham and I all standing together" when one of them suggested taking their summer internship on the road.
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"A road trip just sounded so diametrically different from the typical things that MBAs do," he said. "You know, we go to cities, we sit in a room, we go to meetings, we make two-by-two matrices and things like that, and a road trip just kind of threw all that out the window."
HBS advisors were skeptical and didn’t give them any money for the project. But Baker says the lack of school support didn't stop the four students from taking the road less traveled. They raised a little over $12,000 online — enough for the trip, but not enough to rent an RV like they were hoping. Baker used to work for a startup and his fellow road trippers are: Amaris Singer, a woman who used to do management consulting in New York City; Casey Gerald, an African-American from Texas; and Hicham Mhammedi Alaoui, a student from Morocco.
"It almost seems like it was engineered. We’re a diverse group in terms of where we’re from and our backgrounds and what work we’ve done. Seems like it was put together almost like the Eagles, if you’ve ever heard that band," Baker said with a laugh. "But it wasn’t. It was all just standing together and talking about what we wanted to do for the summer in a pretty slapdash kinda way."
They hit I-90 around July Fourth, two people apiece in two cars, one nicknamed "R," the other "V." Their first weeklong stop was in Detroit.
More Listening Than Telling
"When I hear Harvard, I get really excited, you know. It’s one of the most powerful business schools in the world, if not the most powerful business school in the world," said Sebastian Jackson, who owns The Social Club Grooming Company in Detroit.
Jackson's goal when he opened his barbershop and beauty salon was to use cut hair to fertilize newly planted trees across Detroit. He wants to restore the city’s canopy to its early glory. But it wasn’t quite working like he imagined, and that’s why he opened his doors when he heard about four MBA candidates on a summer road trip.
"My perception was that they were going to come in, these super smart kids, and tell me what to do and how to do it and why to do it those ways," Jackson said. "But that wasn’t really the case. They came in and asked me what we did, why we did it and how we did it. And they really spent a lot of time listening to me and to us."
It wasn’t easy. The MBA students call their second day in Detroit "Terrible Tuesday" because they saw lots of challenges for Jackson's socially driven business in a weak metropolitan economy. Gerald, the student from Texas, says it was humbling.
"You go spent a quarter of a million dollars to learn some frameworks, and then you get out on the road and you see they’re not very useful," Gerald said of his Harvard education. "So what do you do then? At that point you’ve got to really listen to people and really work with them, to get in those moments of messiness, where the real problem-solving can happen."
But by the end of the week they sorted through that messiness, helping Jackson realize that his operation didn’t really support his social goals. He ran The Social Club Grooming Company in a way that’s typical for salons — renting out a chair and taking a percentage from the barber. The takeaway: If he wanted to change the culture, he'd have to change the business mechanics.
Detroit declared bankruptcy while the Harvard students were on the road to Boulder, Colo., a booming city where they met with a company marketing American-made products. Then their tires rolled over the antelope-spotted plains of Wyoming before crossing into Montana. That's where, during a weeklong stop in White Sulphur Springs, they helped Sarah Calhoun with her business Red Ants Pants.
Calhoun’s a rough-and-tumble outdoorswoman who started a line of women’s work clothes. She says the Harvard MBAs-to-be helped her understand how customers see her brand.
"That when they put on a pair of pants, they’re not just putting on canvas, they’re putting on like, another identity of either feeling more badass or, 'I can accomplish more when I wear these pants,' " Calhoun said.
Helping Calhoun stage a music festival under the big skies over the continental divide gave Singer a new perspective.
"Meeting an older man in rural Montana who didn’t know where Harvard was. He thought it was, like, in Ohio," Singer recalled. "And that was actually kind of awesome because it brought things back to a human level. We didn’t have to prove or disprove anything about where we went to school. It was just about meeting people and trying to help out."
A Broader Movement
After that came Corrales, N.M., then New Orleans. They're in Asheville, N.C., now helping a micro-brewery try to market to the people who usually drink Budweiser. Alaoui says it at once dawned on him that he has met people on the road who are smart and skilled and could be earning a comfortable living in the corporate world, but they’re staying to help their communities.
"The kind of commitment we see too rarely," Alaoui said. "At least in the spheres of the MBA program that we’re in. [It was a] very powerful moment for me."
"In our lifetime, MBAs can be a force for growth and for progress and for social revitalization rather than for greed."Casey Gerald, Harvard MBA candidate
Alaoui says the road trip has been powerful for his fellow students, too. They’re thinking about turning their adventure into a new nonprofit called MBAs Across America. Gerald hopes to see a summer internship dedicated to American small business become a choice for many more MBAs.
"The next generation of MBAs are gonna have to be different," Gerald said. "I think, you know, in our lifetime, MBAs can be a force for growth and for progress and for social revitalization rather than for greed and for short-termism and economic destruction, which we have become so known for in the past 30 years."
For now, their dream of a roving Peace Corps for MBAs has to wait. After Asheville this week, they’ll get in their cars and head for Washington, D.C. With that long ribbon of pavement stretching to the horizon, and they’ll, in the words of Jack Kerouac, "lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies."
This program aired on August 20, 2013.