A Positive Force for Good

An immersive MBA leadership program at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor partners with community leaders and local entrepreneurs to improve Detroit nonprofits and neighborhoods.
A Positive Force for Good

THE OBJECTIVE of the Ross School’s annual Impact Challenge is simple: Give students opportunities to serve the community, in multiple ways, throughout their educational programs. Organized by the Ross School’s Sanger Leadership Center, the Impact Challenge has been held the first week of the fall semester for the last five years. The challenge requires the entire class of approximately 400 first-year full-time MBA students to work together to complete a single, large-scale project that will make a positive difference in the community. The catch? They need to complete the work in just four days.

To run the challenge, the Sanger Leadership Center enlists up to eight faculty, 20 to 30 staff members, and even many second-year MBAs. The event costs between $150,000 to $200,000, mostly to fund food and transportation. The center also reserves resources such as large event spaces or donated supplies that students would not be able to obtain in such a short time.

In one of the first Impact Challenges, students developed and launched a business that gave back to the community. In another, students raised more than US$65,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In 2014, the students planned and executed a back-to-school fair featuring products, services, and activities to help give more than 3,000 Detroit elementary school children and their parents a great start to the school year.

For the 2015 challenge, however, the school wanted to redefine the initiative to make a more sustainable impact on the community, explains Scott DeRue, director of the Sanger Leadership Center. So, those organizing the challenge decided to to focus on an entrepreneurial endeavor already underway in Detroit: the Brightmoor Maker Space, a proposed community workshop and incubator for business ideas generated by teens and community residents.

-Scott Derue, University of Michigan


For four days, teams of MBA students traveled to Detroit to help nearly 60 high school students develop business plans, conceive products, and build prototypes as a way to promote the Maker Space’s mission. At the same time, the MBA students also organized the Detroit Youth Maker Faire, where the teens highlighted their innovations and participated in a pitch competition. Held at Detroit’s Eastern Market, the event attracted 1,000 attendees from the community. Executives from Deloitte and General Motors, which sponsored the event, not only judged the competition, but also awarded seed funding to help teens with winning ideas to pursue their entrepreneurial efforts.“

Ultimately, our mission is to create transformational leadership challenges for our students,” says Brian Flanagan, managing director of the Sanger Leadership Center. “But we also want them to leave something truly valuable, which has genuine and sustained impact on the community.”


Flanagan admits that a four-day challenge is not enough to achieve truly long-term impact. That’s why the Sanger Leadership Center recently developed a second phase for the Impact Challenge. In 2015, it created the Ross Leadership Academy (RLA), for which it chooses 20 to 25 MBA students to work from September through April on projects that stem from the original four-day challenge. “The Ross Leadership Academy will be a venue where we can sustain partnerships in the community from year to year and allow our students to dive into some really difficult issues,” says Flanagan.

Through the RLA, students form five-person teams, which together have the capacity to work on ten different projects at a time; they also work with two executive coaches, several entrepreneurship faculty, and a trained facilitator who helps them reflect regularly on what they’re learning throughout their projects, says DeRue. “We’ve learned that you can’t simply create the experience for students. You must also surround them with the support mechanisms that will allow them to learn and grow from the experience.”

In the months after the Youth Maker Faire, RLA students worked with neighborhood organizations, including Detroit Public Schools, to help make the Brightmoor Maker Space a reality. Construction is set to begin this winter in a now-vacant 3,200-square-foot building on the campus of Detroit Community Schools. Once completed, the space will be a community workshop where high school students from the Brightmoor neighborhood will learn skills such as woodcraft, metal work, printmaking, screen printing, and multimedia design. It also will house nonprofit organizations such as the Brightmoor Youth Garden, an urban farm spanning six city blocks where children and teens can grow and sell their own produce, and B’Moor Radio, a community radio program created and produced by high school students.“

"We are engaged in a collaborative design and implementation effort to produce saleable products on behalf of the community,” says Bart Eddy, co-founder of Detroit Community Schools and director of the youth program called Entrepreneurship in Action. “In this movement from the ‘probable’ to the ‘possible,’ we are making a collective impact on the neighborhood while discovering the hidden resources of inspiration and enthusiasm via social entrepreneurship.”


Although the Impact Challenge is primarily designed for first-year full-time MBAs, over time it has inspired related projects that involve students across many programs, including students from the weekend/evening MBA, master of management, and BBA programs. This year, most of these programs have their own individual Impact Challenges to give more students immersive experiences in the community.

In addition, the Sanger Center partners with the school’s student-run Detroit Revitalization & Business (R&B) club to complete a number of Detroit Impact Projects that stem from the Impact Challenge. Carried out throughout the year, these projects involve students from across the university, from disciplines such as public health, architecture, and engineering. This partnership provides another avenue for sustained engagement with the community and opens the door to other students who want to volunteer, says DeRue.“

"Our mission at Ross is to educate students to make a difference in the world, and the Impact Challenge helps students establish that mindset from the very start of their two-year experience,” Flanagan adds. “We want all of our students to be asking, ‘How do I leverage my skills to do something for the community? How can I be a good citizen?’ We want them to use business to be a positive force for good.”

Follow the activities of the Sanger Leadership Center’s Impact Challenge activities on both Twitter and Instagram using the tag #RossImpact. Learn more about the learning objectives for the challenge at michiganross.umich.edu/sanger/impact-challenge.