Global minds, local impact: BYU students provide free business consultancy in Mexico City

Levinthal fellows had some free time to explore local attractions and hang out together. Some of the students plan to work together on future business projects. (Photo courtesy of Cairo Murphy)

In May, 14 BYU students paid their own way to Mexico City to build websites, produce marketing content, track company finances and manage logistics — for free.

Venture capitalist and adjunct professor Mike Levinthal organized the trip, working with on-campus start-up incubator Sandbox to recruit a handful of students for the Levinthal Fellowship. Sandbox is a limited-enrollment program in which students develop and launch a tech product from scratch.

The trip was a first for Levinthal. He got involved with BYU’s Sandbox program two years ago and wanted to create a study abroad-internship hybrid organized independently of BYU, which would provide four Mexican businesses with consultancy services and students with resume-building experience.

“I really wanted something more purposeful and meaningful, where they could apply their entrepreneurial desires and skills,” he said.

Students started from square one providing consultancy services to local companies. They split into teams to work with furniture rental, medical supply, real estate and digital marketing businesses.

“We didn’t have a lot of structure, so it really taught me that I could do something cool and meaningful without the structure of a boss,” strategic management and English student Kristen Schumann said.

Students snap pictures of Mexico City from a bird’s eye view. Teams worked with businesses in and around the city. (Photo courtesy of Easton Allred)

Levinthal worked with the 14 students selected for his fellowship for the semester preceding the trip, exploring interdisciplinary literature and entrepreneurship in the classroom.

Levinthal describes himself as a lifelong student. When his class arrived at the beginning of the semester, he told the students, “We’re in this together … I’ll be taking just as many notes as you are.”

Levinthal, a resident of Park City, said he viewed the Levinthal Fellowship and the trip as a challenge, joy and way to give back to his local community.

The entrepreneurship trip is really a win-win situation, Levinthal said. BYU students have the opportunity to be creative in an international business setting, and the Mexico City business owners get “super bright, motivated” consultants free of charge.

“(Levinthal) is just so knowledgeable,” computer science student Xander Hunt said. “His favorite thing to do is help us as college students.”

Admission into the fellowship is competitive. Students are accepted into BYU’s Sandbox program via their participation in a “hackathon.”

In Sandbox’s hackathon, students split into teams of three to four and have one day to create and present an app. 

Haile Terry, a computer science and international development student, said she had heard of Sandbox but did not think it was relevant to her interests.

“I just wanted to apply so I could do the hackathon,” she said. “The hackathon experience itself was so amazing, I decided that if I got into Sandbox, I had to do it.”

A handful of Terry’s Sandbox cohort were selected for the Levinthal Fellowship. They had the opportunity to work closely with Levinthal prior to their trip to Mexico City. 

Through literature, Murphy said he and his classmates saw entrepreneurship through a new set of eyes.

Murphy, who is currently studying for a masters in information systems management, said he did not think any of the class would have worked in Mexico for a month for free without Levinthal’s perspective. 

“It’s being able to look at the world and see problems you wouldn’t have seen otherwise and think outside of the box for solutions,” he said.

Teams worked closely with business owners for a month. Many also developed relationships with the owners’ families and friends. (Photo courtesy of Easton Allred)

This perspective was especially important while working in a foreign market. Only a handful of the trip-goers spoke Spanish, and cultural barriers also proved to be a challenge.

“I learned how diverse business culture can be across different geographies,” Schumann said. “There’s so many different nuances, from the tax system to customer interaction.”

Computer science student Tad Rosenberg said he and his team encountered some initial resistance to change with the furniture rental business they consulted. In the first week, they developed a software for the business to use but quickly realized they had not built enough of a relationship.

“They’re very family-focused there,” Rosenberg explained. “It really is trust and relationship-based. We learned a lot of how to build relationships first in business.”

Many of the students established close relationships with the business owners and their families while there. Hunt, who was a consultant for a real estate company, said he is continuing to work with them on their site and other business ventures, even post-trip.

Looking back on their experience, the Levinthal fellows said they felt their career goals were clarified. They also realized the value of their own contributions.

“Dive right in for a month and know that there’s no risk at all,” Hunt said. “They understood that we were college students, but they were also blown away by what we were able to do.”

Some of the students on the trip are making career-sifting plans because of their experience. Murphy and three of his classmates plan to start a business in international markets; Hunt wants to invest most of his time into Sandbox ventures.

Tad Rosenberg, Travis Hoffman and Easton Allred visit the Museo Soumaya, a privately-owned museum built by a local. While in Mexico, students had the opportunity to meet with significant businesspeople through Levinthal’s connections. (Photo courtesy of Easton Allred)

Terry plans to unite her computer science and international backgrounds to provide independent consultancy services to organizations that are working on sustainability and Schumann wants to help Latin American businesses with importation and exportation.

“Anyone interested in starting a business should do Sandbox,” Schumann said.

Working with Levinthal and having this experience abroad was a “crazy” opportunity, Murphy said. He does not think many colleges have these types of opportunities for undergraduates. 

“100% do it. Apply,” Rosenberg said. “And whether or not you’re a Levinthal fellow, go out there and try things you’re uncomfortable with.”

Students interested in applying for Sandbox can explore their site for more information. 

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