Ever since I was a kid I shared Jack Kerouac’s feeling that, “all I wanted to do was sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere, and go and find out what everybody was doing all over the country.” It led me to want to be a truck driver when I was 8. It led my grandmother to say I was “nosy” when I was a teenager. And, in a way, it led me to the road with MBAs Across America.
Looking back on the thousands of miles and frustrations and joys of our journey this summer, I couldn’t have made a more life-changing decision. Not just because I got a chance to find out what everybody was doing all over the country, but also because I found that I could join them, too.
The realization that I, a skinny black boy from Texas, could join the folks in Detroit or New Orleans just as well as I could join the folks in Montana or Albuquerque was partially about the potential to get MBAs out of classrooms and cubicles and into the heart of America to work with and learn from visionary entrepreneurs. We spent months planning this trip and hearing over and over again that we couldn’t add value in a week. We heard this from professors. We heard this from business leaders. We heard this from friends. The folks who didn’t tell us this were the entrepreneurs across the country that welcomed us into their businesses and homes, took our advice, and gave us their wisdom and friendship in return. This summer reaffirmed the words my grandmother told me years ago: “don’t let what you can’t do get in the way of what you can.” And as we build MBAxAmerica into a larger movement, I have total faith that MBAs can be a force for progress and growth in this country by immersing themselves in the lives of American entrepreneurs and trying to make an impact—whether it’s for a day or for a week or for a lifetime.
But the realization that I could go find out what everybody was doing all over the country and join them went far beyond any business issue. It got to the core of what it meant to be human and what it meant to be an American.
Fancy degrees, political parties, and racial affiliations will always be a poor substitute for humanity. The most sublime moments of the trip were meeting the Lebanese man in Detroit who had never heard of Harvard, standing anonymously in a town square in Montana talking to a family from Argentina, sweating alongside 100 other New Orleaneans as we listened to the same awesome brass brand. These experiences made me think about Andy Warhol’s famous quote about Coca-Cola:
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
We don’t have many “Coke” experiences in America anymore — a young boy in Texas doesn’t really know what the young boy in Oregon is doing; the college student in Arizona feels fundamentally different from the college student in New Hampshire; the Harvard MBAs…well we’re all gathered together in many of the same places with many of the same firms. We simply don’t know each other anymore, and a collection of strangers can’t make a democracy. The leaders of that democracy will fare even worse in their duty without knowing the folks they’re supposed to lead—how can we know their needs, their aspirations, their fears? How can we care deeply about their wellbeing if we’ve never met them? The answer is simple: we can’t.
That is what struck me about going to a place like Montana, with its vast stretches of barrenness. Systems and institutions—the big box grocery store; the street lights; the mass transit (why would you need mass transit for 900 people, anyway)—that do so much to define life in other, more urban places, are absent from this place. Perhaps these structures fragment communities as much as they connect them. Perhaps only by getting back to first principles, to the barrenness that is the beginning of all things and all lives, can we really see what is needed and what we can do. Perhaps only then do we speak to each other on the street. Perhaps only then do we raise our hand to say “I’ll help” when a stranger presents a need. We see this in big cities, to be sure, but often only after a tragedy or natural disaster has struck, which is what we saw in Detroit and New Orleans. Is that the bright side of this moment in America, which is filled with so much angst about the future and so little faith in the things of the past? Perhaps these crises will push us to see what really matters—to see each other again.
In the end, there will be no miracles here. Just entrepreneurs, like Sebastian and Sarah, that decide to risk it all for the crazy idea that nobody believes in. Just communities, like New Orleans, that decide to rebuild in the aftermath of disaster. Just 300 million people deciding to see each other face to face and push through the messiness of it all to realize that we’re all in this together. This summer has convinced me of this as much as it has changed my life, and I hope MBAs Across America can grow to lend a hand to those entrepreneurs, tell the stories of those communities, and join those 300 million Americans as we find a shared humanity and create a shared future.