09 May 2013
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Road Trip

An EnTRIPreneurial Venture
Re: Fred Braun (MBA 1959); Michael Skelly (MBA 1991)

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On or about Independence Day, July 4, four HBS students will pile into their rented RV and set out to discover America. No, this is not Kerouac-inspired wanderlust or a blow-off-steam partymobile. Dubbed MBAxAmerica (mbaxamerica.com) by the students, it's more like a rolling summer job with an entrepreneurial focus and a dash of pro bono consulting, built around visits to seven high-potential companies in the American heartland.

Making the trip are Hicham Mhammedi Alaoui, Michael Baker, Casey Gerald, and Amaris Singer (all HBS 2014). As Gerald explains: "With globalization, there's been a lot of attention paid to what's happening overseas, and rightly so. But our goal is to help MBAs better understand the challenges of being an entrepreneur here in the United States, especially when you're operating far from the two coasts, off the beaten path.

"We want to learn from these entrepreneurs who've invited us to assess their operations," continues Gerald. "Hopefully we can offer some useful feedback. But a big goal for us is to gain perspective on the real needs of real entrepreneurs and to share what we learn with a larger, supportive community of fellow entrepreneurs, professors, venture capitalists, and anyone else committed to entrepreneurship. We'd like this trip to be a growth engine for entrepreneurial practice generally."

The MBAxAmerica students have received moral and financial support from the alumni network. "All we usually read about is some whiz kid in California whose new app has made him millions," notes Fred Braun (MBA 1959), president of Workman Fund in Leavenworth, Kansas. "Perhaps the report the MBAxAmerica students make after their trip will help correct this. I have many entrepreneurial friends in traditional industries here in the Kansas City area. Indeed, I believe there are many entrepreneurial opportunities in the Midwest and Southwest but because they're related to industries such as grain, oil, shale gas, plastics, and transportation, they don't get national media attention."

A principal at Clean Line Energy Partners in Houston, Michael Skelly (MBA 1991), who believes that "MBAs need to 'get out more,'" hopes to get the students to Houston to "introduce them around town and have a dinner party at my house if they have time. I'm envious of what they are doing and I do think they will be helpful to the companies they visit. I love the whimsical side of their project, too."

To date, to fund the trip, the students have raised some $13,000 of their $50,000 goal from alumni and friends and through online crowdfunding. Here are two of the companies they will be visiting, and what makes them interesting case studies:

Red Ants Pants (White Sulphur Springs, Montana). USA-made work clothes designed to fit women, including 70 sizes of pants. Founded in 2006 by Montana Entrepreneur of the Year Sarah Calhoun. The company also hosts a July music festival (Emmy Lou Harris, Taj Mahal, et al) to support its charitable foundation.

"Unlike a start-up in a larger city, RAP, based in a community of 900 people, makes everything work without the advantage of incubators, or a large local peer group, or access to many local customers," says Mike Baker. "Sarah and her team are tenacious and we think we'll learn a lot from them."

Highland Brewing Company (Asheville, North Carolina). Cofounded in 1994 by owner Oscar Wong (SBA North Carolina Person of the Year), it began brewing locally in 2006. Its staff of 40 now produces 12 brews sold in 7 Southeast states. (Fans recommend the Cold Mountain Winter Ale and award-winning Black Mocha Stout.)

"Highland is well-known for its support of the Asheville community," notes Baker. "It's an especially interesting business because it's a locally based and growing family-owned entrepreneurial brand going up against large competitors in a highly competitive industry."

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