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What I learned from 8 weeks on the road – Mike

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It’s two weeks after the final leg of MBAs Across America brought us from Washington DC up to Boston, and I’m back at school in a dorm room desk chair, surrounded by freshly scribbled-on cases and tiny piles of unread books we got from new friends we met on the road, doing my best to get my mind around how to describe the most important lessons I learned over the 56 days, 8 cities, and 8,000 miles that framed this road trip.

First, thanks, because if you are reading this you likely supported us in some way: by donating to our crowdfunding campaign, through an encouraging email or text, or maybe by sending us cookies, and that support gave me the chance to have the most transformative summer of my life, a big claim, but “transformative” is the only word I can think of that does it justice.

Admittedly, some of the things I learned were practical or interesting, but not quite transformative, like:

  • How to use a table saw, or
  • How to get a full tank of gas, hit the bathroom, buy trail mix, fix the GPS, and choose the next album on Spotify before Amaris wakes up, or
  • How to tell the exact moment when a teammate becomes too tired or too hungry or too *insert any number of states* to interact and needs some alone time, and
  • How to finalize the scope of a project Monday, execute it Tuesday and Wednesday, workshop with the entrepreneur on Thursday, and be out the door Friday having delivered a “5 quick things you can do next week to move the needle a few degrees” list that doesn’t suck, and most importantly:
  • If you happen to pass through Beaver, Utah (population 2,454) craving Mexican food, go to Maria’s Cocina.

But the real lessons I learned on the road are the kind that I can already tell are too sticky for me to get away from anytime soon. Here’s the one that I’ve been thinking about most:

“Why me?” vs. “Why not me?”

During the first week of our trip we worked with Sebastian Jackson, 26 year old founder of The Social Club Grooming Company, who originally realized that the hair he was cutting off his clients in his barbershop had potential beyond being bagged and thrown away when he decided to send it to the Gulf of Mexico to sop up the oil hemorrhaging from Deepwater Horizon. Sebastian is from Flint, Michigan and his shop is in Detroit, a city that just went bankrupt, a city where you drive your mother or wife or husband to the hospital yourself if they have a heart attack because the ambulance service is too underfunded to get them to the ER in time. The neighborhoods and places Sebastian “should” care about have their own pressing problems, and he has the shop’s P & L to worry about, so on the first day of our trip we asked him “Why?” “Why did you get fired up about the spill, something that was so far away from Detroit?”

It’s a logical question, one that would likely be rewarded with support in a business school classroom, where it can be a badge of honor to find the fatal flaw in the financial projections or the hole in a founder’s resume that escaped everyone else’s notice. Isn’t this an inefficient use of time for a resource-constrained entrepreneur who should be “laser focused” on the customer experience, maximizing revenue, and minimizing costs? Isn’t this a distraction from the “core competencies” of a barbershop? Shouldn’t he be finding hyper-local synergies to leverage, or creating network effects for key stakeholders, or something?

His response: “Why not? Why not take something that was waste and turn it into something that could be used? It was a no-brainer to me. I didn’t have to get fired up about it.”

The oil spill stoked Sebastian’s curiosity in the properties of hair, and he went on to find that he could use untreated hair to enrich compost to plant trees to revive Detroit’s severely diminished urban canopy, so now he’s doing that too. Sebastian’s instinct to help in the Gulf for no other reason than the fact that he could led him to a business model that is allowing him to play a role in revitalizing Detroit.  His “Why not?” attitude has served him well: media coverage, loyal customers, support from sustainable startup accelerators, all because of a seemingly flippant and “flimsy” argument that wouldn’t stand up to the cynic in many of us, especially me: “Why not?”

This summer I learned that I and too many others come upon a challenge and tend to think “why?”: “why should I be the one to help solve this problem?”, “Why is now the right time?”, or “Why does this problem need solving at all?”. We found entrepreneurs across the US like Sebastian who are rejecting this “wait on this sidelines” attitude and instead asking “Why not me? Why not now?”

This summer I learned that I want to be one of those people who doesn’t wait, someone who demands that their work have purpose that they believe in, and it’s going to be a lot harder for me to allow myself to miss that mark now that I have the standard of Sebastian and the other entrepreneurs who took a chance on us to hold myself to.

Thanks to everyone who showed us the way and set aside their cynicism to help us start MBAs Across America. We are committed to not letting any of your many acts of kindness, large and small, go to waste and aim to build and expand the program so that other folks can experience their own summer journeys and find their own lessons out there on the road.

Thanks for reading,

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On September 15, 2013

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