What These MBA Students Did on Their Summer Vacation

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At a Thanksgiving dinner party in 2012, four Harvard Business School MBA students had a plan: Rather than spend their upcoming summer interning at big corporations or traveling the world, they were going to drive around the United States consulting entrepreneurs with a social purpose on key business issues.

In exchange for free assistance, they figured, they would get valuable hands-on experience working with high-impact entrepreneurs and companies—something they couldn’t get in a classroom or the typical MBA summer internship.

“We were commiserating over what to do with our summers,” says Casey Gerald, one of the four Harvard MBAs who recently received his degree. “We didn’t want to go work for XYZ company and build financial models. We were talking about what we could do with our summer that could have some impact.”

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Out of that 2013 road trip spawned MBAs Across America, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that sends teams of MBAs from top U.S. business schools on six-week summer excursions across the United States to help entrepreneurs with key challenges.

In summer 2014, the organization sent out eight teams—two each from Columbia University, Babson College and Stanford, one team with students from both University of California-Berkeley and University of Michigan, and one from Harvard. Most teams spent one week at six different businesses or organizations spread throughout the continental United States and helped them with various issues ranging from product development to online marketing to business expansion.

MBAs Across America identified the businesses the teams visited by reaching out to community groups, people they knew and even Facebook groups to identify companies that were making an impact in their community and beyond. It then reached out to those entrepreneurs to see if they had any interest in having MBAs Across America spend a week at their business helping them with a key issue, says Michael Baker, chief operating officer of the organization and one of the original Harvard MBAs.

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How the program typically works: Each team spends a five-day week at the business. On Monday, they discuss and define the challenge they will be helping the business address that week. The teams then use the skills they’ve gained in business school to help the entrepreneur tackle the challenge at hand. Sometimes that involves conducting market research, such as surveys or database searches; sometimes that involves creating financial and operational models to help the entrepreneurs manage costs or make key decisions.

The teams also have access to a network of experts developed by MBAs Across America that can help the businesses with specific issues, whether that’s questions about protecting intellectual property or licensing and manufacturing agreements. “Our teams are kind of primary care physicians going in making house calls,” Baker says. “Sometimes they need a specialist.”

On Friday, the MBA teams typically give a presentation to the entrepreneur with their findings and recommendations from over the week, as well as any tools or models they developed to help the business owner run the business more effectively. In the following months after the visit, the team captains follow up with the entrepreneurs to help them with any additional questions and see if the recommendations have been implemented.

While implementation of some of the ideas can be slow, surveys done by MBAs Across America suggest that 100% of the entrepreneurs assisted so far plan on implementing at least one of the recommendations. Many times they find out months after a visit that an entrepreneur has taken action on one of their recommendations. These rates are boosted by the fact the group selects high-growth companies, not ones that need to be saved, and only companies that will be receptive to advice.

MBAs Across America is funded through various private donations, contributions from the universities where the MBA students attend and has received some corporate sponsorships. General Motors, for example, donated Chevy Volt electric cars so that each team could have two vehicles to travel around in. Holiday Inn provided the teams with free accommodations in each of their destinations.

So far, MBAs Across America has assisted 50 entrepreneurs in 20 states with the help of 36 MBAs. The group has yet to try and quantify the time and financial savings they’ve generated for the companies they’ve assisted, but they are already hearing plenty of anecdotes. One entrepreneur emailed recently, for example, to say he just signed a two-year, $400,000 contract with a new client thanks in part to the MBA team’s guidance.

The tough part about quantifying MBAs Across America’s results is “there’s certainly a correlation, but how much of that $400,000 can we take credit for?” Gerald, CEO of the organization.

In the coming year, Gerald and Baker want to focus more on improving the effectiveness of the organization and its services rather than expanding it. They plan to build a more rigorous process for selecting the entrepreneurs they work with next summer and fine-tune the MBA teams’ process. They also want to build a network of entrepreneurs they’ve helped, so they can communicate and share ideas. “It’s about going deeper into the types of connections we’re enabling,” Gerald adds.

Meghan Sherlock, a 2014 Harvard MBA recipient, says participating in MBAs Across America gave her valuable hands-on experience working with businesses on a wide variety of challenges. Though she has a consulting job lined up at Bain & Company in New York, she hopes to use her summer experience to eventually consult businesses looking to make an impact.

Sherlock adds: “In MBA classes now, there are a lot more people who are interested in using their skills to make a difference.”