Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Darden in New Orleans

Darden is notorious in the business school world for being one of the more structured academic programs, especially in the first year. We are primarily case study based in the first year, but I have found my second year classes to be much less structured and much more diverse in the types and styles of classes and professors. For Spring Break this year, I took a unique and fascinating experiential learning class called "Entrepreneurs as a Change Agent." I spent the week with 24 of my classmates, our professor, and numerous guest speakers in New Orleans - having case discussions, making site visits, and enjoying the nightlife and history of New Orleans. We talked about poverty, housing, education, public finance and urban redevelopment. The angle, of course, being how MBAs can make a difference in all of these areas to create sustainable change.

Below are some of my final reflections from the course (written a few weeks ago as my final paper for the class…) as well as some pictures to share. FYs - this was one of the coolest classes I have taken this year - make sure you sign up for next year!


Last week was the first time I had ever been to New Orleans, and quite honestly – despite my peripheral following of the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina – the first time I have paid attention to this region of our country or the issues that have plagued New Orleans pre- and post-Katrina. I am grateful for the week and this class, because despite considering myself as someone who “cares about the world,” I have let myself put on blinders for the last two years at Darden and become a bit transactional, even when discussing social issues. However, being on the ground in New Orleans was an amazing opportunity not only to experience and observe some of the basic problems around housing, education, and the dynamics of low-income communities in the U.S., but also to see the energy and resilience of folks who want to find solutions to these problems. In addition, the trip was personally energizing and has helped me refocus (or at least remind me of) a few of my longer-term personal and professional goals of making a broader community impact.

For the purposes of this reflection, I outlined a few of my biggest surprises and learnings coming out of the trip, as well as highlighting a few of favorite parts of the trip.

My Basic Summary of New Orleans:
New Orleans – similar to most cities, but also more starkly defined than other cities – is a city of paradoxes. The juxtaposition of rich and poor, new and old, black and white, lively and desolate, engaged and despondent is evident from one block to the next. It was as fascinating to see the energy of the French Quarter, the mansions in the Garden District, and the significance of the city in American history, as it was to see and learn about the deserted and decaying houses in the flood aftermath, the broken education system, and the racially segregated low-income communities. My basic summary of New Orleans is that it is a special place: a city rooted in centuries of history, but also a city leading the charge to create transformational social change.

Reflections on our Project:
[As part of the course, we were split up into teams and worked with a corporate sponsor on a certain project. My group worked on a project called, "Teaching to Fish" -based on the quote, “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” The project was to work with a local, recently rebuilt public housing project, and think about ways to engage residents and provide programming through the local community center.]

Prior to Darden, I worked at an international development non-profit focused on business solutions to poverty. A huge part of our project portfolio was focused entrepreneurship training and helping develop and sustain businesses in the developing world. Through my work, I traveled through many impoverished rural communities and city slums in Africa and India, working on basic skill-building programs, visiting community cooperatives, and providing business advice for entrepreneurs hoping to expand their businesses. My biggest surprise on this trip was the difference between domestic poverty and international poverty - and the complexity of the types of solutions that are needed to move the needle on domestic poverty.

When we first read our project description and started brainstorming different ideas on how to approach our project, my team came up with a long list of ideas, ranging from starting an incubator for entrepreneurs to building membership organizations like grocery store cooperatives where residents must work in the store to use its projects to the Café Reconcile [see below] model of experiential learning on practical skill-building. However, the basic premise of many of these programs was that residents wanted to engage and build up their community. After speaking with the community development manager, we found out quite the opposite – not only was resident participation in current programming abysmal, but the residents didn’t see a reason to engage with the community center or become self-sufficient. The survey data we analyzed was even more perplexing – while 80% of residents wanted professional development help, most of them were not willing to attend the events or put in the work. Instead, residents wanted more holiday parties and access to video games for their children. For a community living so far below the poverty line, these residents expected a number of luxuries, but based on the data and attendance levels, were unwilling to give a lot to attain the lifestyle they wanted. Seeing this phenomena, one of my biggest learnings about public housing from our project and engaging with this specific community, was that housing alone cannot fix the problem of income inequality. Breaking the cycle of poverty requires a cultural shift; it requires education, access to role-models, and a reason to have hope and believe – none of which are easy to find or instill in a culture where experience tells residents otherwise.

Pictures of Lafitte, the rebuilt public housing complex we worked with.

A Few of my Favorite Things:
Favorite Experience: My favorite experience of the trip was our meal at Café Reconcile - a full-service, working restaurant that hires and trains low-income (often homeless) young folks to get them off the streets and into a professional setting.  'Students' at Cafe Reconcile are taught how to prepare and cook food, serve food, and take care of restaurant operations - all in preparation to work in the hospitality industry in New Orleans. Café Reconcile was one of the most practical approaches to job training we saw on the trip and perhaps the embodiment of the type of things our group were trying to propose for our project. In addition to being rigorous and demanding, and instilling a work ethic in employees that will serve them for the long-term, Café Reconcile was a great example of “meeting halfway” – instead of creating an idealistic solution to the poverty problem, Café Reconcile found a small, niche way to make an impactful difference. The food was great – and I am excited for you all to see the expanded café next year. I also think this would be a great example of a practical project for next year’s class.
Cafe Reconcile - located in the Central City district of New Orleans. 

Favorite Guest Speaker/Topic: My favorite guest speaker of the week was the COO of New Schools for New Orleans, Neerav Kinsgland and my favorite site visit was to a KIPP School. The New Orleans public school system was a disaster prior to Hurricane Katrina, and has been one of the more interesting sectors to follow in the aftermath. Similar to a "Chicago Fire" situation, New Orleans is on a path to changing the face of public education. 80% of New Orleans students are now in Charter Schools, and the new 'business' approach to education is prominent throughout the system. Folks in the New Orleans school system are in experimenting with novel concepts such as rigorous accountability for school performance (a market approach - where parents and students can choose schools, schools can and will be held to high standards or shut down, etc.); reformed human capital models (performance-based compensation and professional mobility for teachers); and low-cost operational scalability (online classes, etc.).

Pictures of signs posted in the KIPP School we visited.

Favorite NOLA Find: I have a fascination with cities and history – and the way people live or lived. I really enjoyed exploring a few of the different neighborhoods in NOLA, from runs in the French Quarter to the street car rides on St. Charles Ave. One of the coolest things I found in my exploration of the city was a coffee shop in the Carrollton District that was inside an old bank building built in the 1800s. For me, it was a good symbol of New Orleans and a great example of the paradoxes that define the city. Of course, our last evening on Frenchman Street, my runs through the French Quarter, pralines and beignets, and watching the craziness of Bourbon Street were also awesome experiences!

 Inside of a street car
Architecture and streets of the French Quarter 

Biggest Takeaway / Personal Reflection:

My heart has always been in the social sector – and long term, remains in the social sector. Prior to Darden I thought I found a way to marry my private sector experience and business training, and my need to make an impact, but being back at Darden made me become tunnel-versioned again. My biggest take-away from this trip was the reminder that as MBAs our skills are extremely valuable in the social sector and that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. This summer, before starting my job, I am planning on working with a friend of mine who is starting an entrepreneurship incubator in Harlem and helping with some of the training and organization development pieces of the incubator. This trip made me realize that while working at the incubator over the summer is a start, in order to really make an impact, I need and want to stay involved and engaged in these topics even while I am working, and not fall into the trap of putting off my involvement.