The Class: Entrepreneurship: Urban Opportunities and Solutions
Abbie J. Smith is Boris and Irene Stern Distinguished Service Professor of Accounting
Urban centers are growing at the fastest rate ever, creating challenges and opportunities for improving the quality of life, societal outcomes, and global sustainability. For example, fresh approaches are needed to address challenges of mobility, housing, energy, food, infrastructure, safety, civic engagement, and the effectiveness and transparency of local government.
A few factors are enabling new solutions and more entrepreneurial participation: advances in technology, business models applicable to dense urban environments, design thinking, an emerging ecosystem, and local governments that are more receptive to partnerships and flexible procurement procedures.
This is an experiential lab course focused on entrepreneurship in the urban context. How do we develop profitable, scalable business models to solve urban problems? Through crowdsourcing? Alternative financing? Mobile technology? By using design tools, working in teams, going into communities, and learning from guest speakers and mentors, student teams tackle an urban challenge of interest.
The inspiration for the course started when I discovered how urbanization as a major global trend is generating some of the world’s biggest challenges and opportunities. However, I did not fully appreciate the unprecedented opportunity for entrepreneurs to address such challenges prior to meeting Stonly Baptiste in 2015. Stonly is a cofounder and partner of Urban Us, a venture fund focused on startups that make cities better, and an online community of more than 2,000 urban entrepreneurs, financiers, and experts. He also is a member of the investment committee of URBAN-X, an accelerator for startups reimagining city life created by BMW/Mini in partnership with Urban Us. Since then, Stonly and I have collaborated on all aspects of the course, first offered in Winter Quarter 2016.
The workshop is devoted to advancing team projects and getting feedback. We hit the ground running: early on, teams of four form organically, each focusing on an urban problem. In the first five weeks, teams research the problem, identify related barriers and business opportunities, develop design criteria, and brainstorm concepts for a profitable, scalable business solution. In the sixth week, teams present their initial concepts and receive feedback from city officials and from Sascha Haselmayer, the founder and CEO of Citymart, a business devoted to connecting cities with startup solutions. In the remaining four weeks, teams conduct additional stakeholder research, refine concepts, develop a landing page and/or functioning app, and prepare a pitch to deliver to coaches in week 10.
It’s intimate. It’s a safe environment for bold, disruptive thinking. It’s an opportunity to experience the power of design thinking, tools, and methods for identifying startup opportunities to address big problems. It’s a chance to discover and exercise creativity as a team. It’s practice in giving and learning from feedback.
For me, it’s a joy to see them develop their ideas and discover a profitable, scalable business. It’s been a real eye-opener for me that we can create business models that sneak in a public good while making money.
Our speakers include urban entrepreneurs, VCs, and municipal officials: for instance, Donnel Baird and Morris Cox of BlocPower, Javier Flaim of Recyclebank, Numaan Akram of Rally, and CIOs from Boston, Chicago, and Detroit. The speakers illustrate platform models, two-sided markets, crowdsourcing, technology enablers, leveraging idling capacity, facilitating changes in behavior for public good, selling to cities, and other themes. They are eager to participate, generous with their time and expertise, and invariably impressed by the caliber of the students. Students gain insights into a variety of urban challenges and innovative B2G, B2B, and B2C business models designed to address them. Students also establish connections that can lead to jobs and internships.
This course has impacted my professional life. The focus of my teaching has shifted to experiential learning and providing a platform for students to engage with leading experts who share a passion for making cities better. My perspective as a corporate director is more attuned to technology-enabled business threats and opportunities. And as a researcher previously focused on corporate governance, transparency, and accountability, I now see city government as another important setting for understanding the role of high-quality information in improving economic and societal outcomes. There’s a movement to make cities do more with less and to be more responsive to residents. I’ve come to appreciate that the city is us.
From the Students:
Kelly Lambrinatos, Weekend MBA Student: This was an opportunity to explore an urban challenge. I’d never experienced a lab class, and I loved it. It was so different from a lecture-based course, and the content we dug into appealed to me. My team focused on how parents seek information about early learning. There isn’t a great system for this across all socioeconomic levels. In a short time, we had to talk to parents of young children and understand the tech side of things: Is this a platform or an app? We struggled. This is a highly regulated industry. Are we catering to parents? Should we be selling to governments? We kept asking: What options exist? Abbie and Stonly didn’t want us to jump to solutions too soon. They wanted us to really sink our teeth into the problem and the possible solutions; they wanted us to try things, to make mistakes. They were thoughtful, supportive, and empowering—and good facilitators of our exploration.
Herbert McClary, Full-Time MBA Student: Stepping into this course, we started by talking at a very high level about what issues plague cities and how to make a business model to solve these issues. We were encouraged to be ambitious and big in our thinking. It was sort of scary. My group chose blight; we wanted to create a platform to address the vacant-housing crisis in Chicago and other Rust Belt cities. Initially we thought retail would offer neighborhood stability, but then we realized that retail comes last. So we went to underserved neighborhoods and talked to people. We got locally sourced ideas instead of top-down thinking. Around the same time, the City of Chicago expanded Large Lots, a neighborhood-stabilization initiative that sells vacant lots for $1. We thought, let’s create a fund that will buy and hold these lots for three years, and then plant vegetation, beautify the neighborhood, sell the produce—a local investment to turn around a neighborhood. Our questions were at the nexus of technology and cities: How can we scale this? How do we rethink an old model? I’m going back to real estate banking, but because of this course, I’m thinking about how a developer provides solutions.
—As told to Anne Moore