Home From Youngstown With a New Perspective

I can’t believe it’s been a few days since we’ve been back from Youngstown. What a trip it was! We spoke to church leaders about addressing racism throughout the city, we listened as union auto workers told us how their lives were upended after the Lordstown plant closed, and we connected with a small business owner as she told us her life story after re-opening her family’s  restaurant in the city. As we visited different businesses and cultural sites throughout town, I thought about what the many different futures of Youngstown might look like if different puzzle pieces fell into place. 

Our lunch with the UAW 1112 stood out to me as the most unique and emotionally profound experience of our trip. While some aspects of the trip were both familiar to life at home in New York and the towns we grew up in scattered around the world with quirks unique to Youngstown, the union visit was something that far fewer of us have experienced. The union workers were grappling with the immediate changes from the juggernaut of automation, and the effects automation had on their personal and professional lives were heart-wrenching. Our group found ourselves talking through solutions to displacement of so many workers long after we left the lunch, and found ourselves tepidly hopeful for new job opportunities for our new friends when we learned that the Lordstown plant had been sold to electric truck start up Workhorse earlier this week.  Once I got home to New York, I thought about how automation may affect some of the jobs MBA’s covet in the not-so-distant future and how the Youngstown autoworkers were treated may be a sign of what’s to come for many more if we don’t have groups of people just like us working towards finding the right way forward.

Our trip to Youngstown will stay with me forever, and I know my classmates feel the same. To the first years and prospective students out there reading this blog, take Bridging the American Divide once you get to your second year at CBS. You won’t regret it.

Goodbye for now, Decatur!

Throughout our trip, our CBS squad spent a lot of time discussing what we found surprising about Decatur and the people we met there. Given that most of the group had little experience with the South (let alone Alabama), there were a lot of preconceived notions about what the city would be like. We wondered:

  • Would locals be willing to talk to us?
  • Would we be welcomed in Decatur?
  • Would there be stoplights on the roads?? (yes, that was a real concern for some students)

Yet, over the course of a few short (but very packed) days, all of questions – and more – were answered.  

Yes, the locals talked to us. And when they did, they spoke with pride about the ways that Decatur is growing. This was especially true when attending a dinner hosted by the Morgan Country Economic Development Association, a group that has been working hard to bring new businesses into Decatur, like a new Mazda-Toyota site. Yet, we also heard frustration with the rate of growth as some found it too slow, at least when it came to building new residential housing, while others were worried its quick pace would leave some locals behind. The nuanced conversations about economic development was eye-opening because it wasn’t as black-or-white as we initially thought. Hearing from people currently going through the difficult and ambiguous process of managing early stages of growth helped us better understand why individual sentiment on new industry coming to town could vary so widely.

On our last day in Decatur, we received a warm welcome from the Alabama Robotics Technology Park when stopped by to check out its programming

And yes, we were welcomed by the people we met in Decatur. From factories, to farms, and to churches, we were warmly greeted wherever we went. Although they also questioned why were in Decatur, they always seemed happy to have us visit. And asked to come back. The invitation to return caught us by surprise at first since it came after we spent hours asking tough questions on array of topics about their work, their values, and their thoughts on the future of Decatur. With all of the questions, would come new viewpoints for us as students to absorb and forced our hosts to discuss topics that are somewhat taboo.

And yes, Decatur has stoplights. It also has a beautiful waterfront, a growing downtown (with live music), and a history that gives the town its color. Decatur had so much more than we ever could have imagined giving it a particular warmth and charm. Of course, Decatur isn’t perfect and like many other cities, it’s struggling to find its place in the world as things continue to rapidly evolve and change. But it’s doing so with tenacity, creativity, and a lot of hard work, which means anything is possible for this city.

Moe’s is a BBQ joint downtown that many of the locals frequent

We’ll just have to come back for a visit to see for ourselves what Decatur can do.

Our First Day(s) in Youngstown

We’ve been in Youngstown now for 1.5 days and have touched on so  many parts of the community since our arrival. We started out on Friday with dinner at Youngstown’s only downtown hotel (coincidentally, the same hotel where we’re staying while we’re here) and drinks at Noble Creature Cask House, one of the city’s newest watering holes, to meet the city leaders we’ll spend time with over the course of our trip. The presence of both the new Doubletree Hotel as well as Noble Creature Cask House were the first of many uplifting signs of revitalization we’re experiencing in the city. Saturday marked our first full day here  where we managed to fit in a historic walking tour of changing downtown area, had lunch with the Mahoning Valley Mental Health and Recovery Boards to discuss how the opioid crisis has affected Ohio, listened to a panel on education inequality at Inspiring Minds (a local non-profit in the area that supports leveling the playing  for at-promise youth), had dinner with Black leaders in education, politics, and business, and finished the night at Royal Oaks, a local nightlife fixture.  

