By Alisa Singer

The facts about climate change are compelling. And the charts, graphs and maps that illustrate these facts are especially persuasive – trajectories point dramatically to reflect the inevitable correlation between temperature rise, carbon emissions, rising ocean levels, and Arctic ice melt. The many key indicators of climate change tell an alarming story. But is the message getting through?

When I first started to wonder why more people weren’t paying attention to the specific facts about climate change, I realized that some might be put off, confused, or intimidated by graphic depictions of data and statistics. But I guessed that it might be possible that those who would shun a presentation of charts and graphs might, nonetheless, be happy to look at bright, colorful art. It occurred to me that art could become the vehicle for “delivering” the critical facts about our changing world.

To further this concept, I set out to develop an approach to marry art to science by using as the actual blueprint for each of the digital paintings in my series, “The Art of Climate Change”, as charts, graphs, words, numbers or symbols representative of key facts about climate change.

As the series evolved, I began to add paintings based on sketches – which instead of drawn lines, I used a word, number or symbol of specific significance to climate science. For example, climate scientists have warned us not to exceed 2 degrees Celsius and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit so I created one sketch that uses the two numbers as its sole design.

For exhibitions the digital paintings are typically printed on large metal sheets. They are glossy and colorful, and grab the viewer’s attention. Each painting is displayed with a plaque depicting the underlying climate data source, and explaining its significance. Once the viewers realize they are not looking at mere abstract images they are intrigued. Moving back and forth from art to graph, and from one piece to the next, viewers try to decipher how the data is reflected in the art. As a result of this process, the viewer becomes more engaged in both the art and the underlying science.

There are now over 45 paintings in the series, ‘The Art of Climate Change”, each derived from a different fact about climate science. The goal is for each viewer to leave an exhibit with a number of specific facts (sound bytes, if you will). Some of these facts may be recalled, and many will be forgotten, but overall the feeling of the scope and urgency of the issue should be firmly instilled.

Our experience with Environmental Graphiti so far has proven the impactful synergies derived from combining art and science – Art can serve as an inviting point of entry to make scientific information more accessible and comprehensible. Art derived from science is inherently unique and meaningful, which makes it more engaging and satisfying. And art combined with science can effectively serve as a powerful tool to tell the story about climate change, a story that needs to be told by as many people, in as many ways, as possible.


In furtherance of Environmental Graphiti’s mission to exhibit the art widely to enhance public understanding of the science of climate change, it provides art to universities, colleges, non-profits and governmental institutions at cost. All profits from other sales of the art are used to fund this mission.

To learn more about Environmental Graphiti, and see more of the art, please visit
Alisa Singer is a self-taught artist who has, since her retirement from the practice of corporate law, devoted herself to creating art to further causes she believes are important. Alisa was attracted by the inherently aesthetic design elements of scientific charts and graphs, and intrigued by the idea of using art to give them dramatic effect. She conceived the Environmental Graphiti project in 2014 and created the series The Art of Climate Change, with abstract images illustrating the science behind the critical changes impacting our planet.

Recently she partnered with The Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind to create a unique line of Braille greeting cards featuring contemporary art designs based on the pattern of the card’s Braille message.

Alisa’s work (other than Environmental Graphiti) has been exhibited mainly in the Midwest, but also in New York and Washington, D.C.. For exhibitions of Environmental Graphiti art see Collaborations.


This video illustrates the process by which science becomes art to dramatize the compelling facts about climate change. from Alisa Singer on Vimeo.

In America, the agricultural sector is responsible for barely one percent of total energy consumption. But it’s a different picture in India, where a whopping 18 percent of the nation’s electricity goes to power agricultural water pumps.

Problems in Indian Agricultural Water Distribution
There are multiple reasons for that, according to Ross Business School alumnus and sustainability professional Karan Dangayach. The standard form of irrigation in India is flood irrigation, a common but inefficient system that involves pumping large amounts of water onto fields. Furthermore, the amount of water needed, and the energy required to move it, are also particularly large in India, where the top crops are water-intensive rice and sugarcane.

