Field Course: HBS Neighborhood Business Partnership - Harvard Business School MBA Program

Field Course: HBS Neighborhood Business Partnership

Course Number 6134

Professor Leonard Schlesinger
Senior Lecturer Kristin Mugford
Fall; Q1Q2; 3 credits
10 afternoon classroom sessions in addition to team work
In-class and project based learning

Enrollment: Limited to 40 students

Course Overview

This field-based course represents a unique opportunity for students to build a fruitful relationship with a neighborhood business owner and get their "hands dirty" by working on an important project (or series of projects) for his/her business.

The Small Business Association estimates that there are over 27 million small businesses in the United States - they outnumber large businesses by a factor of over 1,000 to 1. Small businesses represent 50% of jobs and 60% of all job creation in the U.S. All business leaders come in contact with small business - as suppliers, competitors, customers, or important building blocks of the communities in which we live. The public policy implications of small business are significant, both as drivers of economic development, neighborhood vitality, and economic inclusion. There are a myriad of non-profits, for-profits and politicians seeking to “help small business” - but what do small businesses actually need?

Behind each of these small business is an entrepreneur - someone with dreams for their business and significant demands on their time. A hectic day-to-day operation often crowds-out the time to think about big strategic questions or complete important projects. We explore two simple questions: what can we learn from the neighborhood businesses all around us, and what, if anything, can we offer them?

The caliber of work done by our student teams matters. We work with small, often fragile businesses where the team's recommendations can have a significant impact - a real world environment without guard-rails or safety nets. Last year's students successfully partnered with a wide range of local neighborhood businesses including a new vegan fast-casual restaurant in Allston, a hair salon in Cambridge, a donut business in Somerville, a urban garden supply store in Boston and a hip burger restaurant in Dorchester.

Excitingly, this course gives students the opportunity to see what they can accomplish in 14 weeks - what depth of relationships can they build? What business value-add can they help unlock? And what can they learn about themselves as partners and leaders and about the small business ecosystem all around them?

Learning Objectives

  • Build genuine, trust-based relationships with people often quite different from themselves.
  • Work on difficult, sometimes intractable business problems across marketing, finance, sales, growth strategy and HR.
  • Learn how small businesses operate and the personal and professional challenges that surround them.
  • Understand the variety of resources available to local small business owners from community-based and city government organizations, and their potential for impact on local economic development.
  • Get comfortable being uncomfortable; embrace ambiguity.

Course Content and Expectations

The course has two components:

1) Field-based partnership:Teams of two students will partner with a neighborhood business owner in the Greater Boston area. Students will have the opportunity to select a business from a curated list of interested local partners or to find their own. Unlike in most other field-based courses, students will not be given a defined project. Rather, part of the learning will be for student teams and neighborhood business owners to jointly develop their scope. Teams will strive to form a bond with their owner in order to serve as a "trusted advisor" rather than simply a "student project". A wide variety of projects are acceptable, provided they can make a material positive impact on the business.

Student effort is critical. The Fall semester goes by quickly - it is vital that students come to this course excited to get started and committed to the effort and flexibility required for success. Students are expected to plan and deliver the vast majority of the work on their own time, taking the lead from the owner's busy schedule. Students must have strong active listening skills and be both sincere in motivation and humble in attitude.

2) Classroom Sessions:In addition to project work, we will meet together as class for approximately 10 afternoon sessions. Our classroom content will focus on understanding the neighborhood business ecosystem and the ways in which small businesses can drive neighborhood vitality and economy growth. We will learn about common challenges small business owners face and the variety of resources - both for-profit tools and non-profit programs seeking to “help”. Lastly we study public policy implications and opportunities at the city, regional and national level.

Course Requirements and Grading

In addition to attending all classroom discussions, students are expected to spend 2 - 5 hours a week working with their entrepreneurs or on their projects. Teams will submit a weekly “blog post” on their progress.

At the end of the term, students will submit any materials (slides, excel spreadsheets etc.) shared with their entrepreneurs, will prepare a short summary of their project, and will submit a self-reflection. These materials, in combination with classroom will determine a student's grade in the course.

Due to the nature of some EC Field Courses students may be required to sign a legal agreement requested by project/business partner organizations. Additional requirements and documentation may also be requested of students by organizations. While students are typically not charged a course fee for taking an EC field course it is possible that students will be responsible for minimal out-of-pocket costs (varies per course), however funding is provided for local travel to partner locations.