For many students, the college road trip is a memorable way to see the country and have fun. But eight Babson MBA students hit the road last summer for a challenging six-week journey devoted to sharing their expertise with small-business owners across the U.S. The trip combined iconic experiences, such as diner breakfasts, blues bars, barbecue joints, and the breathtaking sights of Big Sky Country, with the opportunity to put their Babson education to work.
Two four-person teams from Babson were selected to take part in a new program known as MBAs Across America (MBAx). The program was created by four MBA students from Harvard Business School who in 2013 skipped standard summer internships to offer free assistance to entrepreneurs around the country. Fired up by their 8,000-mile road trip, the friends founded MBAx to give other students a similar opportunity.
Jennifer Odera, MBA’15, learned about MBAx during an on-campus information session and formed a team with classmates Mayank Arora, Phillip Lachman, and Peter Cherry. Luca Ceschin, MBA’14, a member of the second Babson team, heard about MBAx from classmate and eventual teammate Kip Taylor. They formed a group with Jorge Gutierrez and Alvaro Valdez, both also MBA’14. Teams worked with five to six companies, spending about five days with each and driving long hours on weekends to reach their next stop. To help participants cover costs, MBAx lined up teams with loaner cars from General Motors and free lodging from Holiday Inn.
Although spending nearly two months with three other people had its ups and downs (imagine working long days together, having inevitable disagreements, and then sleeping in the same hotel room), Odera says her team eventually fell into an effective rhythm. They would arrive in town Saturday evening and use Sunday to catch up on sleep and laundry. That night, they would meet for a casual get-to-know-you dinner with the business owners, which allowed the team to hit the ground running on Monday. By Friday of each week, the team presented the owners with a detailed set of recommendations.
Odera especially loved the week with Sarah Calhoun, founder of Red Ants Pants, a company in White Sulphur Springs, Mont., that makes work pants for women. “She mentioned that she’s not really a businessperson, and we realized that a number of things were not set up in the most efficient way,” Odera says. Her team offered advice on topics such as inventory and billing, choosing the right accountant, and the best way to structure bank accounts. The fact that Calhoun could make time for the MBAx process—“she cleared her calendar for us,” Odera says—made that week especially fruitful. Not all the business owners they encountered could spare that kind of time.
Their first week out, Ceschin’s team learned an important lesson about listening to client needs. They spent hours crafting recommendations beyond what the business owners requested. Turns out the owners already knew the information. During the final presentation, the owners were polite, says Ceschin, “but it was clear that they lost interest while we were presenting the ‘extra stuff.’ When we switched to the topics they asked us to work on, their interest came back.”
Ceschin’s favorite stop was with the owners of Channel Islands Outfitters in Santa Barbara, Calif. They held their get-to-know-you meeting on stand-up paddle boards in the harbor on a sunny Monday morning, an experience that Ceschin says helped them all bond. He believes that Babson’s emphasis on entrepreneurship and the fact that he and his teammates all have experience with startups helped them relate to the owners. “We were able to understand the entrepreneurs’ pain and problems,” Ceschin says. “It felt like we spoke the same language.”
Both Ceschin and Odera would wholeheartedly recommend the program to other MBA students. “We hope the MBAx movement continues to grow,” Odera says. “It was a phenomenal experience.” —Erin O’Donnell