Electrified agricultural communities are often a considerable distance from the nearest power
plant, magnifying the distribution losses of energy that occur between any power plant and electricity user.  Lastly, agricultural subsidies make electricity cheap or free for many farmers. “Compared to all other consumers, they care less about how power is being used, so they use it less and less efficiently,” Dangayach says.

Solar-powered Water Pump Savings
It seems like a vicious and unsustainable cycle, but Dangayach identifies a new solution that could benefit farmers, the Indian government and the environment alike. Solar-powered water pumps provide a more cost-effective, efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to current practices.

Ten years’ worth of subsidized electricity to a traditional 5HP water pump costs the government 519,000 to 801,000 rupees ($7,700 to $11,900 USD), depending on the length of electrical lines. A 5HP solar pump, on the other hand, costs only 400,000 rupees ($5,900 USD) to install. One solar-powered pump can save the government anywhere from 119,000 to 401,000 rupees ($1,700 to $5,900 USD) over the same 10-year period–and likely even more over time, given that solar pumps carry a 25-year warranty.

Private companies who invest in solar installations can also benefit at tax time from the accelerated depreciation the Indian government allows on solar power-related equipment.

Solar Pumps Part of Growing Sustainability Trend
Dangayach says both the Indian government and some farmers have already begun to see the benefits of solar pumps. In agricultural regions that aren’t electrified, Dangayach says some more well-to-do farmers have begun to invest in solar pumps on their own to replace the costly diesel fuel they would otherwise use to power their pumps. By Dangayach’s calculations, that saves them about 140,000 rupees or $2,000 USD annually per pump. Not surprisingly, in addition to those actions by private farmers, the Indian government has also begun subsidizing some agricultural solar pump installations.

“They’re leapfrogging the grid. By avoiding installation and maintenance of [electrical] lines they ultimately deliver power to the farmer free of cost,” Dangayach says. “They’d rather just give them a solar pump. It will pay itself off in about 10 years, it serves the farmer for 25 years and ultimately it’s less of a headache for the government.”

Dangayach says the budding shift towards solar pumping fits in with a set of recent progressive trends in Indian agriculture. Those include an increase in more efficient drip irrigation systems, the rise of mobile phone technology in obtaining pricing and other information, and a shift from growing traditional rice and sugarcane to growing more value-added crops like fruits and vegetables. Dangayach says there’s “a lot of interest and a lot of action” when it comes to solar power in India right now, but there’s still plenty of work to be done in communicating its value to farmers and the government.

“Compared to the potential, the amount of solar is miniscule right now,” he says. “However, the industry has grown quite crazily in the last three years. I would say that we started small because anything starts from there. But it is moving toward a very, very large portion of the entire energy mix.”

Interview with Karan Dangayach, by Patrick Dunn

Karan Dangayach is passionate about the use of clean technology and policy in how it can reverse climate change. He is an alum of The Ross School of Business and one of the founders of Shashwat Cleantech (Shashwat), which is in the businesses of Solar PV Projects, Solar PV Pumps and LED Lighting. He has worked in the consumer goods, communications and non-profit sectors prior to Shashwat. When not selling solar, Karan likes to play squash and perform with his band.

Thanks in part to the power of the Erb Network, 10-year-old Intel AMT technology could drive down the cost of wind turbine maintenance and improve wind power sustainability
Have you heard of AMT? AMT is Active Management Technology. If you haven’t heard about it yet, you will soon!

To understand what AMT does, imagine that your office PC has crashed. Windows is completely non-functional, & in frustration, you turn it off completely. If AMT is activated inside your PC, the office IT manager can remotely turn the PC back on from an off-state, then diagnose & fix problems without a functional operating system. If necessary, the entire hard drive can be remotely erased and reset. AMT’s out-of-band management feature allows IT organizations to minimize PC maintenance costs and maximize employee productivity, by avoiding the need for desk-side support, thus reducing the amount of down time incurred by software problems or viruses.

