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Mar 15, 2022 2022-03 Accountancy Alumni Business Administration Faculty Finance Student

Mississippi Project to give students broader perspective of the intersection of business and race

When Gies College of Business students check into Travelers Hotel in Clarksdale, MS, for spring break this year, they’ll be at the center of a revitalization of this artist’s community that calls itself the Home of the Blues.

“As soon as we walked into the hotel lobby this fall to explore creating an experiential learning opportunity for our students, we were blown away by the warm, welcoming spirit of this city,” said Alex See, Gies director of operations for undergraduate affairs and co-creator of the Mississippi Project. “We also knew it could help us give first-hand context to the lasting impact of the institutional racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement on people and businesses.”

Ten freshmen and sophomores from Gies will spend the week learning about different business models from local entrepreneurs in a town about a 20-minute drive from where 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmitt Till was lynched while visiting there in 1955. The remnants of a segregationist South remain in Clarksdale with railroad tracks splitting the town of 15,000 into black and white business centers. A large percentage of the population lives below the poverty line.

Mississippi Project co-creator Kevin Jackson, associate dean of undergraduate affairs, wants to create hands-on exercises that apply design thinking to real-world challenges. Design thinking is a human-centered approach that operates at the intersection of desirability, viability, and feasibility.

“Design thinking promotes a process where the first step is to understand. The students will ask the business community about their needs, shortages, and aspirations for Clarksdale,” he said. “They’ll then synthesize the information and ideate about how to best meet their needs. As the week progresses, they’ll converge on two to three ideas and then shape that into a proposal.”

The students will work with local college students to give them a deeper perspective of Clarksdale.

“We want our students to understand the community and their needs, discover people who can help, and partner with them,” said See. “Our hope is that our students will get experience working with others from different backgrounds and develop some of the empathetic, soft skills required to be a good leader.”

“To me, participating in the Mississippi Project means diversity. Diversity of backgrounds, diversity of thought, diversity of cultures, and diversity of identity,” said David Hong, a freshman at Gies. “I want to gain a more diverse perspective on the world outside of my small bubble of Vernon Hills and Champaign-Urbana. Lastly I want to develop a more diverse way of seeing business. I want to see business that is not centered around just money but also community.”

The Mississippi Project includes a visit to a nearby Black family-owned vineyard while current resident and former teacher at University High School teacher in Urbana gives a historical tour of the area. Fireside chats each day will focus on different business models and community activism. They include the Coahoma Collective, a catalyzing arts-driven, community-inclusive revitalization organization and Meraki Roasting Company, a coffee shop that teaches 16- to 24-year-olds in Clarksdale how to become small-batch brew masters and baristas. At week’s end the students will present business ideas for the Clarksdale area.

Urbana-Champaign has a long association with Clarksdale. Two area high schools send students to work on Habitat for Humanity projects there and faculty have retired there. The connection grew following a presentation made to Gies administration by a benefactor of the Spring Initiative, which helps students growing up in the Mississippi Delta overcome the consequences of racism, discrimination, and disinvestment in their communities. Jackson and See first visited Clarksdale in 2019 to explore how to create a transformative, business-driven spring break experience, but the pandemic postponed their plans until now.

“The Mississippi Project is our first attempt at what we hope will become a more regular experience for our students. We hope to attract those who want to broaden their perspective and make a difference – touching all parts of a community,” said Jackson.