Mendoza School of Business

A Win-Win for the Irish

Grow Irish immersions offer graduate business students a way to apply their skills to real-world business challenges posed by alumni-led organizations.

Published: April 11, 2024 / Author: Courtney Ryan

The Santos family’s supermarkets are known in El Paso, Texas, for their impressive offering of fresh traditional Mexican foods and baked goods made in-house daily.

Francesitos are baked in a special brick oven designed by Mexican artisans. Tamales are steamed in traditional ollás. On Sundays, before the stores even open, customers clutching large pots brought from home line up to claim their fill of fresh menudo, a hot, tangy stew made with tripe.

group of people standing outside a building with a cactus

Notre Dame MBA students arrive in El Paso, Texas, to consult with Food CIty Supermarkets, a third-generation, family run business led by ND alumni Stanley Santos, ND ’82, and Melissa Santos, ND ’11. (Photo by Paul Sandoval)

“We really never appreciated the brand loyalty and appeal of our bakery and deli,” said Stanley Santos (BBA ’82), president of Food City Supermarkets, which his family founded 60 years ago. “We knew our business model was unique, but we didn’t realize the loyalty we had.”

The customer loyalty became evident when Food City closed its flagship store, one of three locations in the area. The building was sold to a nearby children’s hospital seeking to expand, and Santos and his daughter Melissa Santos (BBA ’11), director of finance and marketing, anticipated a 5%-10% increase in traffic at their other two locations.

Instead, sales went up by 40% — an unexpected win that put immense strain on the bakers, butchers and cooks as they tried to meet the demand.

“And you know, everyone and their mother has had suggestions on how to make the line go a lot faster,” Melissa recalled. “But it’s not a simple thing. There are so many elements behind the scenes that start with production and then end with the actual transaction with the customer. So when my dad read about [Notre Dame’s] Grow Irish Week, we thought we could be a project.”


Grow Irish Immersions

Grow Irish is an immersive weeklong consulting experience required for nearly all graduate business students at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Projects are tailored for each degree program and require students to apply knowledge and skills from their course to real-world business problems that don’t necessarily have clear solutions.

group seated in a comfortable living area

Grow Irish students and project mentors exchange ideas in building Starta VC’s next generation of startup competitions and programming for budding entrepreneurs in and around New York City. (©Michael Paras Photography, LLC (973) 476-3988)

Led by director Megan Piersma, the Experiential Learning team at Mendoza includes associate directors Ben Wilson and Lara Brian, and assistant directors Gabor Holtzer and Stephanie Drudge. The Grow Irish program occurs twice annually in the periods between the modules or “mods” during the fall and spring semesters.

The team leverages Notre Dame’s strong alumni network to find projects — like the Santos family’s need to increase efficiencies — that challenge students to grow their skills and provide partner companies with high-quality deliverables to grow their businesses.

“The programming that takes place during these weeks really reflects our desire to have students grow holistically as business professionals, leaders and as engaged, responsible citizens,” said Piersma. “And these projects are coming from our Notre Dame alumni, who are eager to connect with students and mentor, support and sustain them, not only through the project week, but through the course of the students’ careers.”

Mendoza successfully piloted Grow Irish for 15 Master of Nonprofit Administration (MNA) students in spring 2023 thanks to an innovative collaboration with the Notre Dame Club of Orange County. In fall 2023, the team developed learning opportunities for 53 MBA students as well as 72 students in the Master of Science in Management (MSM) program, working with a total of 28 sponsor organizations. The MSM projects developed through close partnerships with the Notre Dame clubs of St. Joseph Valley, Chicago, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids, which hosted a range of professional development opportunities for students. MBA projects took students to five cities across the U.S. and connected students with global learning experiences in Mexico, Ireland, Israel (remote), Croatia and the U.K.

In spring 2024, 316 students from the MBA and MSM programs along with students in the Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) and MNA worked on a combined 37 projects for 32 organizations across six countries, including the U.S.

Alumni remain vital to the ongoing success of Grow Irish, as evidenced by the ND Club of Chicago co-sponsoring the MSBA Grow Irish immersion in Chicago and the ND Club of Orange County, taking the program to new heights in the second year this past spring.

Mendoza has a long history of incorporating experiential learning into the student experience. Grow Irish is an expansion of the College’s previous immersive consulting opportunities that take graduate business students beyond case studies. The Meyer Business on the Frontlines Program has been a staple for more than 15 years and the “MBA Mods Away” program – an opportunity to take a full set of distinctively Notre Dame courses in either Silicon Valley, California, or Santiago, Chile – is heading into its fourth year.