10 years ago, Intel launched the vPro brand, a series of Intel hardware components designed for office PCs. AMT is a set of out-of-band (OOB) remote access capabilities that is at the heart of the vPro brand. This may sound trivial and boring to non-IT professionals, but AMT has endless possibilities for application in the industrial Internet-of-Things (IoT) world. Luckily as an “Erber,” I have access to the Erb Institute alumni network, where I could virtually crowdsource input on possible AMT use cases. I received a stream of replies from experts such as: sustainability consultants, NREL researchers, the CEO of a wind turbine maintenance startup, and fortuitously, the general manager of a wind farm.

It turns out wind farms are an ideal place to deploy AMT in an industrial setting. Each utility-scale wind turbine is powered by multiple industrial PCs controlling important aspects such as: the braking mechanisms, pitch of the blades, direction of the turbine, wind flow sensors, etcetera; critical parts in optimizing power generation performance. When these industrial PCs suffer temporary power loss or software failure, a maintenance technician has to go on-site to restore operations.

These types of problems happen more frequently than one might think. NREL research suggests that electrical systems, electronic controls, and sensors are the turbine subsystems with the highest failure rates. Imagine how expensive, time-consuming, and carbon-intensive it would be to drive for hours to a wind farm in the middle of nowhere, and climb up a 200-feet tower just to push a power button or fix a software glitch. If the turbine happens to be off-shore, that maintenance trip becomes exponentially more expensive, as boats or helicopters are needed to reach the site.

By applying the remote power management, boot, and KVM capabilities of Intel AMT, these problems can be solved by the push of a button off-site, thus reducing the frequency of on-site maintenance, minimizing downtime, and improving the resiliency of wind-power infrastructure.

Thanks in part to the data and expertise sourced via the Erb network, Intel recently managed to persuade some partners in the wind power value chain to explore Intel AMT as part of their solutions. However, I think the potential for this technology is much greater. In the coming age of a digitized energy and public infrastructure, computers are no longer confined to offices, they will be embedded across a wide variety of faraway, hard-to-reach infrastructure. Where else within the energy infrastructure is there a need to manage remotely located devices?

MBA/MS 2018

The Erb Institute welcomes you to join us in celebrating a recent award for one of our new Erber’s, Carissa De Young. Carissa is a newly-minted recipient of the Rackham Non-Traditional Fellowship. A path that started with a week long service trip to Mexico as a 15 year old became transformational; later embarking on a career to develop opportunity for those that struggle with endemic poverty in Ecuador. As a part of striving for depth of impact, Carissa made the decision to join the Erb Institute where an MS and MBA will be critical in developing the tools to “challenge the conventional bounds of agribusiness.” Please join us in congratulating Carissa!

Remarks by Faculty Director, Joe Arvai at the Erb Institute welcome back dinner on September 30, 2016. This blog was originally published on Joe Arvai’s website, Decisions4Good. Read the original blog.

You may have heard this week that the University of Michigan was ranked number one among America’s public universities according to US News. And, according to THE, the U of M is ranked seventh in the world for the social sciences, and twenty-first globally overall. Not too shabby, right? Not so fast. Being number one, or seven, or twenty-one means there are hundreds, if not thousands of schools behind us. If, while we’re moving forward—which is critical if we want to push ourselves to be better—we can’t also look back and help lift others up, we have failed. And while these rankings refer to universities, they apply more generally to our lives and to our work.

In my view the biggest sustainability challenge that faces us today isn’t climate change. It’s not air pollution, or clean water. It’s ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor; rich and poor in financial terms, but also in terms of vulnerability and opportunity.

