Attending business school is not only an opportunity to reinvigorate one’s career, but also a time to evaluate long-term goals. For me, the immediate next step will be taking on a management consultant role after I graduate from MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

But just as crucial has been considering how business school fits in with my long-term goal, that of bringing sustainable growth and good jobs to my home state of Maine.

This semester, an opportunity presented itself through an MIT Sloan Action Learning course called USA Lab. I noticed that Coastal Enterprises Inc., a Maine nonprofit, was listed among the partner organizations, and was intrigued by the notion of being able to connect my education to my community.

Simply put, Action Learning at MIT is learning by doing. Students start out in a lecture setting before working on-site with host organizations to solve real business challenges. Through USA Lab, teams of MBAs conduct fieldwork on-site in rural regions and small cities across the country. This year’s projects included, among others, analyzing ways to increase low-income workers’ access to affordable, quality child care, and building job pipelines in economically hard-hit areas.

During spring break, two MBA teammates joined me in traveling up and down Maine’s eastern seaboard with representatives from CEI to meet with small-business owners focused on food production with the goal of investigating barriers to small-business growth and job creation. In the process, we visited aquaculture farmers to mushroom cultivators to poultry producers.

These meetings put into perspective how entrepreneurial startup food producers need to be to scale. One of my favorite visits was with Bangs Island Mussels, a family-owned and -operated business, where we discussed the challenges of expansion on the crowded wharfs in Portland. That night, our team dined next door at Scales Restaurant, where Bangs Island mussels was on the menu. You can’t get much more farm-to-table than that.

It was an eye-opening experience to see the resilience of small food producers and their commitment to delivering quality product despite many barriers. Contrasting food production to a software business model illustrates the difficulties: Software requires minimal infrastructure, is developed iteratively and can be downloaded immediately. Food production, meanwhile, requires specific real estate space, expensive equipment and a complex supply chain.

Given these challenges, our team brought our findings back to campus where we explored commercial real estate needs as well as tactical actions small businesses can take to offer good jobs and benefits even at their earliest stages of growth. After further consultations with professors at MIT and Harvard, we identified the following:

• There is a need for small, specially outfitted real estate space that includes all necessary components for food production including cold storage, floor drains and a loading dock.

• Food producers would benefit from a community of modular rental units that facilitate collaboration and lower the barriers to scaling.

• Food producers require information on and access to low-cost benefits in order to kick off a “virtuous cycle” of offering good jobs to their employees.

Small food producers have chosen to enter a tough business, and this project has highlighted factors that keep food producers from scaling. Our findings are now in the hands of CEI, which works with various players in the food ecosystem.

In addition, these findings should be taken seriously by our local real estate developers and government.

Maine is already renowned for its high-quality food products, and there is so much opportunity to grow this sector. As Portland and the greater area continue to grow, it would be prudent to make sure we include space for our food producers in development plans in addition to housing. The best part of supporting food producers is that, in addition to spurring business growth, the community benefits by having access to more local products. Let’s continue to support these local industries that make Maine so special.


Comments are not available on this story.