The Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality (OEV) is a government agency actively engaged in fostering a business-friendly environment in the City of Tallahassee and in broader Leon County, Florida. It is a division of the city and county’s joint Department of Planning, Land Management, and Community Enhancement. The OEV tasked a team of MIT Sloan's USA Lab students with finding better ways to engage minority-owned and women-owned businesses (MWSBE).
“As the harsh consequences of America’s deep economic divides became ever more confounding during COVID-19, our USA Lab team worked collaboratively with the leaders of OEV to unpack the challenges facing these businesses and identify opportunities for progress,” says senior lecturer Barbara Dyer, an instructor for the USA Lab class.
The USA Lab students— Jordan Dominguez, MBA ’22; Nagela Nukuna, MBA ’22, Harvard MPP ’22; and César Monarrez, MBA ’21 and Harvard Kennedy School MPA ’21—conducted qualitative and quantitative primary research, including an analysis of comparable public and nonprofit programs. The students also interviewed a wide range of stakeholders, including OEV staff, partners, business owners, and community members.
The team then focused on assessing OEV programming to determine:
- How aligned are staff and partners in their goals for MWSBE engagement?
- What metrics can be used to measure this engagement?
- What services or resources does OEV excel at providing for MWSBE? and
- What gaps or areas for improvement exist within OEV’s programming for MWSBE?
This research led the team to recommend five ways the OEV can improve its engagement of minority-owned and women-owned businesses: support new enterprises, ensure accountability in contracting, strengthen community bonds, collect data to inform programming, and invest in MWSBE business corridors.
Nukuna says one key takeaway from the experience was the value of working with the host as the teammates sought a solution together. “Throughout the process, we were open and transparent with one another, and—from what we observed—our community suggestions and overall recommendations were taken quite well,” she says.
One of MIT’s many Action Learning labs, USA Lab supports its project work with classroom instruction and discussions, working to help students connect the dots between the larger challenges the United States faces, the special contour of these challenges in diverse communities, and the role of business, government, and intermediary organizations in shaping the trajectory of change, Dyer says.
“Our students learned that, while they were not experts on the issue or the place, their authenticity and curiosity, willingness to ask questions and to learn from the lived experiences of folks on the ground, had a catalytic effect. They gained a grasp of the complex interplay of government and business development and the persistence of racial and gender disparities even in programs targeted toward reducing these disparities,” she says. “Finally, our students always learn a great deal about themselves through such projects. Each of the students concluded the course with a deeper appreciation of their own strengths and roles they intend to play.”