Meghan Sherlock, Team Harvard
I had a tenuous grasp of what it meant to be American when we set out on our trip at the beginning of the summer, after two years of living abroad and another two years in business school. I expected to feel like a foreigner on the road in so many regions that I’d never visited before. Sometimes I did—when I struggled with my first crawfish at a roadside restaurant in Louisiana, for instance. But over the course of six weeks I began to see a picture of America come into focus that made me excited to be a part of it.
Each city had its own personality and feel, but the commonalities on our road trip surprised me more than the differences. In city after city, we saw neighborhoods in varying states of revitalization. In city after city, we saw a move toward entrepreneurship as a tool for building and rebuilding. And in city after city, we met entrepreneurs who cared deeply about their communities and who were trying to change them for the better—who did it as if it were the most natural thing in the world that they could be doing.
I did plenty of reflecting on the road, as my teammates know all too well, since plenty of that reflection time happened out loud when we steered onto the highway. Although it’s impossible to sum up what I learned over the summer in a few bulletpoints, here’s my attempt to capture a few of the insights that I took away:
The social impact space is complex and requires real business model innovation. Seeing such a range of organizations addressing so many different problems made me reflect on what it means to work as a business with positive social impact. On the one hand, it’s much tougher to succeed as a social enterprise because sometimes it’s hard to avoid tradeoffs between different social impact objectives while still maintaining a reasonable margin. On the other hand, an efficient social enterprise with an innovative business model can have a transformative impact on its community. The bar for success may be higher for social impact, but that challenge makes the space exciting.
It’s hard to “copy paste” innovative business models from place to place. I began the summer thinking that most of the businesses we encountered could easily be launched elsewhere—in effect, that place was not an important factor in thinking about social impact. But as we encountered so many innovative models, I began to think about the circumstances that forced them, and allowed them, to evolve. In NOLA, the Youth Rebuilding New Orleans business model emerged from a surge of volunteer interest in the region following Katrina and the slow but steady rebuilding of the city. In Detroit, the Social Club Grooming Company began composting hair clippings in response to the need for a greener city. Although these models are not restricted to their birthplace cities, they’re marked by a sense of place.
The way a city’s elite chooses to invest its capital can have a dramatic impact on the city’s growth. Although we went on the road to learn about how small businesses can create impact on the ground level, it was hard to ignore how patterns of capital investment had shaped the entrepreneurial culture in different cities. In Wichita, we heard from many different parties that the city’s billionaires weren’t ready for the high-risk, high-reward dynamic of venture capital, and preferred safer investments in infrastructure—which made launching a business and drawing talent a difficult prospect. In Nashville, by contrast, we looked into a class on angel investing as we toured the Nashville Entrepreneurship Center and were led to a star-studded wall featuring the Center’s sponsors. While it’s impossible to put aside all of the other economic factors that are associated with growth, I found the contrast striking.
I find it difficult to close this blog post, maybe because I don’t feel like I’m closing this chapter just yet. Although I won’t be taking to the road again anytime soon, I hope to continue looking for ways to contribute my part to building communities, and looking for entrepreneurs that inspire me to do more.