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"Leading Our People by Feeding Our People"

A look back at the 2017 Ross Impact Challenge

Story by FoodLab Detroit November 1st, 2017

the ross impact challenge

Organized by the Sanger Leadership Center at the University of Michigan, the Impact Challenge is one of the most immersive and collaborative programs of its kind among top business schools in the country.

Each year, as part of the first year experience of every MBA student, the Ross School of Business comes together with community stakeholders and entrepreneurs to engage around issues of social equity and sustainability to develop and pitch their business ideas. In a span of just four days, Ross MBA students and FoodLab Detroit member business owners worked together to bolster business efforts in a manner that centers environmental sustainability and inclusive economic growth.

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business as a powerful force for good

The first day of the Impact Challenge kicked off with a welcome from Sanger Leadership Center director, Brian Flanagan. Monday marked the first day of the Ross students' intense journey through their MBA program, and FoodLab member's intensive business school experience.

The teams were asked to tackle the question: How might we create a more prosperous, equitable and sustainable future in the City of Detroit?

Specifically: How can we tell compelling stories about Detroit's food entrepreneurs and build on the city's growing reputation as an attractive place to create, incubate, and grow food businesses? Beyond this, how can we innovate our businesses to create profitability and economic growth, create good jobs that promote equity and upward mobility, and consume and produce responsibly?

With these questions in mind, the students paired with their designated entrepreneur, and got to work.

nothing about us, without us, is for us

Monday's opening session began with keynote speeches from Ashley Atkinson of Keep Growing Detroit and Devita Davison of FoodLab Detroit.

Atkinson emphasized that much of the revitalization that is taking place in Detroit can be credited to those individuals who took it upon themselves to improve conditions in their neighborhood by establishing community gardens and farms. Atkinson also highlighted the fact that the creation of local farms and gardens has been directly correlated with farmer's market activity and economic growth.

Atkinson, a graduate from the University of Michigan's School of Social Work, underscored that the goal at Keep Growing Detroit is not to solve all of Detroiter's problems, but to equip community members with the resources and tools they need to better meet their economic and environmental needs.

Davison's discussion echoed many of the themes raised by Atkinson. In a city like Detroit, there exists great potential to re-imagine and re-engineer the way we think about growing a business. In Detroit, she explained, we have the unique opportunity to build a truly inclusive economy through small local business development. "However, before we can do that, we must have a deep understanding of the issues these business owners face," Davison said.

"Above all, you have to get proximate," she went on to explain, "it is not enough to simply build it and expect people to come: you must engage the community that you serve, and involve them in every step of the process". Davison reiterated how imperative it is to invest in education and job training opportunities, and create a business model that equips employees for opportunities to advance professionally, economically, and socially.

Davison concluded her talk with one of her favorite proverbs: Nothing about us, without us, is for us. She emphasized that the first step to building an impactful business is to return to the community you serve, and use their voice as a guide through every step of the business journey.

On that note, students and entrepreneurs rallied intro their teams to prepare for the next phase of their challenge. By the next morning, they would have the opportunity to put Davison's words into action as they visited Detroit's community leaders, activists, and entrepreneurs to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist in Detroit's neighborhoods.

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leading our people by feeding our people

With a firm commitment to engaging with those most effected by social inequities and systemic disenfranchisement, Ross MBA students, along with their FoodLab entrepreneurs traveled to Detroit to build context about the challenges and opportunities of operating a food business in the City of Detroit.

Team members divided up in order to gather as much background information as possible. Students began their day at Detroit's historic Eastern Market, where they experienced the wonder that is the Tuesday farmer's market. With less than a half an hour to experience the market, students quickly indulged in some of Detroit's favorites: local produce from the Grown in Detroit co-op, warm baked goods from Love's Custard Pie, and freshly brewed coffee from Germack Coffee Co.

After regrouping with their teams, students paired up with their respective entrepreneurs to discuss one of the most important aspects of understanding your consumer: location, location, location. For those entrepreneurs with a brick and mortar location, students had the opportunity to engage with the built environment through guided walking tours of the neighborhood their entrepreneurs served.