In my position, I often get to hear about how so-and-so isn’t living up to our standards; about how such-and-such isn’t as good as we remember, or as good as we want it to be. I hear it when I’m at work. And, increasingly I’m hearing it from our self-proclaimed “leaders”. I recognize that I’m far from perfect as an individual, but increasingly I find myself asking of myself, is there anything I can do to help so-and-so or such-and-such to close the gap? Even just a little bit? More than that, if I really care about sustainability in the broadest sense, isn’t it my obligation to try? And, when I think of why we’re all here, doing what we do, isn’t that what it’s all about? Aren’t we here to help people to be more caring? More safe? More healthy? More equal?

Listen, I’m not so naïve as to think that we can help everybody, nor do I think that learning experiences are always the result of positive outcomes. But I have started to think that, if we can’t pause and at least try to help others to pick themselves up, then our own individual and collective quest for betterment will fall well short.

At our community gathering last year, which was my first as Director of the Erb Institute, I talked about the power of the private sector in helping the world to become a more sustainable place. I quoted from Spider Man, when I said “with great power there must also come great responsibility!”

I still believe that. But, for this year’s theme, I’m going to reach for the contribution to the Western canon that is Batman:

You may be here because, underneath it all, you care. You told us before you came here that you care about the health of the planet, and that you care about the people who live on it. But it’s not who you are underneath that matters. It’s what you do that defines you.

I’ll end with a reminder: Businesses aren’t beings that wake up in the morning and decide to good for the world and those who live in it. Businesses are comprised of people who will make those decisions. Ultimately, you’ll be the ones to make those decisions.

Why not start today?



At the Erb Institute, we teach about the power of business to create sustainable change, so we are excited to announce that Erb Faculty Member, Andy Hoffman, has been recognized for his innovative teaching on Market Transformation as a 2016 Aspen Institute Faculty Pioneer Award recipient.

For over a decade, the Aspen Institute Faculty Pioneer Awards have recognized faculty who are at the vanguard of teaching about the business and society interface. Professor Hoffman’s courses recognized by this award include Strategies for Sustainable Development I: Enterprise Integration and Strategies for Sustainable Development II: Market Transformation.

Please join us in congratulating Andy on this tremendous accomplishment!

Read the Aspen Institute Announcement


Erb Faculty Director, Joe Arvai and Managing Director, Terry Nelidov, were recently invited to Cuba to explore ways in which the Erb Institute might be a factor in helping to manage Cuba’s transition to a sustainable market economy.

I’d never been to Cuba before this summer. Even though one of my passports has Canada stamped on the cover, meaning I could have at any time skirted the restrictions imposed by “el bloqueo”, I never once felt an attraction to visit the island.

If I was forced to give an explanation, I’d chalk my lack of interest up to my views toward dictatorships and their oppression of human rights. It’s no secret that the Cuban government is still under scrutiny by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for the dictatorship’s oppression of fundamental human rights, including the freedoms of expression, association and movement. And, I guess I’m particularly sensitive to these kinds of issues based on the experience of my parents who lived under a communist, authoritarian dictatorship in Hungary before escaping to Austria and, eventually, Canada in 1971.


Havana, Cuba

But, back in April 2016, Terry Nelidov and I had an opportunity to meet with two colleagues—Eric Leenson and Rafael Betencourt of Sol Economics—to talk about the thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States, and the opportunity to take a scholarly look at how the tension between many Cubans’ desire for sustainability and market evolution might unfold in real life. Given the Erb Institute’s interest in market transformation and our emerging research agenda on human and community development, the opportunity to extend our scholarly reach into Cuba sounded too interesting—and potentially impactful for the people of Cuba—to let it pass us by. So, my own personal ambivalence aside, I packed my bags at the end of June and met Terry, Eric, and Rafael in Havana.

