Berkeley-Haas MBA Students Work to Unite Youth Cyclists

Across the country, scores of youth cycling organizations are working separately on the same big goal: to get more kids safely riding bikes. How much more effective could they be if they had a way to pool resources and work together?

Berkeley-Haas MBA students
MBA students from the Social Sector Solutions class gathered with their client on last night of class.

That was the vision that the Youth Cycling Alliance (YCA) brought to Berkeley MBA students in the Social Sector Solutions (S3) course in spring 2017. It was a daunting task that would involve compiling information on the country’s 12.5 million young riders, creating a national database, and developing common best practices to unite the disparate groups.

Peter Severson, MBA 18
Peter Severson, MBA 18, discusses the youth cycling project findings.

“I was pushed out of my comfort zone,” said Peter Severson, MBA 18, who served as team lead on the project. “Too often leadership opportunities are in title only. But in this role, I was pushed to design and execute a work plan for our team, partner with our nonprofit client, and resolve conflicts as they arose throughout the semester.”

The S3 course, co-taught by Adj. Prof. Nora Silver, faculty director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Berkeley-Haas, and Adjunct Prof. Paul Jansen, a former director at McKinsey & Co., is designed to solve problems for nonprofit clients. It brings together diverse teams of students–typically three MBAs, one student from another graduate program, and an undergraduate.

Past clients have included the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Berkeley Food Institute, and the Cool Climate Network.

This year’s project emerged after 11 youth cycling organizations from across the country met in Las Vegas last September, discussing how they could work more closely and effectively together to get more kids on bikes. While cycling is the most popular outdoor recreational activity in the US, only 24 percent of kids aged 6 to 17 participate, according to a 2016 Outdoor Industry Association report.

Out of the Las Vega meeting, the groups formed the Youth Cycling Alliance (YCA), with an aim to get more kids on bikes.

Customizing the model

The S3 project called for market analysis and interviews with cycling organizations and chapters. The first phase was research-heavy, involving a lot of internet searching, report reading, and deep-dive interviews with the 11 national youth cycling organizations, about everything from their struggles to meet program demands and provide experienced youth coaches to how to track success metrics of their programs for potential funders.

The second phase was forward-looking, as the team mapped recommendations for the group’s new network. Models for nonprofit networks are new and evolving. Nahry Tak, MBA 18, said she researched what nonprofits in the conservation space were doing, and also interviewed and read existing research from both Silver and Haas Senior Fellow Jane Wei-Skillern. “You don’t want to copy others,” Tak said. “You want to learn from the best practices of others and then customize your model and shape it.”

The students concluded that YCA needed to align on a shared vision, establish a culture of trust, and form immediate partnerships. They recommended six “quick wins” to immediately get more involvement in youth cycling.

For Severson, the project was socially and professionally worthwhile. “Through our successes and failures, I forged skills that I will employ throughout my career in whichever direction it takes me,” he said.

In addition to Severson and Tak, the team included Kyle Koning, and Federico Picca, both MBA 18, and Amy Traver, MBA/MPH 18.