Recipe for Efficiency 

Tasked with the challenge of increasing production while still maintaining the artisanal quality and personal customer service that Food City is known for, the Notre Dame MBA team arrived in El Paso a day early to witness the menudo line madness for themselves and learn more about the community.

Grow Irish students take notes from their partners at Food City

The team gets to work as it strives to improve the customer experience and production practices for Food City’s bakery and deli departments.

“We immersed them in our Mexican culture with visits to traditional competitors, historical sites and missions in the area, and even the border wall and where migrants gather downtown,” said Stanley. “The food business, in general, is a very noble business. People depend on you, and so many of their traditions and celebrations revolve around food. And the students got to see how we make a difference in our community with what we do.”

The MBA student consultants, who hailed from Nigeria, Ghana and India, weren’t just equipped with curiosity about Food City’s community and impact. They also brought with them professional experience and elite financial backgrounds. The Santoses were especially impressed with how easily they adapted to working with the Spanish-speaking staff, including bakers who approached their work as artisans.

“They had a real appreciation for what the bakers and cooks were doing and were able to put aside the analytics for a moment and look at it from a different, more artisanal angle before they approached it from the quantitative side,” Stanley said.

Along with their willingness to work more holistically with the staff, Melissa was blown away by the team’s detailed daily reports and final analysis. “In the end, they gave us a report that was over 20 pages of different suggestions,” she said. “It covered a variety of things from HR to marketing to management.”

Since the project, Food City has undergone a complete rebrand to emphasize that it’s not a typical supermarket, but a family institution famous for traditional Mexican bakery and deli fare. And of course, the students addressed the long lines. They outlined and helped implement a more efficient system for fulfilling deli orders and found creative ways to promote smaller items while also making them more accessible. For example, instead of selling items like cookies from the deli case, Food City now packages fresh goods in clear containers so that customers can grab them as they shop.

“It’s a lot of work for the team and the business, but it’s well worth it, and I’m proud of the work we did,” Stanley said. “Just as we are all part of the Notre Dame family, they really became part of our Food City family.”


Family Matters

To Atlanta businessman Ed Fisher (BBA ’83), partnering with Notre Dame on projects like Grow Irish is part of what it means to be an alumnus.

“The expectation when you graduate from Notre Dame is that we’re going to help make the world a better place, and we’re going to help each other do that,” said Fisher. “The willingness to reach out or to be receptive is a big part of what makes the school unique.”

His firm, SouthPoint Ventures LLC, was among the first to participate in Grow Irish when it began in fall 2023. They had recently acquired Dr. Roof, one of the area’s oldest providers of residential roofing and home services and a go-to business for Atlanta-area homeowners who experienced rain, hail or wind damage to their homes. But even with a database of 57,000 customers going back four decades, forging future growth with a business model that reacts to disaster isn’t ideal.

“Trying to dig into that database, as well as reach other prospects who aren’t customers yet, has a lot of potential,” Fisher said. “But cleaning up that database is a big undertaking. And every day, we’re sending crews out to put new roofs up, and that’s a very active day, every day.”

His new management team identified artificial intelligence as a potential tool for combing through Dr. Roof’s database and generating new customers — a huge undertaking that requires the kind of expertise that Mendoza graduate business students had.

For Fisher, the opportunity to provide mentorship as well as deepen Mendoza’s relationship with the Atlanta-area business community made Grow Irish all the more compelling. When Wilson from Mendoza’s experiential learning team asked if he was interested in participating, Fisher recalls, “it was a quick yes.” He doesn’t see the one-week immersion as the end of his connection to the students he works with.

“If the students have a good experience in Atlanta and they want to stay in touch, they’ve got all of our contact information,” he said. “Whether it’s helping them get connected to the local job community, or if they’re looking to move to Atlanta, or enter a particular industry, or they just need some advice on whatever matter — all of those are the expectations they can have from alumni.”

Lara Brian said this is exactly what the experiential learning team is looking for from alumni partners.

“We’re not only looking for business partners who align with our four MBA academic pathways — finance, consulting, technology and marketing — we’re also looking for good mentors,” said Brian, who coordinates Grow Irish projects with Notre Dame alumni. “Our partners are willing to invest arguably their most valuable resource, which is their time as well as their expertise.”


Shared Goals

Wilson sees applied learning opportunities like this as a key part of the Notre Dame graduate business education experience. “Grow Irish is a promise that we make to every graduate student and to the programs that partner with Grow Irish,” he said. “You know that by coming to Mendoza, you’re going to get that opportunity.”