In the end, Terry and I spent only five very full and fast-paced days in Cuba meeting with local business people and academic colleagues from La Universidad de Pinar del Río; so, it would be irresponsible to draw hard and fast conclusions about what a potential shift away from the embargo will mean for the Cuban people, their government, and the economy. I think it’s safe to say that tension over the possibility of a large-scale economic, political, and social transformation is beginning to build. But, beyond that, well, read on with a healthy grain of salt…

The younger Cubans I met on the streets of Havana and Pinar del Río seem to desperately want change. And they want it yesterday. And by change, it seems they want what we have in the United States; things we take for granted like the freedom to travel, the freedom to dissent, and the freedom to consume—everything from Nike shoes and iPhones, to Levis and McDonald’s—as their incomes will allow. And they definitely want freedom to access the internet

Terry and I could get online for only an hour at a time, using access cards from the nationalized telecommunications utility, in public spaces. We quickly discovered that some internet services were restricted. I couldn’t tweet with my accustomed frequency or ease, nor buy a book about the Cuban economic transition on Amazon or my kindle. Terry couldn’t access Gmail for the whole week. (He viewed this as a technical obstacle to overcome, while I saw it as a fantastic stroke of luck. I wish it had happened to me too).

The older Cubans I met were more circumspect about the prospect of an economic shift. Of course, they want economic stability and much-needed improvements in terms of critical infrastructure and the provision of essential goods and services (such as food and clean water). But, there’s also a noticeable predilection for many socialist principles—universal access to education, gender equality, and a reliance on cooperatives are all examples—brought on by the revolution.


Havana, Cuba

As a decision scientist, I suspect there are many instinctive psychological drivers at play when it comes to these feelings of wariness; loss aversion and a strong status quo bias for example. At the same time, there’s a very tangible, not to mention rational, concern about what will happen to the island’s natural and cultural resources if—or when, depending upon your perspective— el bloqueo is lifted. No one in the small sample of people I met wanted to see mass market tourism or out-of-control consumerism, for example, which were feared for their ability to go full-plague and quickly overrun the island.

Infrastructure, Havana

In what seemed to be an effort to split the generational difference on one front—tourism—Terry and I were introduced to a few fledgling examples of combined cultural- and agro-tourism. One of these—in stark contrast to mega-scale beach tourism—offered opportunities to spend time in an idyllic landscape enjoying the literal fruits of life and labor on a Cuban farm, going so far as working the land if one wished.
One specific example, an organopónico on the outskirts of Pinar del Río offered the added benefit of an outdoor studio for established or aspiring artists. Another offered accommodation at a finca agroecológica sostenible—a sustainable farmstay—near Viñales; it was one potential stop in a network of casa particulares where visitors could learn about ecofeminism in Cuba (while enjoying what I’ll humbly submit—with apologies to my friends in Costa Rica—are the best tasting bananas on the planet).

Cigar making

Cigar making

And then there was my personal favorite: casa particulares set against the backdrop of Cuban cigar production. These places offered opportunities to take part in every step of the cigar supply chain, from working the plantations to manufacturing—and, importantly, enjoying—the fabled and revered Cuban. (NB: Smoking cigars, including exposure to second-hand smoke from cigars, is a proven health hazard.)

Is another trip to Cuba in the offing? In spite of my initial—and personal—reluctance, I’d bet yes. Going back to what initiated this journey to Cuba, the opportunity to study, participate in, and learn from the market transformation that is coming to island is what the Erb Institute is built for.

To support our future work in Cuba, we are hopeful at the prospect of the Erb Institute entering into a formal partnership agreement, a necessary step at this stage for inter-university collaboration in Cuba, with La Universidad de Pinar del Río. As a precursor to this agreement, we’ve held preliminary discussions with our Cuban counterparts about joint research, short courses in Cuba, Erb Institute Cool Projects for our students, and faculty exchanges. With a little luck, this’ll all begin to happen during the 2016-17 academic year. We’ll keep you posted as this collaboration unfolds.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t end with a sincere thank-you to all our colleagues, collaborators, and—importantly—new friends in Cuba. We looking forward to seeing you again soon.

