23 Oct 2020

Students Pair with Local Black-Owned Businesses in New MBA Field Course

Recent class in Scaling Minority Businesses

by Shona Simkin

Scaling Minority Businesses, a new field class in the Elective Curriculum (EC) this fall, aims Harvard Business School (HBS) resources straight at Black-owned businesses in greater Boston. By pairing local businesses with MBA students as consultants, teaching relevant cases, and bringing in expert speakers, Professors Henry McGee (MBA 1979), Jeff Bussgang (MBA 1995), and Archie Jones (MBA 1998) hope to make a lasting difference in the fight for racial justice and against systemic racism.

In the week following the killing of George Floyd, Bussgang reached out to McGee to brainstorm about how they might use this moment as an inflection point. The COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for HBS students’ activism, engagement, and entrepreneurship—could this be a similar inspiration for a substantial effort around racial equity in the HBS curriculum?

“I felt it was important that Harvard focus on how it could use its resources to engage with the Boston community in ways that would address the problems of racism and inequities,” said McGee, who serves as faculty co-advisor of the African American Student Union. “As a lot of businesses have made commitments to address these issues, it’s important that our educational institutions do as well.”

“The HBS value proposition to our students is heavily focused on the network, and that network has yielded great results for all three of us as alumni and faculty, but it’s one that obviously not everyone has access to,” said Bussgang. “To be able to bring that network to bear for Black owned businesses is pretty awesome. We hope that these businesses will benefit from this relationship not only over the course of this semester but also beyond, and that we can create some connectivity with the Harvard community in general and the HBS community in particular, to advance their knowledge, social capital, and eventually their access to financial capital.”

Bussgang and McGee quickly pulled in a newer member of the faculty with experience in scaling businesses; Jones. “I immediately loved the idea,” said Jones. “I had invested much of my career in scaling businesses, so the opportunity to point that experience and expertise at communities of color and businesses within those underrepresented communities was the perfect use of the skill set I developed at HBS and honed afterwards. I also loved that it involved field work with students—I know how powerful that experience can be. It felt like we as a team could really deliver on the promises of the course.”

The team decided to use as a template a spring term field course McGee teaches with Professor Rohit Deshpande which connects MBA students with local arts nonprofit organizations for strategic counsel. They also drew on two prior EC curriculum courses, Black Entrepreneurship and Neighborhood Business Partnerships.

Calling on his connections in the Boston civic community, and with the assistance of Glynn Lloyd at the Foundation for Business Equity, Bussgang brought on board 10 local businesses that were ready for scale and could incorporate several MBA students. They spun up plans for the new case that Bussgang co-authored with Professors Karen Mills and Martin Sinozich, which traces the journey of Tyler Simpson (MBA 2020) and Kimberly Foster (MBA 2020) as they launched the first Black Tech Masters Series at HBS. Digging into that Harvard network, they scheduled guest lectures featuring speakers including Professor Michael Porter (MBA 1971), CEO of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City Steven Grossman (MBA 1969), Segun Idowu of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, and Mills, and focusing on institutional racism and its impact on economic development and entrepreneurship, access to capital, and access to customers.

The 10 businesses include some of the largest minority-owned companies in Massachusetts, in industries ranging from real estate to construction to industrial packaging. Cruz Companies, a third-generation family business in the fields of construction, development, and management, is thrilled to participate. “We’re at a pinnacle point in our companies, ready to market our firm for a lot of new growth, and therefore it was a natural fit,” said John Cruz III, president and CEO. “We want to concentrate on our real estate management side, which is headed up by my son, Justin. I’m excited to be in the course not only for what we might learn, but to have some of the best thinkers and teachers out there critique us and help us move forward. I can’t wait to get in the trenches with the students, and to also have the students learn more and contribute to Black business success stories.”

For Bussgang, the course feels like a welcome risk, like those he teaches his students to embrace and use as a catalyst for growth. In a year that has only highlighted and exacerbated the inequities of systemic racism, that risk is an important one. “The scholar Jason Reynolds uses a metaphor that in aspiring to not be racist, you’re hitting a bunt, but if you aspire to be anti-racist, you have to swing for the fences. It requires a really intentional strategy to dig in and invest and swing hard at something and take risks. This year HBS is really embracing that notion, and so are we.”

With 24 students in the class, including several cross-registrants from the Harvard Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Design, Scaling Minority Businesses is off to a great start, and all involved are hopeful that it will grow and continue to build bridges between Harvard and minority-owned businesses in the greater Boston area.

“Like good entrepreneurs, we think of this as a bit of a pilot program,” said Jones. “Let's see if we can get it working in our backyard, where we can at least be closer to some of the many variables affecting success. I also hope that it can be its own case study and even a catalyst for a broader set of efforts to pair MBA students across the country with local businesses.”

“My hope first and foremost is that the class will have a meaningful impact on the ability of these businesses to survive and thrive post-pandemic, and that it provides a powerful learning experience our students can take away from HBS and use in whatever business setting they end up in,” said McGee. “Whether they're entrepreneurs or working for a huge Fortune 500 company, there will be opportunities to direct their resources towards building minority-owned businesses, which are so important to the equity and the future of America.”

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