Renee Frantz, Team Columbia 2
MBAx was my first in-depth experience working with small businesses. While I had some exposure to entrepreneurship during business school, I wanted to work alongside the founders of these businesses to truly understand their challenges and to more broadly discover how entrepreneurship can benefit our society. This summer, during our 6,000-mile, 6-week journey, I quickly learned that almost everything about running a small business is challenging, especially given resource and time constraints. But it also immediately became clear to me that the results of entrepreneurship can be enormously rewarding and impactful.
What is success?
Although the five companies we worked with this summer fell along a wide spectrum both in terms of size and industry, we immediately began to see connections across the businesses. As we got to know each entrepreneur, there was a common topic that we kept coming back to: what does success mean to them? While growth and profitability of their businesses were certainly important elements, there appeared to be a more powerful commonality across these organizations. Although articulated slightly differently from entrepreneur to entrepreneur, each seemed to continuously be interested in how their businesses impacted the people around them, including their employees, customers, families, and members of their surrounding communities. (Headframe Spirits, for example, referred to this as their return on community.)
And each businesses is truly having a significant impact, albeit in different ways. Over the course of the summer, we spoke with customers whose lives have improved because of aspects of our entrepreneurs’ products, with employees who have taken roles in these organizations that they never expected to have, with surrounding family members and friends who have been inspired to join or contribute to the businesses, and more…
How are they achieving this?
In reflecting on our journey, I’ve thought more about how each of our entrepreneurs has been able to achieve this type of success that goes beyond economic profit. It seems to me that there are two common threads: each entrepreneur is deeply connected and committed to a community and each is incredibly passionate about the product or service they are providing.
During each project, we learned that the entrepreneur has personal ties to the group of people they are serving and is committed to improving the lives of these people, even if in some small way. These personal ties range from deep connections to a specific city to connections to consumers with whom they closely relate (and who often have a common unmet need). Headframe Spirits and A La Carte Specialty Foods (ALC) are clear illustrations of the former: the founders’ roots are in the cities where they’ve established their businesses (Butte, MT and New Orleans, LA, respectively) and both have contributed in their own way to the revitalization of these cities following recent economic downturns. Howard’s Organic Fare & Vegetable Patch, Eli Tea, and Life is Beautiful show the latter: they are committed to providing products and services that improve the health and well-being of a customer group to which they have a personal connection.
There is no question that the people we worked with love what they’re creating. Craig Howard has been interested in cooking since he was a child, and now loves preparing healthy meals for friends and hosting customers for monthly potlucks. At Headframe, Courtney McKee expressed the joy she feels when they bring Butte residents together in their tasting room and John McKee spoke about the features of his innovative distillation system that make the process exciting for him and customers…plus his general love for high quality spirits. There are similar stories for our other entrepreneurs and hearing each speak about their love for what they’re doing was inspiring in itself.
This summer, I learned that entrepreneurship is difficult, and can even be terrifying at times. But more than anything, I was inspired by how these small businesses have been able to impact the lives of their employees, customers, and people in their communities – often having limited resources and limited time. Our MBAx journey motivated me to try to have a similar impact on a community during my career, with hopes of being able to achieve even a fraction of the impact these entrepreneurs have.