A map, a car, 8,000 miles and four MBAs

Students hope their business knowhow will make a difference to American entrepreneurs

The road less travelled: (left to right) Hicham Mhammedi Alaoui, Michael Baker, Amaris Singer and Casey Gerald

Casey Gerald and Michael Baker have a great deal to do. The two Harvard Business School MBAs are talking to me from their dormitory and as soon as we finish speaking they will head to class.

Everything is happening at once. Their venture – MBAs Across America – begins in a few months’ time and cannot be postponed, despite the pressure of trying to complete their MBA studies.

“What I find about Harvard MBAs is they can find time for just about anything,” says Len Schlesinger, who has returned to Harvard as a professor of business administration after a five-year term as president of Babson College, and who is mentoring Mr Gerald and Mr Baker.

That can-do attitude to multitasking will be essential if the two second years are to achieve their aims. MBAs Across America is hoping to send eight teams, each consisting of four MBAs, on separate road trips across America this summer. The teams will be on the move for six weeks and will work with six separate entrepreneurs who need help with an aspect of their business. There will be networking events in various cities.

The idea is to develop the concept so that it becomes a “movement of MBAs and entrepreneurs working together to reinvent business school and revitalise America”, says Mr Gerald.

Mr Gerald and Mr Baker have a few months left to start making their bold vision come to pass. “It takes quite a bit of time, but we can take classes that help us directly with what we are trying to do,” says Mr Baker.

The idea for MBAs Across America was born at the end of last summer as the two men were recovering from a road trip they had taken with two other Harvard MBAs – Amaris Singer and Hicham Mhammedi Alaoui.

It had been a journey with a difference. The four MBAs had opted for the road trip in lieu of applying to do internships and had decided to make their 8,000-mile trek worthwhile. In eight weeks the team visited eight cities, including Detroit, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Albuquerque. In each they looked for entrepreneurs who needed some MBA knowhow.

“It was hours and hours of driving,” says Mr Baker. “But it was such an amazing experience. You get to see America close-up.”

The four worked with six entrepreneurs helping ventures as disparate as Red Ants Pants, a rural company that manufactures workwear for women, and The Social Club, a hair salon in Detroit that recycles the hair it collects to accelerate compost used in a city tree-planting scheme.

“When we started the search for entrepreneurs we were looking for places with a story to tell. We wanted to go to cities that were surviving against the odds,” says Mr Gerald.

The life-changing trip made a big impact on all four MBAs, particularly Mr Gerald and Mr Baker who decided to turn the idea into a business.

“The folks we worked with had no reason to trust us. They could have looked at us just as consultants or worse. But they were far more personal [open and friendly] than we expected. Now those folks are supporting us,” says Mr Baker.

One of the companies they worked with, Made, is a marketing agency dedicated to supporting American manufacturing. While in Detroit, the team also partnered with a community workshop to create a networking event focusing on the need for urban renewal.

“It was not only a road trip, it was also about the future of this country,” explains Mr Gerald.

Now the students want to scale up.

“They have a powerful hypothesis. They had a great first summer. Now they are trying to extend it, the problems are huge,” says Prof Schlesinger. “They were four people and some cars last year. So the cost structure was minimal – this year it’s a different scenario.”

Prof Schlesinger says he reminds the two men to think about the here and now and not to think too many years ahead.

The immediate problems include securing cars for the MBA students, persuading hotels to donate rooms for them to stay in and raising money for the other expenses they are likely to encounter.

The men also have a complicated legal landscape to navigate and have to consider liabilities and insurance. All these challenges could potentially be expensive, but the pair hope to cover their expenses with donations of cash or donations in kind. They do not intend to charge either the entrepreneurs or the MBAs.

“What we have found is that companies are really excited by the opportunity to support our organisation,” says Mr Gerald.

Among the supporters is HBS, which will sponsor its team this year. Stanford Graduate School of Business will also sponsor the participants representing its school.

This year’s teams have now been selected and the search has begun for the entrepreneurs they will work with. The teams are allowed to choose where they go, but there is a proviso – they must visit at least one city in a rural location. “We will collaborate with the teams to choose where they want to go and who they want to help,” says Mr Gerald.

MBAs Across America certainly has feel-good appeal and its website features commendations from the ventures helped by last year’s MBA group. But the venture has attracted some negative comments from critics who question what impact a small group of MBAs can have on a business in a week.

However, as Prof Schlesinger points out, in cities in rural areas in particular; “What they can do is better than nothing.

“The bar isn’t that high when nobody in those places has access to any support whatsoever.”

Harvard, he adds, runs three and five-day academic experiences that are described as “transformational”. Since they are achieving results, he says, there is every reason to believe that these MBAs can be just as transformational for the people they work with.

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