Aerial view cuba

Climate change is a potential threat to the welfare of mankind and its mitigation is becoming urgent. Nuclear energy, which provides one-fifth of U.S. electricity generation, is currently the leading utility-scale, carbon-free baseload power source in America. But it is expensive, controversial, and regulated in a way that poses challenges to technological innovation. So how does nuclear power fit into U.S. climate change mitigation goals going forward?

In what way can nuclear power be a major factor in the portfolio of options being considered to lower greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change? With the rapid growth of natural gas production in the United States, how has the economics of nuclear power changed? What are the social, policy and technological challenges to nuclear power in the United States? What are the challenges to developing and deploying new technologies and designs?

In September 2016, the University of Michigan, a global leader in nuclear engineering research, will explore the various obstacles to the wider deployment of this carbon-free energy source. From regulation to reactor design, speakers will discuss the economic, safety, security, policy, and social issues that will define nuclear power’s future role as a climate change mitigation tool.

Event details and registration

Sports organizations are increasingly leveraging their cultural and market influence to promote sustainable communities. Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the 2016 Green Sports Alliance Summit at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas where I heard stories on this topic from a wide array of sports practitioners and league representatives. A longstanding interest of mine, the intersection of sports and sustainability is at the forefront of my SNRE master’s project work with the National Football League’s (NFL) Green Bay Packers.

The Green Sports Alliance (GSA) is the leading organization working on sustainability issues with professional and collegiate sports teams, venues, and events. Established five years ago in the Pacific Northwest with just a few local teams, the GSA now counts over 370 teams and venues among its membership. Below are a few takeaways and observations from last month’s Summit.

Teaming Up With the Community
At the Summit I spoke with Linda Gancitanois, who was honored by the White House last year for her work as the founder of the “How Low Can You Go?” energy challenge in Florida. Teaming up with the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Miami Heat, the program connects 80 local schools in a friendly and educational energy-saving challenge. Each year, the winning schools are recognized on court at a Miami Heat game during the NBA’s Green Week. For the 2015 challenge, participating schools saved an impressive 1.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity and lowered their energy bills by nearly $150,000.

Striking Corporate Partnerships
Collegiate sports programs such as the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Texas at Austin have established sustainability partnerships with corporations such as BASF, Wells Fargo, PepsiCo, White Wave Foods, and Coca-Cola. Sponsorships such as these are a true win-win for both parties. Athletic departments have greater capabilities to take their sustainability programs to new heights while the corporations receive positive recognition that boosts their on-campus recruitment efforts.

The University of Colorado’s sports sustainability efforts are perhaps the most advanced in the nation. Among their recent initiatives, the University athletic department teamed up with corporate sustainability partner Wells Fargo to launch its Water for the West Campaign in early 2016. The Campaign aims to raise awareness of water conservation in the region through a pledge campaign and in-game interactions such as the Wells Fargo “Make it Rain” half-court shot competition at basketball games.

Innovating the Built Environment
Beyond partnerships, sports venues and events are increasingly incorporating sustainability into the design phase. LEED certification has been achieved by over 30 sports venues worldwide, and the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and NFL’s Atlanta Falcons are aiming for a LEED platinum standard for their new stadiums, which would be a first. Both venues will incorporate innovative cooling features to allow the facilities to “pre-cool” before games by opening wall or roof panels, reducing the energy spent on air conditioning.

While the LEED standard largely focuses on environmental sustainability, the WELL Building Standard is focused on ensuring that buildings should be developed with people’s health and wellness at the center of design. The WELL Standard is based around seven main concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. Although relatively in its infancy, the WELL standard is being used in the development of Los Angeles’ 2024 Olympic bid.

Looking Forward
Attending the Summit in Houston showed me that there is great momentum within sports leagues, teams, and venues to use sports’ public influence to advance sustainability in our communities. Catalyzing efforts from organizations like the Green Sports Alliance are key to expanding this movement to both the local and international levels, with the power of partnerships apt to play a major role.