While we all had our personal favorites of the groups we met with over the course of the day, I personally connected with Stephanie Gilchrest, the Executive Director of Inspiring Minds. Hearing from women of color in prominent positions in organizations instrumental in revitalizing Youngstown had a profound impact on me, and Stephanie’s dedication to the young adults in the Youngstown City School District made me realize how  each individual contribution to solving something as large as turning Youngstown around matters. I left meeting her feeling empowered and ready to take on small wins in the communities I am apart of back home and want to give back to. 

We’ve got several packed days ahead of us with many more site visits and community discussions, and we’re all very excited to see what else is in store for us!

There’s something about Decatur

“What are you doing here in Decatur?”

That’s usually the first question that greets our CBS group whenever we meet someone new in Decatur. It’s then quickly followed by: “But really, why Decatur?”

In those moments we usually turn to our professor Bruce Usher, one of the brains behind this radical experiment, to answer. His response typically touches on Decatur’s size (its population is a little over 50,000 and growing), it’s unique location along the Tennessee River, and the influx of new business (and new people) to the area.

That’s usually enough to satisfy the question-asker and keep the conversation moving forward. However, if we’re being honest, all of us in the CBS group are here to answer the same question: Why Decatur?

Well, it might be because of the well-respected companies in the area. During our first full day Decatur, we visited Nucor, one of the largest and most profitable steel companies in the world. Yet, it’s also a corporation that very few people have heard of. During their presentation, the “team” talked about their work with pride; describing technological innovations, their high environmental protection standards, and their deep respect for every teammate in the company. The Decatur Nucor leadership team was also quite frank about some of the challenges including finding and/or developing strong technical talent and dealing with the consequences of changes in trade policy.

Safety first!

Or maybe it’s because of the increasingly diverse school district. Decatur schools have seen an influx of Latinx students. This is caused by the increased number of immigrants coming from Mexico and other Central American countries like Guatemala who are willing to work in difficult, low-wage jobs such as poultry processing. As these immigrants settle in the city with their families, it means changes to not only the demographics of the city-at-large but also the school system. In a conversation with the Decatur City Schools superintendent Michael Douglas, he talked some of the recent changes to Decatur schools including new racial demographics (40% White, 30% Black, and 30% Latinx) as well as the need to reimagine how to best prepare students for the workforce of the future.

Perhaps, it could be Decatur because of its strong community, which reflects the deeply religious nature of the city and the way that churches act as additional support systems for those who need it. This looks like partnering with nonprofits such as the Neighborhood Christian Center, which provides a variety of programs including transitional housing for formerly incarcerated people. It also looks like Black and White pastors coming together to talk about racial reconciliation and the need to atone for historic wrongs done in the name Christianity.

Pastor Steve Bateman led a panel discussion on “Christianity and Racial Reconciliation in Decatur, Alabama”

Whatever it is, there is something special about Decatur. Just come for a visit and you’ll find out for yourself.

…Actually, I figured out why it’s Decatur – it’s the stuffed potatoes. Definitely, the stuffed potatoes.

Stuffed potatoes are a Decatur specialty and are usually filled with bbq meat, toppings, and sauce

Talk (divides) to me

Over the past two months, I’ve been meeting weekly with 51 fellow MBAs and two courageous (or crazy) professors to discuss complex and divisive topics in American society. From parsing through the far-reaching impacts of automation to exploring all the ways that religion seeps into the workplace, we have attempted to cover a lot in a limited amount of time.

As you can imagine, it hasn’t always been easy.

In our attempts to comprehend the varying and oft-times conflicting viewpoints on issues like the role of immigration in America’s economic growth, there have been a range of emotions felt in the room. There have been instances of reflection, understanding, and surprise as well as moments of confusion and frustration. And all of the above could be experienced within the first hour of our three-hour sessions.

Yet, each week we all returned ready to share, listen, and learn; fully committed to the belief that these conversations are necessary. We recognize what a rare opportunity (and privilege) it is to get a better understanding of how these issues drive division and do so in the company of engaged individuals with differing perspectives. However, this opportunity is not without its challenges. Part of the difficulty stems from realizing how poorly equipped we are to have these types of conversations. You can find classes on the art of persuasion or courses centered on crafting an effective argument, but few focus on simply listening.

Luckily, there are organizations like Better Angels that are working to improve people’s ability to talk — just talk — across difference. In our last class, two volunteer instructors representing “Blues” and “Reds” demonstrated what it looks like to converse with another person with an opposing stance without the need to persuade, pushback, or provoke. Instead of teaching us how to talk, they concentrated on teaching us how to listen. Listening well starts with genuine curiosity – about a topic, an experience, a person. And with that curiosity comes good questions that get to the heart of what someone cares about and why.

