Piloting an experimental and experiential course

December 13, 2021

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Archie JonesHenry McGeeSenior Lecturers Archie Jones, Henry McGee, and Jeffrey Bussgang teamed up to design a new Harvard Business School (HBS) course, Scaling Minority Businesses, in which students learn about the unique challenges of Black-owned businesses. Students are grouped into teams and paired with one of ten Black entrepreneurs in the Boston area, support their business’s strategic initiatives, and assist in their continued growth. The instructors designed the class around three modules: (1) systemic racism’s impact on wealth creation more broadly, which established for students, as Professor Jones put it, “where we are and how we got there;” (2) access to capital, including what organizations can do and how the market needs to engage differently with Black-owned businesses; and (3) access to customers, for instance supplier diversity programs and how to get the first big contract. Given the lack of traditional cases about minority businesses and their challenges, the instructors designed “live cases,” with the Black business leaders visiting the class and students working with them in real-time. The professors invited a range of class speakers, including experts from the Brookings Institution and Initiative for a Competitive Inner City.

The benefits: Students and business partners alike expressed how valuable the course was for them. When the Black entrepreneurs were asked to evaluate their experiences at the end of the course, the average satisfaction rates—including overall experience, the team’s recommendations, and implementation—ranged from 6.6-6.7 out of a highest possible 7. Students reported that the class offered a transformative learning experience which addressed a learning gap in their professional, academic, and personal settings. Importantly, many students pledged to continue to focus on alleviating opportunity gaps for Black businesses after the conclusion of the course.

“If there is an idea that is either sparked by events as this one was, or just by internally generated excitement, lean in and take that experiment, run the pilot, and then be ready to learn!”

The challenges: Figuring out how to select business partners for the pilot course and match them to students. “We were trying to find that particular sweet spot,” Jones explains, “that the business partners were small enough to be certainly impacted by COVID, certainly still need our help to think about growth both in COVID and out, but also be large enough to implement things there.” The team also had to identify impactful projects the businesses were currently working on that could be completed within the semester. “We didn’t get any turndowns,” McGee adds. “At all.” Afterwards, they presented the options to the students, who ranked their top choices. The instructors then assigned students to teams that were matched with a business partner based on interest, factoring in diversity in background and expertise.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Community partnership is essential. The team emphasizes the importance of strong community partnerships at the onset and throughout the course. “We were additive to what was already being done out there,” Jones describes, “and we could talk about what was already being done for and with these businesses rather than coming up with everything from scratch.” This created richer relationships with the Black entrepreneurs and allowed students to serve the founders in meaningful ways. The teaching team continues to make sure these partnerships are ongoing rather than momentary. “We are adding to and working with [them] to be a part of the formula,” Jones notes.
  • Incorporating virtual elements can create opportunities. Though the course will be in-person this academic year, the instructors highlighted some advantages the virtual setting provided which they plan to incorporate. “It is going to be far easier to organize talks by outside experts via Zoom,” McGee explains. “Plus, the hybrid format enables national scale,” Jones adds.
  • Leverage the experience of your colleagues and network. Although they worked together and designed the course as a team, the instructors also tapped into the expertise of colleagues at HBS. Their faculty colleagues provided support through visits as a guest speaker, collaboration on relevant case design, and connections to local Black-owned businesses. “We began to develop a network of people,” McGee explains. This enriched and expanded the course with greater diversity of thought and allowed them to better match with businesses’ ongoing projects.

Bottom line: When constructing an experiential course from scratch, faculty must be ready to be deeply engaged to ensure success. Moreover, Jones encourages faculty to be bold in their course design. “If there is an idea that is either sparked by events as this one was, or just by internally generated excitement,” he says, “lean in and take that experiment, run the pilot, and then be ready to learn.” The instructors plan to take their own advice to heart as they aiming to scale their course from the local to national level in the upcoming semesters.