First-year MBA students at the University of Michigan began their new life at the Ross School of Business by taking part in the 2017 Impact Challenge this past week. The Business students were given the opportunity to work with Detroit entrepreneurs to effect social change as well as refine their problem-solving and team-building skills.

Business student Sheela Lal was partnered with Raphael Wright, an entrepreneur dedicated to opening up the first Black-owned grocery store in Detroit. Lal worked with the businessman to develop a marketing strategy and financial model for the enterprise. She said she found the collaboration to be rewarding because of its potential to directly impact the social climate of Detroit.

“My background has been in communications and policy and a little bit of community development,” Lal said. “So being able to translate those skills into something much more tangible has been really incredible. Getting to know someone with a stake in their community but then pivoting that into real economic justice has been really amazing to watch.”

The connection with Wright did not end at the Impact Challenge, however. Lal said she felt that her team would remain in touch with their assigned entrepreneur.

“Our team vibed really hard with Raphael and … a lot of us have already expressed interest in going (to the launch) whenever it opens in Detroit,” Lal said.

Sanger Leadership Center organized the weeklong Impact Challenge which culminated in a Showcase Event on Thursday in the Winter Garden at the Business School. This year, students partnered with entrepreneurs from the Detroit-based organization FoodLab Detroit. Businesses like Flaky Bakes, Radical Plants and SOULO Detroit set up tables at the showcase to present the work they produced with their Business student team. The businesses ranged from those in the operational stage to ones which were pre-launch.

Jeff Domagala, associate director at the Sanger Leadership Center, said that the Impact Challenge helps kickstart the year and provides students with an opportunity to bond with their classmates and gain some business experience right away. According to Domagala, the MBA students visited Detroit to gain some cultural and social context that might better inform their decision-making and strategizing during the challenge.

Domagala said he hoped the teams, which were student-directed, developed their creativity, learned to lead without formal authority and honed their communication skills.

“The students added co-created value in a variety of ways, whether that was their business model canvas, their marketing strategies or any other way they could add a systematic approach,” Domagala said. “At the Ross School of Business we fundamentally believe that students can make a positive difference in the world, and we are hoping that through this experience, they have an understanding of the business world and struggles that people face and how students can actually help them.”

The Business School partnership with the Detroit entrepreneurs will extend beyond the showcase for many students.

“FoodLab Detroit and FoodPlus Detroit are partnering with the Ross School of Business’s Detroit Revitalization and Business club, and they’ll carry forward impact projects throughout the year,” Domagala said.

Business student Diana Cruz worked with an entrepreneur who owned a New Orleans-influenced restaurant that will be opening in Detroit. Cruz and her team helped create strategies to aid the business with marketing, sustainability and impact.

“I think it was really interesting to learn how we can bring our ideas together to come up with a strategy to really transform our entrepreneur’s ideas and have a successful business in the developing Detroit community, which is really exciting,” Cruz said. “The biggest thing I learned from the challenge was that teamwork is so important. Listening was so important, making sure that everyone was able to voice their ideas and really come up with an organized (way) to incorporate everyone’s ideas.”

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