University of Michigan (U-M) MBA student Christopher Owen says he met "real-life superheroes" while traveling the country to work with small business owners through the Ross Open Road program last month.
"That really touched me on a deep level," he says. "In a matter of four and a half days, we were building genuine relationships. ... They are visionaries in their field, and being a visionary often means being off in front, a voice in the darkness."
Ross Open Road was conceived as an action-based project about social entrepreneurship and small business ownership that would be mutually beneficial to both students and entrepreneurs nationwide. The program is co-sponsored by the Center for Social Impact, the Zell Lurie Institute, Sanger Leadership Center, the Erb Institute, and the Ross MBA Program Office.
Last month, for the program's third year, three teams of four U-M students started in Detroit and went on to visit social impact-oriented small business owners and nonprofits in three other communities. The students shared their classroom learning while also gaining real-world experience from the business owners they worked with.
Team ACAI, made up of Apoorva Kanneganti, Courtney Poopat, Alexis Morath, and Ian Stackhouse-Kaelble, visited the Michigan Good Food Fund and the Us Food Market in Detroit before moving on to Mindshift in Fargo, N.D. and Homes First in Lacey, Wash.
"The opportunity to travel across the country and work with smaller businesses and nonprofits with a social impact mission in communities we hadn't necessarily had exposure to before was something that was exciting and inspiring to all of us," Stackhouse-Kaelble says.
Poopat was especially inspired by Team ACAI's last stop, examining affordable housing with Homes First CEO Trudy Soucoup.
While the MBA students provided the classroom business knowledge that Soucoup didn't have, Soucoup had connections that the students didn't have. She introduced the team to community members, a state representative, a president of a property management company, a certified public accountant, and a lawyer.
"It really opened our eyes to the landscape, learning about the industry and what the nonprofit was doing to create an impact," Poopat says. In turn, the team helped the CEO dig into the feasibility of a proposed new revenue stream.
Team MACK, made up of Christopher Owen, Mark Green, Allison Bernstein, and Kashay Sanders, visited Lil Brilliant Mindz in Detroit before visiting Green Opportunities in Asheville, N.C.; JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pies in Birmingham, Ala.; and Zuni Learning Tree in Conway, Ark.
A third team, called Team THIS, was made up of Stephanie Dolan, Thai Ha-Ngoc, Jinny Han, and Tsering Sherpa. The team visited sites in Detroit; Milwaukee; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Bozeman, Mont.
"Our vision was to contribute to rewriting the national narrative of entrepreneurship that is often seen as white, wealthy, and tech," says Owen. "We wanted to engage the new face of entrepreneurship, minority business owners in particular."
Bernstein says that, as a young black woman, she was nervous about visiting the South with its legacy of slavery. But she says that choice was "very intentional" and that the experience validated her passion for social justice and entrepreneurship.
"We learned so much about the history of this country and the communities entrepreneurs have come from," Bernstein says. "It was quite the life-changing experience to see that incredible genius is equally spread across the country and the world."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Emily Brourman.