Casey Gerald is going places – quite literally. He’s already logged 8,000 miles since starting business school in 2012 and will undoubtedly travel a few thousand more before the year’s end. Gerald, who graduated from Harvard Business School in May, is CEO of MBAs Across America (MBAxAmerica), a nonprofit that sends teams of MBAs across the country to provide free business advice to business owners and entrepreneurs.
Gerald co-founded the organization in his first year with fellow Harvard MBAs Amaris Singer, Michael Baker, and Hicham Mhammedi Alaoui. The four traveled across America meeting with small business owners in Detroit, New Orleans, and Las Vegas, among others. The trip confirmed a hunch that everyone from barber shop owners to restaurateurs could benefit from sound business feedback. This summer, MBAxAmerica sent its first cohort of 32 MBAs across the country.
In the midst of it all, Gerald delivered a much-lauded commencement speech at HBS’ graduation where he challenged his classmates to test their own limits: “In your hands as well as mine lies the hope for a new generation of business leaders in which each of us becomes a pioneer, in which each of us commits our time and talent not just to the treasures of today, but to the frontier of tomorrow where new dreams and new hopes and new possibilities are waiting.”
Poets&Quants caught up with Gerald for an update on MBAxAmerica. In a wide-ranging interview, the budding businessman covers everything from the inspiration for his graduation speech to why he broke a promise to himself to never work for a nonprofit or startup again.
Tell us about MBAs Across America.
Right now we’re in the midst of launching our inaugural class – 32 MBAs from six business schools will dedicate six weeks of their summer to immersing themselves in the heart of America to work with 48 entrepreneurs in 26 cities.Open All Close All
We have three criteria: The first is that they’re from a place with a story to tell; the story might be one of coming back from a tough time, like New Orleans or Detroit; it might be the story of a heartland hub like Omaha; or it’s the story of a rural community trying to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem like Wichita, Kansas.
The second is a business poised for growth. We work with entrepreneurs at the helm of startups and small businesses, everything from barber shops to technology companies to retail firms. We have to broaden the lens of entrepreneurship from just two guys in a garage coding to the broad swath of small business owners who create most of the jobs in America.
The third criteria is that the entrepreneur must be making a positive social impact in their community. We want to support entrepreneurs who believe that purpose matters just as much as profit, and so all of our entrepreneurs have intentionality about the impact they’re making, even if they’re not explicitly social entrepreneurs.
Becca Stevens in Nashville, Tennessee, really epitomizes all three of these criteria. She founded a social enterprise called Thistle Farms, which is the social enterprise arm of a residential program for woman who survived lives on the street like prostitution, trafficking, and addiction. The farm not only gives them job training and skills to transition into the workforce, but it also makes sustainable bath and body products that are sold to provide revenue for the residential side of the program.
Our team from Harvard Business School is working with Becca this week to improve operations and to launch a global trade alliance with several organizations so that the goods have a global marketplace.
It was a very personal decision for me. I gave the graduate speech at HBS last month, and in it I spoke about the fact that when I got to business school I told myself, “Don’t work for another startup and don’t work at another nonprofit.” I did both.
We started MBAs Across America not as an idea for an organization but as an idea for our lives. Could we use our lives, careers, opportunities, and education not just to make a buck but to make a difference? I think that’s the question that a lot of folks at business school and in our generation are asking. How do we live a life and have a career of meaning? So this journey was one of exploration, and we went 8,000 miles across the country to baptize ourselves in the spirit of America, and that changed us forever because we saw people with a fraction of our opportunities solving some of the biggest challenges of our lifetime. I got to the point where I couldn’t imagine not doing this work.
In our lifetime business leaders and folks like MBAs from Harvard and elsewhere across the country and around the world are going to have to be a force for progress. I saw this as the most lucrative way to spend my life, knowing that when I die, I’m not going to be judged by what I piled up in my bank account, but by what I was able to give and willing to do for others. I’m fulfilled by this work, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Two things: I had come across Marshall Ganz’s theory of the public narrative: the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now. I thought it was an interesting framework for a commencement address: How does the particular life I have lived relate to the particular experience that a collective group has lived and then to the collective path that we all must pick up?