Our team with Kevin McManus, a veteran in Daleville AL and founder and CEO of Discovery Recycling.

Across America, 89% of businesses employ less than 20 people. These small organizations represent the backbone of our economy.

On May 1, 2016 I set out on a five week road trip as part of Ross Open Road with three other Ross MBAs to discover the heartbeat that keeps these businesses going. The premise of Open Road, formerly MBAs Across America, is simple: five weeks in five different cities with five different social impact or community minded entrepreneurs.

For the entrepreneur, our group becomes part of their team and they benefit from some of the MBA knowledge we have gained over the past year. For us, it is an opportunity to understand the unique struggles and triumphs of a woman that was inspired to pivot from her career following the 2010 BP Oil Spill, or a family that has survived 28 years of community changes to become a beacon of stability in their neighborhood. Over the course of our five weeks on the road, our team endeavored, to push the needle even just a small bit further in the work they are committed to.

For myself, I couldn’t have known the impact these five weeks would have on everything from my understanding of the word “entrepreneur,” to the grit, self-doubt, passion and vital partnerships that characterizes the daily lives of the vast majority of business owners in the United States.

The Process

In our planning process, our team deliberately chose a diverse group of entrepreneurs with a range of backgrounds and experiences, cross-cutting geographies, company missions and methods of delivery. For example, we tackled a Thanksgiving holiday operational model and costing analysis for the Thomas’ at Sweet Potato Sensations in Detroit; value chain definition and best practices of the e-cycling space for Kevin McManus at Discovery Recycling in Daleville, AL; a pro forma and scenario-based analysis for Tippy Tippens with Goods that Matter in New Orleans; human resource structure and communication plans for Claire Morel with AMP360 in Austin, TX; and an analysis of Connecting for Good’s model effectiveness for Tom Esselman in Kansas City.

Prior to the start of every week, we had a series of calls to determine where we could make the greatest impact. One of the sole consistencies in our work was meeting the entrepreneur where they were in their journey, and ensuring that our suggestions were relevant to their needs and maturity as a company. Our time wasn’t about making change for five or ten years down the road; it was about making an impact tomorrow.

My initial motivation to spend five weeks with Open Road was twofold. First, I want to maximize the MBA/MS – to pursue as many interests as possible to maximize the completeness of my graduate experience. My second reason was empathy. Despite having traveled the world in the Navy, there are entire social ecosystems I do not understand. Open Road was the opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone, listen more than I speak, make a positive impact with partner entrepreneurs and form a bond with my three other travelers in five short weeks. Throughout it, I learned five paramount lessons.


Our final day with Sweet Potato Sensations in Detroit, going over an activity-based cost accounting spreadsheet with family co-owner Jeff Thomas.

Lesson 1: Entrepreneurship is not synonymous with Silicon Valley or Venture Capital.

Before Aaron, Blake, Iris and I met with the Thomas family at their restaurant Sweet Potato Sensations in Detroit. Observing a steady stream of local patrons order their famous sweet potato pies, we began to understand how our perceptions of entrepreneurship would be challenged. Espy Thomas, Jeff and Cassandra’s daughter, relayed to us the dominant narrative that Sweet Potato Sensations was often viewed as anything but entrepreneurial. At 28 years old, it is neighborhood icon in an economically depressed area of Detroit. Sweet Potato sensations is often overlooked by a burgeoning community of sexy co-working spaces, bourgeois textiles and high-tech apps contributing to Detroit’s urban renewal.

Working alongside the Thomas’, not only did I see entrepreneurship in their support of the community and other local businesses, but I also saw a family-run business that has survived 28 years of community turnover, politics transformations, and difficult economic realities. Through it, they have adapted and grown while maintaining their commitment to the ideals and deliciousness that inspired their business in the first place.


