During the second year of their MBA program, CityLab fellows Felipe Branco (MBA ’18) and Mohsin Bin Latheef (MBA ’18) never got too comfortable.
They were meeting regularly with their client, Telelatino Network Inc (TLN), going on site visits or preparing for a design sprint with the company.
“It was an unforgettable experience, working with a real organization and solving a real urban challenge,” describes Bin Latheef. “We had the added benefit of using tools and strategies that we had only ever heard about in the classroom.”
“CityLab is unlike any other course, in that you step out of the classroom and really get to explore the city.”
— Felipe Branco (MBA ’18)
The CityLab Fellowship program offers students a hands-on learning experience that includes an opportunity to provide strategic guidance to Toronto’s business communities.
In this elective course, which is open to full-time, morning and evening MBA candidates, students are encouraged to hit the streets and work with local businesses and business improvement areas (BIAs) on current issues that they are facing. So far, the program has seen student teams take on a range of issues, from developing a strategy for increasing foot traffic in one neighbourhood during off-peak winter months to providing economic impact metrics for an initiative aimed at getting Toronto businesses to adopt digital tools and technology.
“CityLab is unlike any other course, in that you step out of the classroom and really get to explore the city,” says Branco.
“Learning about the very real problems that small businesses face was crucial to my MBA experience,” he adds. “Almost half of Canada’s workforce is employed by a small business. Tackling the issues facing these small companies seems just as, if not more, important than taking on a challenge facing a large corporation.”
Toronto: the birthplace of the BIA
In many ways, a program like this could only exist at the University of Toronto.
Toronto is the birthplace of the BIA concept, a public-private partnership model where business leaders in a neighbourhood come together to drive community initiatives that extend beyond business. The city now has 83 active BIAs — which are often responsible for organizing street festivals, revitalization campaigns and initiatives aimed at instilling a sense of community and a distinct personality within neighbourhoods — making it the ideal place to study how these associations function and thrive.
In addition, the university is equipped with a healthy supply of faculty who are high-profile experts in management, industrial relations and urban planning, and can serve as instructors and mentors to guide MBA students with their consulting projects.
Professor Rafael Gomez, director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at U of T, literally wrote the book on BIAs. His book, Small Business and the City, which was launched at a Rotman event in May 2015, was a critical success. Importantly, it served as inspiration for CityLab.
Since the program launched in September 2016, Gomez and fellow CityLab developer Neel Joshi, director of student life and international experience at Rotman, have strived to show students the complex challenges real businesses and communities face, before they set off to take on the business world.
“Every aspiring leader needs to understand how small independent businesses make up the backbone of any thriving city,” says Gomez. “I want students to take a critical look at how policies, practices and business decisions can impact the health of a city and the organizations based there."
Learning powerful business lessons
Through CityLab, many MBA students have picked up lessons that they are applying in their current roles.
For their project, Bin Latheef and Branco were tasked with advising the Telelatino Network (TLN’s), a community broadcaster, on how to redesign their space to reflect the network’s recent rebranding and transition to a mainstream network providing English-language programming.
Both new grads recall feeling daunted by the assignment — but they walked away with powerful lessons on confidence and how to effectively identify business problems.
“Citylab taught me not to fear the things I don’t know,” says Bin Latheef, who is now a senior consultant at PwC. “Our team was thrown by the assignment. None of us had experience in design or media, but we were able to apply business thinking and provide value.”
Bin Latheef and his teammates got to work applying skills and concepts they picked up through the MBA. In addition to conducting background research on the organization and its reach, and visiting other niche broadcasting studios in the city, the team dove deeper into the issue by planning and executing a two-hour design sprint with TLN’s senior management, middle management, business partners and viewers.
From there, the team realized they needed to shift the client’s focus from their physical office space towards taking a closer look at the organization’s branding and overall strategy. They put together valuable recommendations on how the organization could go forward.
“It taught me how important it is to get genuine and honest feedback from your employees,” says Branco, who is now a managing partner with the soon-to-be-launched Zebu Steakhouse in Toronto.
“Now that I’m in a position where I’m opening a restaurant, I can see how fundamental our employees are and how crucial it is to hear from them.”
“CityLab was a highlight of my Rotman experience.”
— Ashley Gardner (MBA ’18)
Other CityLab teams tackled issues with local BIAs. Ashley Gardner (MBA ’18) and her classmates worked with the Toronto Association for Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) on enhancing a campaign aimed at getting small businesses to adopt current software programs, social media and other digital tools so that they can increase productivity and stay competitive.
For this consulting project, the team identified key metrics so that the association could communicate the campaign’s value to business operators and stakeholders. Gardner and her teammates met and interviewed business owners across the city to ask about their experiences with the program.
From these conversations and other research, they were able to identify activities TABIA could coordinate to increase engagement and further the campaign.
“CityLab was a highlight of my Rotman experience,” says Gardner. “It was unique, as a student, to go through the consulting process from beginning to end: meeting with the client, learning about their expectations, developing a scope, collecting the data and coming up with actionable recommendations.”
Gardner, who will be starting a commercial banking position at RBC, suspects she’ll be using the experience and applying lessons learned later in her career.
“When there are consulting aspects to the job and when I’m serving in leadership roles for clubs or organizations, I can draw from this experience.”
Perhaps the real value of the program is its lasting impact on businesses and communities. So far, CityLab has worked with 11 different clients, providing businesses and BIA organizations with recommendations rooted in thorough data analysis, interviews and other research.
“We’re giving given them high quality, informed advice at no cost,” says Gomez. “Even if they can’t pursue all the recommendations, we are helping them prepare for the future.”
It’s also been rewarding for Gomez to see the lessons come through for his students.
“I was always moved by the investments BIAs have made in their communities and the instrumental role they have in shaping neighborhoods,” says Gomez. “Now seeing my students — who are about to step out into the business world — discover this has been equally exciting.”
Written by Rebecca Cheung | More Student Stories »