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In July 2020, the Rustandy Center announced the launch of Booth Community Volunteers, a short-term, project-based volunteer program connecting organizations dedicated to anti-racism with full- and part-time Booth students. The students raised their hands to dedicate 10–15 hours a week to these organizations over six weeks, contributing to areas including fundraising, strategy, project management, and marketing, all while still juggling an internship, job, or classes.

The program was designed as an offshoot of the spring’s Booth COVID-19 Volunteers program, which matched nearly 60 MBA students with 38 nonprofits, in order to assist local organizations adversely impacted by the pandemic. “In June, as a national reckoning on racial equity and justice swept through our country, students were eager to find ways to leverage their Booth MBA toolkit,” said Caroline Grossman, ’03, executive director of the Rustandy Center and adjunct assistant professor of strategy at Booth. “We decided to extend the spring program into the summer and specifically work with organizations and projects that promote anti-racism.”

Whereas the COVID-19 program focused on getting as many students mobilized as possible, said Grossman, “This one is a bit more in-depth, with a smaller cohort, and includes educational elements.” In addition to a workshop on effective communication and relationship building cohosted by the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement, volunteers received access to office hours and coaching from the Rustandy Center’s civic impact executive in residence, Sonny Garg, AB ’89, MBA ’00, and students regularly convened with Rustandy Center staff to share insights and troubleshoot issues.

“What this and other programs have shown us is that students—the next generation of business leaders—are taking these social issues seriously.”

— Caroline Grossman

Sooraj (Ghandi) Bhakthavachalam, a Weekend MBA student who is a Houston-based financial planning and analysis manager at energy company Tricon International, heard about the program and shared interest in working with the Greater Englewood Chamber of Commerce, as it related to his skill set in finance. Within two weeks, he was helping the Chamber’s decisioning panel discern criteria to grant money to local businesses, which provide value and quality jobs to the community, and some of which were negatively impacted during the summer’s civil unrest.  

Compared to his work at Tricon, which Bhakthavachalam says focuses more on maximizing productivity, he has appreciated utilizing a different strategy at the Chamber of Commerce.  “[Chamber executive director Felicia Slaton-Young] said ‘I want this process to be fair, and I want that to be an integral component of this,’ and that’s a unique perspective that I found valuable. We had to make sure that a wide set of candidates were available for the grants.”

The Booth Community Volunteers program went through three rounds of matching its dozens of applicants, ultimately pairing more than 30 volunteers with organizations, including True Believers Community Connections, which provides leadership programs and workforce development opportunities for youth in Englewood and Auburn-Gresham. Two Spanish-speaking students with engineering backgrounds were paired with the Street Vendors Association of Chicago, in partnership with the Institute for Justice, to help create new financial projections which will be used to apply for future grant funding and streamline operations and distribution.

Grossman says this program is a natural outgrowth of the Rustandy Center’s work to pursue research, support innovative courses, and offer hands-on learning opportunities to develop people and practices with the potential to solve the world’s biggest problems. It also leans on the center’s ability to collaborate with organizations across campus and Chicago’s social sector.

“Tackling complex issues like racial inequity will require our collective best efforts across the public, private, and philanthropic sectors,” Grossman says. “The Rustandy Center creates opportunities for alumni and students with this in mind, and what this and other programs have shown us is that students—the next generation of business leaders—are taking these social issues seriously.”

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