Mendoza School of Business

Staying grounded

Author: Paul Freehill (MBA ‘19)

If there was ever a Mendoza College of Business class or experience that was the embodiment of making a mark on the world, it was, and is, the Business on the Frontlines (BOTFL) class, a part of the MBA curriculum. On paper, BOTFL looks like an MBA class where you consult with a partner organization (typically a nonprofit) on a business project in a foreign locale. If you’ve been fortunate enough to take BOTFL, though, you know it’s a perspective-shattering experience, a reflection on business as a discipline, an exploration of its impact on the world, and an examination of your role within it.

The premise of BOTFL is that business can not only play a vital role in rebuilding regions that are recovering from turmoil and conflict, but can also help to prevent the turmoil and conflict in the first place by being a stabilizing force. Through class, you get to work with a partner organization in just such a location to understand their business and the challenges they face, with the ultimate goal of helping your partner to provide stability to the area through employment and development. To better understand this overall mission, you read works like Rerum Novarum to internalize that there’s dignity in work, you debate the merits of foreign aid in developing countries, and you talk to leaders of their respective fields. Then you travel abroad to meet your partners in person, conduct more research, and upon returning to Notre Dame, write and deliver your final recommendations. In all, it’s a gauntlet of readings, papers, discussions, presentations, research, trips, and meetings disguised once as a consulting project then disguised again as a class. It ends up being part project, part philosophy, part soul-searching, and all-consuming.

The woman behind all of this is Dr. Viva Bartkus. If BOTFL is the academic embodiment of making a mark on the world, then Viva is the human embodiment; not everyone gives up their partner role in a prestigious global consulting firm to start a graduate class to explore the impacts that business can have on those who are less fortunate. Viva, as founder, professor, and mastermind of BOTFL, also acts as the moderator for classroom discussions, brings in speakers to share their perspectives, and raises money to keep the program going.

Perhaps more importantly, Viva keeps us grounded in the reality that there are people in the world that don’t have the same opportunities as us, and she reminds us that we have the power to change that. For that reason, it’s fitting that the class happens in the last semester of the program, because BOTFL is the apposite culmination of the ND MBA, one last reminder that it’s our responsibility to carry our lessons learned beyond the classroom and into our new jobs and our new communities.

For me, that means volunteering my Saturday mornings to teach business and entrepreneurship classes to a group of Black teenage girls through an organization called Love The Lou, which focuses on housing, employment, and youth in North St. Louis. It seems small, but these entrepreneurial skills are something that the community could really use. Greater St. Louis Inc., an organization of public and private leaders focused on equitable economic development, estimates that if black St. Louisans started and owned businesses at the same rate as white St. Louisans, St. Louis would have 8,000 additional employer businesses and 66,000 additional jobs. Even with those staggering numbers, there’s no overstating how big of an impact that could have. Now, I know that equipping my Love The Lou students with business and entrepreneurial skills is only a small contribution for me to make; but I also know, through my BOTFL and Notre Dame experience, that what these strong, determined young women can do with those skills — start their own businesses, provide stability for themselves and their families, rejuvenate a community? — now that would be making a mark.

Topics: MBA