Claire Morel, founder of nonprofit AMP360 in Austin, TX in Urban Co-Lab.

Lesson 2: An entrepreneur cannot stand alone, even with the best of ideas.

“Tippy isn’t about making a buck, she is about making a difference,” one of Tippy Tippen’s, Chief Eternal Optimist of Goods that Matter, retail partners in New Orleans. From Detroit to Kansas City, we saw the critical contribution of community support in helping a small business survive. This thinking was also continually reflected back by the community partners about their local entrepreneurs. A successful entrepreneur truly has an ecosystem of suppliers and buyers, believers, supporters, and champions. “Networking” is a term that we throw around the Winter Garden at Ross to relate to recruiting, or getting to know our fellow MBAs. Never once did I hear the word “networking” with the entrepreneurs. It was about finding people that connected to the work they were doing, and about the countless hours that went in to nurturing, building upon and giving back to their community. Despite the incredible differences in geographies, missions and organizational structures of the entrepreneurs this idea of the community and their place within it was a constant.


Karita Matlock, Program Director for Connecting for Good in Kansas City, explaining the refurbishment and hardware access part of CFG’s mission.

Lesson 3: “Entrepreneur” is rarely used as a form of self-identification.

It was interesting to see the variability in how entrepreneurs self-identify. Despite having started a company in my first year at the School of Natural Resources and Environment with three other graduate students, I still struggled with the self-identifying as an “entrepreneur.” Each of the five individuals we partnered with identified as the thing they were trying to create: maker, recycler, and cafe owner. This concept underscores the importance of exposing MBAs to small organizations – it’s about redefining business categories, and of reconsidering the labels that are applied to business.






Lesson 4: Passion and self-doubt go hand-in-hand.

Tippy, Chief Eternal Optimist, of Goods that Matter in New Orleans is no stranger to tough times, and also triumphant ones.

Starting something new, adapting to changing times, evolving your brand and building a support base that empowers success, is exhausting. It requires immense amounts of energy, even on days that you have none. Despite the glory often attributed to being an entrepreneur in today’s media, for small businesses and entrepreneurs it is a constant struggle of identity and the often unanswered question of “am I doing what I should be doing with my life?”

To our team, on the outside, it was easy for us to proclaim “Yes! What you are doing is important, it is necessary!” Our team found that,if nothing else, this external validation and support was paramount to any other advice we could have provided.




CEO Tom Esselmen and Co-Founder Rick Deane at Connecting for Good in Kansas City, are working to bridge the digital divide through a holistic, wraparound approach.

Lesson 5: Whether or not someone has an MBA, business is a tool for social good.

During my dual-degree experience, I have heard of numerous examples of social intrapreneurship and social enterprises reshaping the way that business can contribute to issues of social and environmental justice. This thinking was constantly reinforced during our Open Road experience.

As graduate business students we are afforded an opportunity to think about the difference we want to make in our world, and we have a plethora of people to inspire us along the way.

Open Road will stand as one of the most important experiences as an Erber. My team had an opportunity to bond deeply over issues around social impact, business for good, and the future projections of our careers. We also encountered numerous adventures and misadventures along the road, living through everything as a unit. Ultimately, the most rewarding aspect was the relationships we developed with the entrepreneurs. Each week we tore ourselves away from a small community that we had built. Throughout Open Road and into the rest of the summer, we continued to circle back to the five entrepreneurs, to share in their progress on the work that we did together. This was the truly transformative element of our journey; hearing the entrepreneurs talk about the impact we built together.

MAP, Master’s Project – everything about Erb is to drive that hands-on, engaged experience with the world. Open Road was a full embodiment of that. The lessons I’ve learned from my five-week Open Road experience will be with me for a long time to come.

Mikaela traveled to Detroit, Southeast AL, New Orleans, Austin and Kansas City as part of Open Road working with Sweet Potato Sensations, Discovery Recycling, Goods that Matter, AMP360 and Connecting for Good.