I also started thinking about the one moment that really set me on the course I’m now on. As I thought back on my life, there was no other movement that was as clarifying for me as that near-death experience [Gerald was held at gunpoint during a home invasion]. Not all of us are lucky or unlucky enough to have a near-death experience that gives us clarity, but it was a powerful one for me.
Most commencement speeches give a collective phrase: “We have achieved so much. We have done so much. We have great things ahead of.” It’s really a bit of a congratulatory exercise. I wanted to express a collective conviction that we had a moral responsibility to wade into the conflict of the biggest issues of our day. When I tried to come up with that, the phrase “You have more work to do” really grabbed hold of me. That moment and the conviction formed the bookends of the message that I wanted to convey to my good friends at graduation.
I’m not scaling the program. I’m scaling answers to questions. The two central questions that drive everything we do are: Number one: Can we create a generation of business leaders who are a central force for progress in the world? Our summer program is one way to do that. I think we’re going to scale it and that there are other things we can do as well. Number two: Can we create a country or a world where every entrepreneur in every community, not just the chosen few, have the resources and support they need to thrive.
Getting the country’s best resources out into the heart of America over the course of a summer and then providing support is one way to do that. There are plenty of other ways, and we’re going to explore them all. My big plan is to find the answers to those questions and then to scale those answers as quickly and as successfully as possible.
I love Teddy Roosevelt, he has this quote: “It is not the critic who counts…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
I love constructive criticism, and I want us be as introspective and honest as possible. But more than listening to the critics who say it can’t be done, I see people every day who are committing their lives and their careers all to solving real problems and to creating a sense of hope and optimism in this country and around the world.
So I really don’t pay much attention to the people who cynical. I think the world is too tragic for cynicism already, and so I’m happy to be on the frontlines of the optimist movement.
We have had fantastic partners. General Motors is sponsoring us this summer with brand new Chevy Volts, Holiday Inn is sponsoring us with rooms across the country, all six of our schools have provided funding. We’ve gotten great individual donors.
What’s powerful about crowd funding is that it represents in financial terms the movement that we’re trying to build. It’s not just the $60,000 donor that matters but the person who only has $5 dollars and wants to commit that $5 to this movement. The crowd-funding campaign that we launched on Indiegogo has a little under 30 days left.
Every business is a social enterprise: Either you’re making a positive social impact or a negative social impact. There is no impact-neutral business on the face of the planet. So what we’re saying is that if every business is a social enterprise, then how do we help every business improve their social impact? I think whether you talk to the CEO of GE or the head of Goldman Sachs, the vast majority of business leaders around the globe want to make a positive impact through their work and their lives. And so I think we need to pull social enterprise out of the corner and really realize that it is the whole story.
Harvard business school changed my life and it changed all of our lives. MBAs Across America would not exist without it. It really starts with those classmates and those friends who believed in our crazy ideas and who continued to support us day in and day out, not just finically but through moral, motivational, and spiritual support. That’s been humbling.
On top of that, so many faculty members from Operations Professor Ryan Buell to Babson President Len Schlesinger, who have said, “How can I help?” And there have been administrators and alums. At every turn of the last year and half with MBAs Across America, somebody in the HBS family has raised their hand or rolled up their sleeves to help. That has been critical to everything that we’ve done.
The narrative, the story, the testimony is the most powerful tool in the history of mankind. If you think about it, we’re organized around stories, our whole civilization is based on stories. They are perhaps really the beginning and the end. If you consider business an essential part of society and civilization, then I don’t see how you could consider yourself a future business leader without believing that stories are powerful and critical to getting there.
I think the only way to move people, to organize people, and to persuade people is to tell a story about where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going. That story has to be, I think, a collective story. The business leaders who want to change the world get that. I hope those folks in my generation who are just now heading out into the world really see the power of stories as a great tool to use in the coming challenges that we are going to have to solve.
A lot of people ask me, “Is this about the MBAs or the entrepreneur?” What I say all the time is that if we’re not adding value to entrepreneurs, then we’re going to shut this down. This has to be about unleashing the potential of America’s job creators and the folks on the frontlines of change.
I think that the 32 MBAs who have dedicated their summer to joining us in this inaugural class are in it because they want to serve, they want to give back, but they also want to learn. They want to connect to people on a human level not just as consultants; they want to be people of action, not just analysis; and they want to launch a movement that can actually make a difference. I think that’s an important distinction in our work, and one that I’ll continue to stress as we go ahead.