Business Strategy Class Partners with Nonprofit Mill City Grows

Students and professor pose with Mill City Grows co-founders Image by Ed Brennen
Mill City Grows co-founders Lydia Sisson, center, and Francey Slater are flanked by Asst. Prof. Liz Altman and the winning MBA team.

By Ed Brennen

Francey Slater felt like one of the big-shot investors on “Shark Tank” as she listened to MBA students from the Manning School of Business pitch strategic plans for her nonprofit Mill City Grows.

“It was inspiring to see so much innovative thinking. I was impressed by the students’ detailed analysis, thought and creativity,” says Slater, founding co-director of the Lowell-based urban farming venture, which partnered with Asst. Prof. Elizabeth Altman’s MBA capstone strategy class this semester on a new field-based experiential learning project.

Working in teams of six, students spent two months developing a business strategy plan to help Mill City Grows expand its mobile market, a “farm stand on wheels” that brings fresh produce to neighborhoods around the city. All five student teams presented their plans to a panel of judges led by the organization’s Executive Director Lydia Sisson ’12, with the top two teams advancing to a final in-class presentation to the full board two weeks later.

“The students took the challenge head-on and really gave us some diverse and unique options for growth. It was awesome,” says Sisson, who launched the nonprofit with Slater in 2012 while completing her master’s degree in regional economic and social development. Sisson visited Altman’s class several times during the semester to provide students with inside knowledge of Mill City Grows’ organizational structure and challenges.

Mill City Grows board members deliberate Image by Ed Brennen
Mill City Grows founding co-director Lydia Sisson, right, and board member Ruben Carmona deliberate in a Falmouth Hall classroom after hearing the final two pitches from MBA students.

Andrew Koen, who teamed with Joyce McLaughlin, Bianca Madongorere, Barbara Paintsil, Swapnik Saha and Jeffrey Veiga for a narrow victory in the finals, says working with a real-world business brought to life the core concepts he’d learned by reading case studies and writing analyses.

“The project provided me the opportunity to utilize all that I’ve learned while completing my MBA, from analyzing financials to formulating staffing decisions to dealing with complex licensing issues,” says Koen, a Haverhill native who graduates this spring. “Plus, we got to help improve a local business, which was a truly rewarding experience.”

McLaughlin, who is the associate dean of enrollment and director of financial aid in the Financial Aid Office, says her team’s solid implementation plan — and recommendation for smoothie sales — helped put it over the top.

“Our team’s approach was to provide Mill City Grows with multiple options to improve their business model of the mobile market, giving them the flexibility to select which ones to implement,” McLaughlin says. “Ultimately, we wanted to make sure our recommendations were viable and something they could begin implementing right away.”

While the board of directors had to select one winning team, its members said they would likely incorporate different elements from several of the presentations to help further its mission of fostering “food justice” by improving physical health, economic independence and environmental sustainability in Lowell.

Students pitch to the Mill City Grows board Image by Ed Brennen
MBA student Abdullah Alghamdi presents his team's strategy to the Mill City Grows board of directors.

“Many of the ideas not only fit our mission as an organization, but also as a business to generate revenue and support the business activity going forward,” Slater says. “It was nice for our board to hear from a panel of experts that these are the things we should be thinking about as an organization to support our program.”

Altman came up with the idea for the project after meeting Sisson at a local event last year. They’d both like to see more of its kind in the future.

“Absolutely, we’d like to build on this,” Sisson says. “Looking toward the university to help us tackle some of our bigger problems and challenges, that’s one of the unique things of being so closely linked together.”

“I love it!” Altman adds. “This project is really a great win-win-win activity benefiting students, the organization and the broader Lowell community.”