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Atif Qadir Looks Back: Observations – A Summer on the Road with MBAx1

2014 Summer Tour, Columbia Team 1 Blog, Looking Back on MBAx1, MBAx1 Comments (0)

Atif Qadir, Team Columbia 1

Twitter: @atifqadir

When I decided to apply for the MBAs Across America program, I wasn’t harboring dreams of changing America: I had just six weeks on the road to do six consulting projects with six different small business with a team of recently minted MBAs like myself.  I did have two goals to accomplish though by joining the “#MBAx1” movement.  First, I wanted to test out the broad business skills I had developed at Columbia Business School over two years in finance, accounting, marketing, operations and strategy.  By setting out on the road and working on exciting and tangible projects with real people as opposed to imagined ones in case studies, I felt that I would be able to pull a tying thread through all of the education that existed as separate, often unconnected, entities in my mind.  Second, I wanted to see places outside of the East Coast, where I have lived, studied, and worked for my entire life.  MBAs tend to think of America in terms of New York, San Francisco, and few other gateway cities, but that perspective I learned was sorely myopic.

Over the final semester of business school, my team came to figure out what we’d do on this trip and where we wanted it to take us.   I was excited to visit areas of the country that were unfamiliar to me, including the Appalachian states like Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia and parts of the Midwest like Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and North Dakota.  These states have very different economies driven by industries like agriculture and energy and face the dynamics of flooding, rural poverty, housing demand, and changing racial and social structures.  My team was paired with three entrepreneurs: Zlien in New Orleans, Ideum in Albuquerque, and Fargo Brewing Company in Fargo.  The remaining three we found through classmates, like Gociety in Denver and Oakland Living in Detroit, or through old-fashioned web research, like Recycled Hydro Solutions in Rogers, Arkansas.  In the final weeks of business school, between the many farewell parties, last hurrahs and international travel, we carefully pieced together what we would be doing with our entrepreneurs each week and where we would be going with our itineraries from city to city.

Commencement came and went and before we knew it, we were flying to New Orleans to begin our MBAs Across America adventure.  In a whirlwind week, we got to know a city that rose from disaster and learned lessons of economic turnaround, met the other teams in the program, and faced our first project as a team together.  Our client that week was Zlien, a technology startup servicing the construction industry.  It is helping small and medium size construction companies collect on outstanding payments due to them from owners or other contractors as part of liens.  Typically these businesses only collect 30-40% of these outstanding payments due to them.  By helping these small businesses have a coordinated and consolidated strategy to improve collections, Zlien helps them thrive and grow.  We poured through their sales and customer service data, talked to their current and potential customers, cased out their rivals, and brought insights from other industries to help Zlien figure out how it should achieve revenue growth in the competitive lien management services market through intelligent product pricing and design.

That Friday, after we completed our final presentation for Zlien and drove across Lake Pontchartrain in our Chevy Volts, we logged in the first miles of what would be a 5000+ mile trek.  In the coming weeks, we would do deep dives into the challenges other companies faced, learn about IT and operations strategy, become well-versed in small-business financial analysis, and even leave enough time to hike canyons, country line dance, and explore epically beautiful prairie landscapes.  We made sure to drive off the interstate sometimes in order to see beyond the mainstream.  From Natchez to Little Rock, Rogers, Elk City, Amarillo, Santa Rosa, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Colorado Springs, and Denver, we worked with businesses that did very different things and had very different priorities, saw buildings of unusual materials and looks, neighborhoods of varying scales and densities, and cities with wildly different pasts and futures.  In Oklahoma, we met Amy, a young woman with a husband who worked on oil rigs and two small children.  In a hotel lobby, Amy overheard us complaining about New York’s small annoyances like crowded subways and humid summers, and came over to ask if we were from New York.  We said yes, and ignoring our complaints about New York, Amy asked if the buildings in New York are as tall and the lights as bright as you see in the movies.  Beyond the differences in things and places across America, I was reminded of the differences in our people, our perspectives, priorities, and ways of doing and thinking of the very same thing.

By the time my team had arrived in Fargo for the fifth of our six MBAs Across America project, we had gotten into a groove of how to go about doing this “consulting thing” each week. With each new company, we learned about industry, with fresh challenges, and many questions to be answered.  Although our team included soon to be management consultants, the corporate culture or powerpoint-focused analysis of consulting firms was far from what our clients wanted or needed.  Instead, our greatest tool was to be able to ask the right questions and then gather data, interview, listen, analyze, and prioritize to drive to an answer.  The razor-sharp focus on understanding why our clients did what they did, and how it helped or hindered them in reaching their goals is what allowed us to bring value each week, including in Fargo, and in our last week in Detroit.

By the end of the summer, I achieved the two goals I had set for myself before I got on that plane to New Orleans: I strengthened my strategic consulting and finance skills sets and saw how people work and live across the country.  There were a few other things I had learned about business with MBAs Across America:

    • Learn from the outliers: When asked about entrepreneurship in America, many MBAs will think of Silicon Valley, but what about Fargo?Fargo is home to Great Plains Software (which was acquired by Microsoft who maintains a large office in the area), a growing annual TEDx Conference, two universities, and seems to have more in common with Berkeley rather than with Bismarck. By meeting people from all walks of life through 1 Million Cups, Dinner Ties, and Midnight Brunch, we saw that the warm hospitality, humility, and quiet pride underlying a hard work ethic is what has allowed the city become what it is today.  Creating a successful environment that supports small business isn’t just about VC funding and famous engineering programs and business schools.  It’s about connecting and activating an entrepreneurial ecosystem, which we saw first hand in a place most would least expect.
    • Be patient:  After long days of data collection, long weeks of asking questions that lead to more questions, and long drives across wide open spaces, I was reminded about how business transformation isn’t a fly-in, fly-out activity.  More personally, I was able to disabuse myself of the notion of being an excellent problem-solver.  MBA programs can do a good job of telling their students they are the leaders of tomorrow, but sometimes lag in saying how exactly to get their.  Each project we had included unique challenges that highlighted how much I had to learn.  By observing how my clients and how my teammates did things, I was able to benchmark my own skills each week and then learn and pick the best of what I saw to improve myself, in order to put me on the long, long road to becoming a successful practitioner and leader in my own field.
    • Always ask “Why?”: In conversations with my brother, a Bain & Co partner, he emphasized how asking questions is the core of what a consultant does.  Over the course of my MBAxAmerica adventure, it became very clear that the most important question has just one word: Why.  By analyzing and untangling ambitions from actions from both the level of the President down to the Forklift Operator, and seeing how things were actually happening in small businesses, this one word became my most important tool during the summer and one that continues to help me as I launch my post-MBA career.

In one sentence, MBAxAmerica was the best thing I did during my MBA.  It was part roadshow for changing perceptions of MBAs, part last hurrah before the real world, and part private equity style due diligence exercises, part college road trip, and part summer internship with an elite consulting firm, all packed into one week and done 6 times over.  It turned out that by going to places that were so far off the beaten path for even the most entrepreneurial MBAs, it was perhaps me, not the entrepreneurs with whom I worked, that were the most profoundly impacted by my time with MBAxAmerica. At the end of the trip, I was still wondering what did our program do for the communities we joined for just a week. That is difficult to answer now, but I saw firsthand how grassroots groups like MBAs Across America, as well as others from 1 Million Cups to pop-up business incubators, are working to ensure that small business is not just cool but something that is accessible for everyone and a critical part of the social and economic fabric of communities across America.

-Atif Qadir

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