While we’ve had the chance to practice our “listening’ skill in the safety of classroom, we’ll be put to the test as we head to our respective destinations — my group to Decatur, Alabama and the other to Youngstown, Ohio. Both cities represent parts of America that few MBAs in schools like CBS ever get to know, yet represent the experience of millions of people across the country.

Of course, this trip also means we as students are headed towards a number of conversations that will require us to talk across difference. As hard as that may be, it will enable us to grow and learn in so many new ways.

So, with a little curiosity, mixed with compassion, and a lot of listening, let’s see what we learn.

BTAD to Youngstown, Ohio in 3, 2, 1….

The day has arrived! The Youngstown, Ohio contingent of our Bridging the American Divide (“BTAD”) course – a semester-long Global Immersion class taught by professors Todd Jick and Bruce Usher – is set to depart today from New York to finally embark on the trip we’ve spent our semester preparing for.

For those reading this blog that may not be as familiar with what our class is all about, BTAD brings together MBA students here at CBS interested in gaining a better understanding of the causes and consequences of the deeply entrenched “American divide” and provides the framework to discuss ways we may help bridge it, both as citizens of our communities and as future business leaders. Our capstone class trips to Youngstown, Ohio and Decatur, Alabama serve as the ultimate opportunity to immerse ourselves in the frontlines of the issues we’ve attempted to tackle all semester and to provide learning experiences through the perspectives of the incredible community leaders, speakers, and representatives we’ll get to know over the course of the tip.

Throughout the semester, we’ve come to terms with our own individual political leanings and identified just how vast the divides are in this country across all identity spectrums;  we’ve  confronted the domestic consequences of international trade imbalances and automation as jobs that were once mainstays of America’s economy head oversees or are replaced by advancing technology;  and we’ve examined the very painful reality of how systemic racism permeates every aspect of our society 55 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When we meet with United Auto Workers displaced after the recent closures of GM auto factories throughout Mahoning County, or with Justin Jennings, CEO of Youngstown City School District, to understand how education in Youngstown has been affected by the changing socio-economic landscape of the city, or with executives from Vallourec, an international steel company, to tour a factory that has replaced so many of its former workers with advanced robotics, we’ll call upon the skills we’ve honed in the classroom to absorb and reflect upon the ways we can be bridges in this American Divide.

All 26 of us are excited and can’t wait to get started this evening on what will be one of the most impactful trips of our CBS experience. Youngstown, here we come!

Final reflections on Rwanda and Tanzania

We are now back on campus, back to our routines and the preoccupations of business school life. Career plans, recruitment, connecting with our fellow students, and everything that we want to get out and contribute during our second year at CBS. But over the last few days we also had time to reflect on the lessons we learned from our trip to Rwanda and Tanzania.

There were a few valuable business lessons. We saw how it can be challenging to operate in emerging markets (or even ‘frontier markets’, as sub Saharan African economies are often dubbed), as players like Zenufa or FabLabs showed us – production inputs are not as available as they would be in other markets, maybe their quality is not as reliable; financing is not as accessible as in countries with a longer history of venture capitalism and risk-taking; top talent is not always in strong supply. But when these challenges are overcome, success can be extremely rewarding – becoming a leader in a high-growth market and having tremendous impact on the lives of people. Businesses like Zipline have overcome some of these challenges and are literally saving people’s lives. Azam has become a powerful conglomerate catering to a booming consumer economy.

We also saw how it is possible to stick to your values and still operate a successful business. Azam is an example of this, with their commitment to running an ecological business and decision to not go into alcoholic beverages, even if this could be a very profitable move. They are preserving the values which are at the core of their group, and they are thriving.

It was interesting to see how can being ‘local’ and culturally charged can be a source of distinctiveness – Mara Phones is betting precisely on this, with their phones branded as ‘by Africans for Africans’. It will be interesting to watch how their brand develops.

And finally, it was inspiring to meet entrepreneurs who believe in their visions in the long-run, and decide to not sell or give up control even when the opportunities are attractive. Nala and Nuya Essence are examples of just this: They could have sold or opened up their capital but decided not to in order to further build out their businesses, and they were rewarded.

We also learned some impactful cultural lessons. If on the one hand we saw how differences among people, even when they only exist in our minds (and is this not always the case?) can be devastating, we also saw how a society can recover and rebuild itself from the darkest and most devastating past, as Rwanda did after the genocide.

It is also possible for emerging economies to commit to protecting the environment, even if they are on a long road towards development, unlike some large emerging economies often claim. Tanzania is an example of this, with their ban on plastic bags and green businesses like Azam, as is Rwanda – the cleanliness of Kigali will attest.

As I hope this and the previous posts made clear, this was a trip that taught us a lot, in a lot of different aspects. I’m sure the people in our group will become more globally minded and conscious leaders because of it, and I hope this impact will be lasting. I’m excited to see how Rwanda, Tanzania and its businesses and people will continue to develop.

A night view of Kigali

Pedro Anjos is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School