Hear From Five Michigan Ross MBAs Who Traveled Around the Country Helping Small Businesses for Open Road this Summer
Earlier this summer, six teams of Full-Time MBA students from the Ross School of Business hit the road to work with early-stage entrepreneurs — from Asian American restaurateurs to fitness studio operators —- across the country as part of a popular action-based learning program focused on social impact.
Organized by the Business+Impact initiative at Michigan Ross and sponsored by the Ford Motor Co. Foundation, Ross Open Road gives students firsthand experience understanding the real issues social ventures face nationwide while also providing small business owners help in solving complex challenges. Over the course of a month, students drive from state to state meeting with various socially- and environmentally-driven entrepreneurs to develop a solution or recommendation to a pressing business problem each one has.
Below, Michigan Ross students from five of this year’s Open Road teams talk about what they did, enjoyed, and learned on their recent cross-country consulting adventure.
Team: Geek Squad (other members: Joss Woodhead, MBA ’23; Messeret Kebede, MBA ’23; Chisom Uche, MBA ’23)
The Geek Squad team was formed out of a group that wanted to learn more about social impact and social enterprises, explore the Midwest, and form lasting relationships with each other. Our team decided we wanted to work with Black-owned social enterprises, nonprofits, or small businesses in the Midwest. Our road trip took us from Columbus to Nashville, St. Louis, and back home to Detroit. By tapping into our networks and reaching out to individuals we read about in the newsletter, we were able to find four amazing organizations to work with and learn from.
Each week, we would dive right into the organization and figure out a short project where we could make an impact in a week's time. After interviews, tours, reading through existing documents, and often harnessing the power of the Post-It Note working session, we helped create pricing strategies, data collection strategies, marketing plans, grant applications, and any other small things we could do to help the organizations.
Besides work, we had the chance to build organic relationships with the entrepreneurs through meals, snacks, and board games, and learned about the communities we were in and the histories that you don't always get to hear about until you sit down and talk with someone for hours. We also took every minute to explore the cities we were in; eating at different restaurants, walking around downtown, and touring different Planet Fitness gyms around the Midwest. Our group is very thankful for this opportunity to learn, serve, and create lasting relationships with each other and all the individuals we met on this trip.
Esther Chen, MBA ’23
Team: SEEL the Deal (other members: Eden Berdugo, MBA ’23; Linnet Leon, MBA/MS ’23; Sai Madhavi Antharam, MBA ’23)
For four weeks, Team SEEL the Deal headed south to support small businesses in the United States. We started off in Ann Arbor, where we supported BYOC Co., a sustainable retail shop that encourages waste reduction, and gradually made our way down to Nashville, Tennessee, which was our first road destination. We supported Voces de Nashville, a women-owned co-op that teaches students who want to learn Spanish, as well as trains native speakers to teach Spanish. After Nashville, we stopped in Birmingham, Alabama, to work with Naughty but Nice Kettle Corn Co., and lastly, Vivify Training & Fitness, a boutique fitness studio in New Orleans. During the trip, we worked on initiatives such as designing a loyalty program, making recommendations on store and website customer experiences, creating financial models and pitch decks, designing a tiered catering experience, and defining a brand vision.
We had many high points throughout this experience, but the greatest part was the amount of time we had to bond with each other personally and professionally. We explored new cities and all of their offerings, cooked together, and had weekly, one-on-one feedback sessions. One experience that we enjoyed was visiting the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. In visiting the South, it was important for us to understand the history of racial inequality in the U.S. Lastly, prior to this experience, half of us had experience with using design thinking principles. After this experience, we all have experience with either leading or facilitating via design thinking, which is a great framework to use in our professional careers.
Eric Hopfenbeck, MBA ’22
Team: Hidden JEMMS (other members: Jaume Boneta Seco, MBA ’22; Mallory Leibowitz, MBA ’22; Megha Savla, MBA ’22)
The Hidden JEMMs team had a phenomenal experience on the Open Road in May 2022. With a focus on supporting community-building organizations in the food and beverage space, we were delighted to partner with organizations committed to serving those who are underrepresented. We began in Portland, Oregon, working alongside Jenny Nguyen, founder and owner of The Sports Bra, the first and only sports bar in America dedicated exclusively to showing women’s sports. We helped Jenny with immediate actions to help propel the business forward — she had only been open for five weeks prior to our arrival — and then created a roadmap to help her someday think through expansion. Then, we ventured north to Seattle, Washington where we worked alongside Justin Smith, interim executive director of Catalyst Kitchens, a nonprofit serving a network of nonprofits leading a movement to end joblessness through food service job training and social enterprise. We worked with Justin on a 101 guide for individuals interested in starting a food-service job training program, and helped think through vendor relationship management.
The high point of our experience was by far getting to see the direct impact of the skills we learned through our Michigan Ross MBA experience. We felt confident and comfortable leveraging the knowledge from the past two years to help both Jenny and Justin accomplish more. And truly, we especially enjoyed getting to know them both beyond simply a working relationship. Over a beer at the Bra with Jenny, we heard all about her background and what inspired her to start the Sports Bra, which only motivated us more. In Seattle, Justin made us an exquisite homemade meal with fresh local ingredients, all while describing his passion for supporting those who are often underserved, or worse, forgotten.
Special shoutout to Michigan Ross, Business+Impact, the Zell Lurie Institute, and the Ford Motor Co. Fund for making this amazing trip possible.
Amanda Hsieh, MBA ’22
Team: Community Collective (other members: Marissa Cooper, MBA ’22; Kat Nguyen, MBA ’22; Hemangani Pande, MBA ’23)
Open Road was an incredible journey, where our team traveled throughout the Midwest and the South to work alongside social enterprises. Our team chose businesses that were providing a positive impact in their community — from hiring women impacted by domestic violence to paying employees well above minimum wage and providing financial counseling to their staff. We worked hand-in-hand with the enterprises to tackle challenges facing the businesses. We learned so much from not only the entrepreneurs, but from their employees. We learned how complex jewelry making is, how a bakery is run, and many other intangible skills.
There were so many high points throughout the trip, from staying in the German Village in Columbus, Ohio, to working from different coffee shops in Nashville. Our team made the most out of being on the road. We started as (mostly) strangers, but learned so much about each other throughout the month. I'd highly recommend this experience for someone that is looking to get outside their comfort zone, hone their people skills, and make a positive impact.
Ashley Tran, MBA ’23
Team: Eats Meets West (other members: Patrick Nguyen Burden, MBA ’23; Sam Teng, MBA ’23; Gic-Owens Fiestan, MBA/MD ’24)
So much of our experiences growing up revolved around a dinner table, and even today, we find ourselves tied to both the foods we make and enjoy and the people we share our meals with. Open Road provided us at Eats Meets West with the opportunity to give back to the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities that raised us as we worked with AAPI entrepreneurs to enhance their work in the food space. Over the course of May and AAPI Heritage Month, we had the opportunity to engage with entrepreneurs across the farming, grocery retail, restaurant, and consumer packaged goods spaces to understand the challenges faced by Asian American business owners and how their identities have influenced their work.
During Open Road, we were excited to be able to explore how food sits at various junctures of our lives. We loved learning about how these entrepreneurs have brought their individual passions and their cultural ties into their work, and we were thrilled to be able to explore how our own knowledge played a role in shaping their businesses. As Michigan Ross MBA dual- degree students across environment and sustainability, medicine, education, and design, we were excited to see how our unique perspectives shaped recommendations and approaches to problems.