In the past year, Jeremy Burnham, a chemical engineer with a background in oil and energy, has experienced a dizzying succession of transitions. “Last June, my wife Perisha and I moved to Cambridge,” Jeremy explains. “In July, she gave birth to our daughter, Maya. Then in August, I started school at HBS.” Perisha has found support and friendship through Crimson Parents, a group of mothers, students and partners who share stories and survival tips. At HBS, Jeremy has found fresh and unexpected ways of looking at his industry – and his career.
After five years of experience on the downstream side of the oil industry (refining, transportation and distribution), Jeremy “wanted to see the bigger picture, to explore alternative energies and other industries” that would add greater reach to his career. He visited a number of business schools and HBS stood out as something different. “I already had the quantitative side and was looking for the opposite,” says Jeremy. “I was impressed that HBS focused less on analytics and more on interpersonal and communications skills – that it was less about crunching numbers and more about learning how to act boldly even when you have limited information.”
Out of the comfort zone and into...shoes
“Limited information” would be understating the situation Jeremy and his team faced on their FIELD 2 mission to Buenos Aries, Argentina, where the six HBS colleagues were assigned to help Paez, a small shoe company. “We had two bankers, two consultants, one guy who had been a software entrepreneur, and me, an oil and gas engineer,” says Jeremy. “Not one of us spoke Spanish and none of us had any experience in consumer goods.”
But they all found the challenge exciting. To help Paez expand their business with young, trendy consumers in Argentina, Jeremy’s team was asked to come up with concepts for a “sustainable” shoe that would appeal to impulse buyers. For two months, the team met once a week to brainstorm ideas and ultimately settled on three: an “exchange” program in which customers who brought in old shoes that could be recycled into new ones would get an immediate discount; a shoe design that used Velcro to hold together interchangeable parts at the customer’s discretion; and a business model that would reward local artists by trading designs for contributions to local non-profits.
In Argentina, however, all three ideas “were shot down,” Jeremy says. “It wasn’t that the ideas were bad – they just wouldn’t work within the context of Argentina.” For example, any idea that depended on using recycled materials would fail in light of Argentina’s constrictive import/export regulatory environment. And using old shoes? Jeremy and his team tested it in the Paez’s factory and found the idea both impractical and unprofitable.
But being in-country helped them understand the personal impact of high inflation (as much as 25% - 30% a year) on behavior: people often spent money as soon as they had it. Appealing to impulse purchasers would be key. The team regrouped, modifying their exchange model with a twist: the old shoes wouldn’t be used to make new shoes, but interesting trinkets. The trinkets (such as wallets, pouches and key fobs) and the discount would encourage impulse buying, and the social media appeal of the promotion would increase overall store traffic.
Summarizing the value of the FIELD 2 experience, Jeremy says, “Coming from a commodity industry, I didn’t know anything about marketing. In Argentina, I was forced to apply what I’ve learned in my career and in my courses to a completely unfamiliar terrain. That’s the whole point of going to business school – to experience things you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, to broaden your perspective.”