Jillian Brumm (MBA ’24) and Bailey Harrison (MBA ’24) chose to attend Notre Dame in part because of the Grow Irish immersions. “No other master’s program has a weeklong consulting trip built into its curriculum,” Brumm said. “I thought it was such a unique opportunity to effect real change as a student.”

Still, she didn’t anticipate just how much her team’s work would be valued by SafeDose, the Boston-based health care startup she worked with, or the significance of the mentorship component built into the Grow Irish experience.

“We were able to experience the unique camaraderie between people who have a special connection with the University and hold Notre Dame near to their hearts,” Brumm said. “This project was a testament to the deep sense of fellowship and mutual support that Notre Dame students are known for. It showcased how having shared goals and common values can create strong connections and drive group success that has a lasting impact.”

Brumm and her team created a go-to-market strategy for SafeDose’s web-based, mobile-friendly app that allows pediatric caregivers to track their child’s health and medication dosage at home. The app not only improved the discharge process for patients and health care facilities alike, but also educated caregivers in order to keep children healthy and lower hospital readmission rates.

“We weren’t just sharing a hypothetical concept but offering a tangible solution to a deeply felt need in the industry of pediatric care,” said Brumm. “Our idea was received with so much enthusiasm and excitement. They couldn’t wait to implement our product as soon as possible.”

Harrison echoed Brumm’s sentiments about connecting with alumni. Her team worked with Jettywave Distillery, a Bay Area craft distillery co-founded by David Westendorf (BBA ’90), an entrepreneur who has also coordinated learning experiences with Mendoza including the Silicon Valley Mod Away Alumni Advisory Group. “I didn’t feel like we were just there within a professional capacity,” Harrison said. “It was also a mentorship experience.”

The depth of experience she gained and the impact her team’s work made in a week also stood out to her. Her team was charged with helping Jettywave revamp its product portfolio. They reviewed financial reports, conducted a cost-benefit analysis and worked alongside employees to better understand the unique distilling process. By the end of the project, the team confidently presented their recommendations on what products to keep and new ones to consider.

“But they were so excited about us being there and so transparent and so incredibly engaged with us. And that empowered me and the rest of my team to make some really great recommendations that they actually implemented, which was really cool,” she said. “We were able to make a real impact in such a short amount of time.”


Actionable Plans

a group walking down a street in Croatia

Two MBA Grow Irish consulting teams stationed in Zagreb, Croatia experienced first-hand the mentorship and hospitality of Notre Dame Croatia ambassador and Grow Irish champion, Boris Juric while completing projects with Ultrax Technologies, a sports technology startup. (Photo by Bruna Babic)

Boris Juric (BBA ’91), who serves as Notre Dame Alumni Association’s ambassador in Croatia, admits he was initially skeptical of how much benefit his firm might gain from participating as a Grow Irish project sponsor. But he was also eager to support the newest members of the Notre Dame family.

As chief development officer of Ultrax Technologies, a Croatian-based startup that uses high-tech tools to help sports clubs analyze athletic performance, he invited Mendoza students to prepare a market research and sales strategy for the platform’s launch in the U.S. market.

Juric was so pleased with the team’s performance in fall 2023 that he immediately signed up to take on two groups in the spring. And he’s hardly alone in finding his expectations exceeded.

“The thing that Mendoza is doing a little bit differently with Grow Irish, or maybe a lot differently, is producing some output,” he said. “You’re actually going to get a very professional-level recommendation or study, or whatever it is that you’re asking for, that is specific to a very real problem or issue that you have in your business. It’s not just putting students through an exercise — you get something actionable.”

From a host site perspective, he has nothing but praise for the Grow Irish program. “The Experiential Learning team running the program is amazing in the preparation phase,” said Juric. “They’re well organized and make it really easy on us, the hosts, to prepare. This way, Notre Dame alums can truly feel like we are getting something back from our alma mater.”

Become a Grow Irish Project Sponsor

Bring fresh thinking to your business challenges and mentor the next generation of Notre Dame leaders as a Grow Irish project sponsor.

logoFor the 2024-25 academic year, Mendoza plans to fully integrate Grow Irish into the curriculum for each of its residential graduate business programs: the Notre Dame MBA and specialized master’s programs in analytics, management and nonprofit administration.

Mendoza will arrange student accommodations, ground transportation and meals. Project sponsors will provide a project with defined deliverables, mentorship and workspace.

  • Fall 2024 Grow Irish Dates: Oct. 14-18
  • Time Commitment: 4.5 days in-person
  • Financial Commitment: Up to $5k

Notre Dame Clubs can also support Grow Irish. Special thanks to our Chicago, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Orange County and St. Joseph Valley Club partners.

For more information, contact Lara Brian at or go online to