One of those entrepreneurs that intends to open a brick in mortar food business is Raphael Wright, who was born and raised on the East side of Detroit. Raphael led his team on a walking tour of the street he grew up on, where the middle school he attended now sits vacant, and where he will soon open Detroit's first black-owned grocery store.

Along the walking tour, one student asked Raphael, "What made you want to open US Food Market in the first place? Why here?" His response was simple: "Leading your people starts with feeding your people!" While Detroit's resurgence in the Downtown and Midtown is exciting, it has largely left out Detroit's working class, non-white residents. Raphael is working to reclaim and reverse that narrative by actively involving his community, responding to their needs by providing living wage jobs, and supporting community initiatives to improve education and transportation.

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the culminating event

In addition to preparing for the pitch competitions, each team showcased their products and their progress at the culminating event - where they voted for their favorite teams, engaged with members of the Ross community, celebrated their successes, and sampled an array of seriously delicious food from Detroit's budding food entrepreneurs.

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and the winner is...

After an intense three days of organizing, context building, listening, problem solving, designing, and redesigning, it was finally time to pitch!

Each of the fifteen teams had the opportunity to enter the tournament style pitch. Divided into five sections of three teams, each team was tasked with pitching their business idea. The winning team of the initial pitch competition then moved onto the final round, which required teams to pitch to a Shark-Tank style panel comprised of Detroit's business executives and food system experts.

The competition was fierce. However, it came down to just five teams in the final round: Mama Suebee's Kitchen, SOULO Culinary, Genesis: HOPE, Gabriel Hall, and US Food Market. After an intense battle, the judges returned to discuss who would be the winner of the pitch competition. Because of their emphasis on community empowerment, local sourcing and food waste reduction, proposed alternative revenue streams, and detailed market research, the winner was . . . (drum roll please)

Gabriel Hall!

Gabriel Hall is a casual Creole restaurant, bar, & music venue providing a uniquely Detroit experience while showcasing the vibrant heritage of New Orleans through culturally-rich food, drinks, and music.

Blending New Orleans flavor with Detroit spirit Gabriel Hall is planning to open in Spring 2017 in Detroit's West Village Neighborhood.

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jump starting the journey

In just four days that they participated in the Impact Challenge, FoodLab entrepreneurs were able to jump-start their business and achieve progress that may otherwise take months. Many participating FoodLab business owners would describe themselves as "one-man" or "one-woman" shows. By partnering with an entire class of MBA students who were ready to offer their knowledge and expertise, entrepreneurs were able to make tangible progress along their journeys as model business owners in Detroit.

I now have a better social media strategy that I am working to implement. I also have better tools for tracking sales. But to make a list doesn't do justice to what this team did. They gave me so much to think about, so much to consider going forward. There just isn't a list that would encompass everything. - Melissa Heath, Radical Plants

We gained so much knowledge from the team, in every area of business, all of which will enable us to become better business owners. They helped us in areas that we had not even thought about. Our team helped us strengthen our business. - Susie Starkey-Washington, Mama Suebee's Kitchen

I was able to walk away with a detailed social media strategy, insights on the connection between various fragmented aspects of the business, suggestions for ways to promote the Pink Flamingo, a series of short promotional videos, as well as a modified and more streamlined business plan. - Meiko Krishok, Pink Flamingo

standing up in solidarity

As a way to stand in solidarity with those who were victims of the violence and terrorism that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017, Ross School of Business students organized a unity photo to conclude their Impact Challenge experience. The unity photo provided the opportunity to affirm one another, celebrate diversity and acceptance, and come together during a time when many felt fear, sadness, and grief.

The Dean of the Ross School of Business, Scott DeRue, offered his support of the statement released by the Dean of Darden School of Business; emphasizing that it is the diverse and supportive global community at the Ross School of Business that makes us great, and that the school will hold onto their values and continue to resist hate and violence.

You can read the statement released by the the University of Virginia Darden School of Business here.

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read more on the impact challenge:

help us build a more equitable detroit

The Impact Challenge bolstered the positive momentum that has been taking place throughout Detroit's lesser-known neighborhoods and communities. Join us in lifting up FoodLab Detroit member businesses who are working hard to provide economic opportunities for residents of their communities and make the possibility of good food in Detroit a sustainable reality.

Footnote: Photo Credit: Lon Horwedel Photography
Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, Tappan Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI, United States
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