Since September 2015, students from the Ross School of Business and Erb Institute have worked on consulting projects for Shared-X, an agricultural social-venture startup supporting increased prosperity for smallholder farmers. As part of this action-based education, we traveled to the central Amazon valley of Peru in December 2015. This opportunity, through the Erb-sponsored Business Impact Group, provided the opportunity to connect classroom learning with real-world situations.

Learning business operations and strategy through case studies is a typical part of the MBA experience. However, seeing this startup’s operations firsthand and envisioning where the company will go in the next 12 months brought the experience to another level. Lessons from an operations class truly become relevant upon seeing the entire production process – planting, processing, and the route an agricultural product will take to the harbor for export. Likewise, ecological concepts like nutrient cycles and soil quality become actionable when a 20-year-old farm manager starts explaining leaf color and disease resistance in the middle of a coffee field in Peru.

The following are a few of the lessons where classroom learning became reality during our visit to Shared-X last December:

Stakeholder Engagement. Stakeholder maps are useful tools, but listening to collaborators and employees while seated on cinder blocks in the cool evening chill of the Andes foothills felt like a more meaningful way to learn. During our trip, we participated in an interactive dialogue with coffee cooperative members where new ideas were proposed and each person had the opportunity to share his or her perspective. Afterward, we saw how the voices of stakeholders can shape a company’s direction.

Carissa on a canoe ride to Shared-X coffee fields in the planting stage.

Infrastructure is Essential.

While a canoe trip to a newly-planted field may sound idyllic, it becomes impractical when tons of product need to reach markets. New enterprises must plan their infrastructure needs and logistics from Day 1, anticipating the time when production comes on line. Plans made on paper in an office often fail to capture on-the-ground realities. Our trip stressed the importance of gaining firsthand knowledge in order to avoid missing important logistical details. Shared-X team members showed us how they’ve planned product development alongside developing infrastructure to ensure their crops are ripe for harvest at the right time.

Shared-X leaders Paco (2nd from left) and Tony (far right) with Bob and Carissa after a 45 minute hike up to a coffee plant nursery on a new Shared-X farm

Human Capital is Underrated.

A week spent traveling and sharing meals with several Shared-X team members gave us ample time to observe how the diversity of strengths and perspectives within their team is key to the rapid, sustained growth of this young company. Our interaction with Shared-X allowed us to see the critical importance of developing a culture that attracts the right people and equips them to drive business growth.