In a Small Town, We Learned Some Big Lessons About Partnerships


Open Road - Week Two
By Team IBAM

Two teams of Ross students are traveling across the country this summer, visiting entrepreneurs and helping them solve business challenges. They’ll be blogging about their experience throughout the summer. Read more about Open Road.

Most MBA students will end up living in a large urban city or the surrounding suburbs after earning their degrees.

But nearly one in five Americans lives outside of that radius.

With this in mind, as part of our month-long Open Road journey, we intentionally sought to spend one of our five weeks on the road with a small-town entrepreneur. Our hope was to gain a deeper perspective about what it’s like to operate a small business in rural America.

So, after wrapping up week one in Detroit, we took off for Discovery Recycling in Daleville, Alabama.

Discovery Recycling is one of only a few places in the
surrounding area where residents and businesses can
come to recycle their waste.

Daleville has a population of 5,187 and sits outside the gates of Fort Rucker, a U.S. Army base in southeast Alabama. Daleville’s economy revolves around the base and the military families that come to live in the surrounding area.

Kevin McManus, an Army veteran who served overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, helped launch Discovery Recycling five years ago. The idea was hatched after Kevin saw an opportunity to put Fort Rucker’s recyclable waste to better use and keep it out of landfills.

Today, Kevin is preparing to launch a new business around electronic waste recycling. We spent our week wrapping our heads around this complex field, reading industry reports, talking to people in our networks, and using a marketing STP-4P's framework to generate recommendations for launching this new business. We left Kevin with our thoughts about his next steps and how to position for success as he grows.

But our biggest takeaways weren’t about the latest regulation on e-waste or the segmentation of commercial customers in southeast Alabama, but rather seeing firsthand how operating within a small, tight-knit community influenced Kevin and his business.

In large part, Kevin’s success is due to the support of his community. There is no economic or regulatory incentive to recycle in the surrounding area, so Kevin relies on community members’ sense of environmental stewardship and the benefits of recycling to support his business.

Kevin’s business also relies on several important partnerships with local organizations and individuals. Those partnerships are built on symbiotic relationships that struck us as remarkably deep and personal.

In one partnership, Kevin is working with Dale County Rescue Mission, a local nonprofit men’s home that will help provide labor for the recycling center. In negotiating this agreement, Kevin told us how he wanted to “do good for them,” even if that meant making concessions. Kevin is acutely aware of the important service Dale County Rescue Mission provides for the local community. He is motivated first by helping the Rescue Mission thrive and second, by the opportunity to enhance his business.

Iris, Mikaela, and Blake talking with Kevin about the
e-waste recycling landscape with Kevin.

In another partnership, Kevin has built a relationship with Wiregrass Rehabilitation Center, an organization that provides jobs and employment training for adults with disabilities who desire to enter the workforce. A few years back, Kevin helped Wiregrass launch an e-recycling program. Today, this organization repays Kevin by sending high-quality, valuable electronic waste to his recycling center as a courtesy to help Kevin’s business. These actions aren’t based on legal contracts, but rather social contracts built up over years of working together in the same community.

Through these examples and others, we learned that in a small town, those kinds of trusted, personal relationships are required to succeed. In a small town, everyone knows everyone, and your relationships and trustworthiness are paramount to your survival.

No matter where our career paths lead us — be it in a small town or big city — the lessons Kevin taught us about the value of strong partnerships built on deep personal relationships will continue to be a powerful guide.

Team IBAM consists of Iris Nguyen, Mikaela Rodkin, Aaron Steiner, and Blake Van Fleteren, members of the Ross MBA Class of 2017.

They just wrapped up their second week with Discovery Recycling in Daleville, Ala. and are headed to New Orleans, La. to work with Goods that Matter. Follow #RossOpenRoad for more.

Open Road is sponsored by the Zell Lurie Institute, the Center for Social Impact, and General Motors.

Read More From The Open Road


WEEK ONE: We’re Driving Across America, Learning About Hard Decisions and Sweet Potato Pies
We launched into our Open Road journey with the delicious smells of fresh sweet potato pie at Detroit’s Sweet Potato Sensations — which is celebrating 28 years of business. Read Blog

WEEK TWO: In a Small Town, We Learned Some Big Lessons About Partnerships
There is no economic or regulatory incentive to recycle in the surrounding area, so Kevin relies on community members’ sense of environmental stewardship. Read Blog

WEEK THREE: Here in New Orleans, We Discovered What Really Matters
Our week with Tippy, Tonto, and Goods That Matter taught us the power of passion. Tippy is successfully integrating product design and social impact in a meaningful way. Read Blog

WEEK FOUR: This Is Business in the Real World. Textbook Solutions Will Only Get Us So Far
AMP faces real business challenges with the futures of real people on the line. THIS is business in the real world. Read Blog

WEEK FIVE: In Kansas City, We Witnessed How Human Connections Are Closing the Digital Divide
When you consider how critical the internet is to leading a productive life as an engaged citizen -- allowing us to access job opportunities, education, or any kind of information -- the idea of the digital divide begins to take shape. Read Blog


WEEK ONE: We Just Had A Perfect Experience During Our Entrepreneurial Road Trip Across America
Earlier this month we landed on-site with our first group of entrepreneurs who founded and run the company Mitten Crate. Read Blog


WEEK TWO: We Dove Into the Twin Cities to Learn About Hydroponics and Aquaponics
While with the Garden Fresh Farms team, we were asked to address how the farm can raise capital within two months to support the business in its next phase of growth. Read Blog​

WEEK THREE: The Entrepreneurial Pulse of Fargo Lives in the Prairie Den
Greg Tehven, co-founder of Emerging Prairie, presented us with this question on Monday: “How can we get people to want to stay in Fargo-Moorhead for one more day?” Read Blog

WEEK FOUR: We Experienced the Thriving Midwestern Tech Hub in Downtown Minneapolis
Our team arrived in Minneapolis on May 21 for the last leg of our amazing Ross Open Road experience. As we entered the 25-member premise of Flipgrid, a tech startup, we felt a strong connection to the office culture that promotes creativity. Read Blog