The HBS Summer Fellows Program enables students to apply their classroom training as they explore career opportunities in roles or regions where compensation is generally lower than the traditional MBA level. We are connecting with some of our 59 Social Enterprise Summer Fellows, who worked around the world this summer to develop skills and knowledge while having significant responsibility and high impact.

What were you working on this summer?

This summer, I worked with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), Southeastern Wisconsin’s business chamber and economic development organization. My hometown of Milwaukee faces the dual challenge of how to catalyze local economic growth in the face of decades of deindustrialization and automation, while also reducing severe and growing racial inequities. Our metro area is the most racially-segregated in the nation, and due to historical barriers, has the highest economic disparities between White and Black/Latino residents among peer markets.

Two years ago, regional CEOs came together to declare racial equity as the top threat and opportunity facing our economy. With this commitment, MMAC established the Region of Choice initiative, with over a hundred area corporations, from Fortune 500 companies to mid-sized businesses, pledging to expand Black and Brown talent in their management roles by 25% and overall staff by 15% by 2025.

Over the course of the last three months, I led a strategy project with MMAC leadership to explore how MMAC can expand and deepen this important private sector partnership to accelerate the area’s 1400+ Black and Brown-owned businesses, helping create new family-supporting jobs and reduce the racial wealth gap.

Why did you choose this internship for the summer?

Growing up in the city of Milwaukee, I witnessed the impact of a rapidly changing economy on my neighbors’ lives. Every day on the way to school, I rode past shuttered manufacturing plants that once employed tens of thousands of our residents. Despite living in a divided city, my parents thoughtfully put my sister and I in diverse urban public schools, which forged my passion for racial equity.

After graduating from college in Washington, DC, I was founding director of the DC Community Anchor Partnership (DCAP), a public-private network, in partnership with the Mayor’s office, collaborating with large private institutions to leverage their procurement power to support entrepreneurs of color. As part of our work, we were able to triple our private institutions’ annual spend with local Black and Brown-owned companies, shifting over $15 million in new contracts to disadvantaged businesses and changing institutional policies and practices. After being away for nearly a decade, I was excited this summer to return home and learn from local community leaders to explore how I can help make an equitable impact after HBS.

What were your goals for this summer?

Living away from Milwaukee for nearly a decade, my top priorities this summer were to familiarize myself with the assets and challenges facing our city’s economy, while learning from leaders who are driving change. I enjoyed getting an overview of our “cluster” growth industries (such as advanced manufacturing, water tech, food/beverage, finance/insurance, healthcare, and more), and how to pitch the strategic advantages of the region. Moreover, I am grateful for the opportunity to put into practice the skills I have refined in the MBA program such as strategy development, stakeholder alignment, and data analysis. Most importantly, I greatly enjoyed the chance to build and deepen relationships with over one hundred diverse, local leaders, from Black and Brown business owners whose innovation and resilience is inspiring, to corporate executives authentically trying to figure out how they can do more, to ecosystem leaders such as business support organizations, capital providers, government partners, and advocates who work hard to break down business barriers. I even got the chance to get a city tour from our past development commissioner, and taste delicious foods at Sherman Phoenix, a groundbreaking business marketplace that was born out of racial unrest, now a shining example of equitable entrepreneurship! Above all else, I am grateful I was able to learn from many on the ground who are working hard every day to help ensure our city’s prosperity reaches all.

How did your MBA skillset prepare you to be successful in this role?

My core project this summer was to develop a feasibility study for Region of Choice’s expansion into equitable business development. To accomplish this, I led interviews and focus groups to understand the challenge, conducted a survey of 65+ area corporate executives, catalogued and assessed existing solutions underway, and did my best to develop an ambitious, actionable strategy plan for MMAC and partners’ consideration. The skills that I am learning at HBS were very helpful in helping me make an equitable, economically sustainable impact. The Strategy course (STRAT) taught me the principle of tailoring solutions to the local context and end-user needs, rather than necessarily “copying and pasting” others’ efforts. The “lean startup” hypothesis-driven entrepreneurship toolbox from The Entrepreneurial Manager (TEM) course and Startup Bootcamp helped me learn how to tactically develop a new concrete business model from scratch, skills that can be applied to any sector. Further, the HBS case method helped build my confidence and communications skills beyond the classroom, especially how to listen and act on varied, sometimes competing, views. I’ve been given the chance to present my findings from this summer to regional CEOs at MMAC’s Board meeting in September as the organization determines how to move forward, and I’m grateful for how HBS and the Social Enterprise Initiative have contributed to my professional and personal growth.

How has the summer influenced your thinking on future involvement in social enterprise?

The scale of our racial wealth gap means the private sector must act boldly to advance equity; we need all hands on-deck to make significant, urgent progress towards inclusive prosperity. Luckily, racial equity is both the right thing to do and offers clear business benefits, with 80% of corporate executives I surveyed this summer saying it helps build market share with diverse consumers, and 58% saying it helps recruit and retain diverse employee talent. Corporations can take action by developing leadership commitment to racial equity; creating concrete strategies to contract with, invest in, and advocate for Black and Brown-owned companies and the partners that support them; and publicly establish targets and report results so we can ensure progress. After last summer’s national racial reckoning, a clear rallying cry from the streets was it must not solely be the burden of the marginalized to correct historical injustice; we need all of us, especially those of us with privilege, to push for equity in the boardrooms we have access to. In my future career, I hope to use my influence and skills to help forge inclusive coalitions that expand economic opportunity for all in my hometown. This summer, I was grateful for the chance to help get started, and I’m looking forward to the chance to work together with others towards the day when who you are or what neighborhood you grew up in no longer affects economic opportunity in our community.

How can someone learn more about your organization?

You can learn more about MMAC’s Region of Choice initiative by visiting their website or by following MMAC on Twitter and LinkedIn.

This story was originally published on the Social Enterprise Impact Insights blog.