NYU Stern

The Business of Cities: NYU Stern’s Urbanization Project Helps Business Students Chart the Future of Cities

Traditionally, business school curriculum has focused heavily on finance, economics, strategy, marketing and other pillars of the corporate world. These jobs are naturally appealing because the employers want to hire the best and the brightest and offer unique opportunities, very competitive salaries, and name brand pedigree. Students graduating with these backgrounds will most likely take jobs in “the city.”

It is very difficult to think about business without thinking about cities.

The city may be a traditional destination for MBAs such as New York City, London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Shanghai, or Paris. Perhaps, the city may be one of the recently developed business-friendly areas like Abu Dhabi or the Pearl River Delta Zone in China. Regardless, business students are attracted to dense metropolitan areas that offer the perks of mass transit, cultural access, diversity of food, and opportunities that are not available outside of metropolitan areas. 

It is very difficult to think about business without thinking about cities. Some of the most successful entrepreneurial endeavours in recent years, including Uber, Lyft, and AirBnB, to name a few, have developed and grown as a response to issues of infrastructure and housing. However, the average business student does not have the opportunity to have a formal education in the business of cities.

What makes one city successful while another city with the same climate fails?

How do cities develop? What makes one city successful while another city with the same climate fails? These are issues that in the past have been left to urban planners to consider. A Center of Research called The Urbanization Project at New York University’s Stern School of Business has decided to allow business students and economists to share the burden of determining what has made cities succeed in the past and what new cities will need in the future. The Urbanization Project, led by Professor Paul Romer, is an incubator for city and business growth with access to the top minds in urban development and economics.

The average business student does not have the opportunity to have a formal education in the business of cities.

The NYU Stern Urbanization Project estimates that the population of the world will more than double in the next 100 years, with the majority of the people moving to urban centers. The only way to deal with this population boom would be for existing cities to expand or for new cities to be built. The Urbanization Project is comprised of two initiatives. 

One of the two initiatives, known as the Urban Expansion Initiative, helps cities plan ahead for growth. This is led by Solly Angel, a professor at NYU and an expert on urban development who has advised the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank among other organizations. Professor Angel has published a number of books on urban expansion including Planet of Cities and The Atlas of Urban Expansion among others. 

The second initiative is the Charter Cities initiative. This initiative focuses on new cities and creates options for urban world leaders to consider when creating or expanding cities. This initiative is headed up by Professor Romer, Director of the Urbanization Project and Director of NYU’s Marron Institute for Urban Management. Professor Romer, who has taught at Stanford University’s Business School, and the economics departments of UC- Berkeley, the University of Chicago and the University of Rochester, is a world-renowned economist whose Ph.D. thesis concerning economic growth resulting from intentional investment research and development is considered the foundation of the economic principle of endogenous growth theory. Professor Romer’s Charter Cities Project focuses on a developing country turning over responsibility for growth to a host country that would oversee political reform that leads to economic growth.

The Urbanization Project is an incubator for city and business growth with access to the top minds in urban development and economics.

The scholars and staff of the Urbanization Project focus intensely on research and the economics of cities. Their work is published extensively in publications such as City Journal, The Economist, Monocle, Financial Times, and Fast Company. In addition, as part of the NYU Stern community, Urbanization Project staff or visiting scholars, will host frequent brown bag lunches to exchange ideas about city development with NYU’s diverse student body.

Inside the NYU Stern Classroom

In Urban Systems, students are pushed to consider the business aspects of city planning and what makes a city appealing for a business to set up a headquarters.

Professor Romer not only leads the Charter Cities initiative, but also devotes time to teaching one of the most popular courses at NYU’s School of Business, Urban Systems. In this class, students are pushed to consider the business aspects of city planning and what makes a city appealing for a business to set up a headquarters. Topics cover the gamut from taxation, property value, housing costs, city incentives to areas that would be considered in the realm of the urban planner such as arterial roads, shape of blocks, and development. 

Students in the class are not only encouraged to think about the economics of urban living, but also, at the end of the semester, either alone, or in teams, are expected to come up with a paper focusing on a current urbanization problem and determine an economic solution for the problem. One of the papers from the Spring 2014 semester, written by NYU Stern students Craig Johnson, David Baharestani and Laura Fox, resulted in a deal with Mexico City’s Urban Development and Housing Department to create affordable housing. Working with the Urbanization Project’s Alain Bertaud, the students created models to determine how zoning regulation impacts affordable housing in Mexico City. The students’ work resulted in the elimination of regulatory density restrictions

Students focus on a current urbanization problem and determine an economic solution for the problem.

During the Urban Systems course, students read numerous articles that concern shifts in urban density, the effects of concentrated wealth on an area, and recent developments in urban history. One of the most interesting texts discussed in the class was called How New York City Won the Olympics.  This text highlighted visionary proposal by Dan Doctoroff, who at the time was a partner at Oak Hill Capital Partners, a prominent private equity firm and would later become Deputy Mayor under the Bloomberg Administration and then CEO of Bloomberg L.P., to fast track the transformation of New York City from what it was in 1994 to what it is today. 

Source     NYU Wagner

Source NYU Wagner

The NYU business students can learn from the paper just how much their current lives are affected by urban planning that was put into place almost two decades before. For example, the growth in waterfront property in Brooklyn and Queens was part of a business negotiation with the City of New York that resulted in the rezoning of industrial waterfront space, that for years only housed factories, to high rise condos that have a certain amount of space allotted to affordable housing. This not only helps to increase commerce in the outer boroughs where rental is cheaper, but also aids in reducing rent across the board (theoretically). 

Students’ work resulted in a deal with Mexico City’s Urban Development and Housing Department to create affordable housing and the elimination of regulatory density restrictions.
Professor Romer and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton

Professor Romer and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton

Additional readings and topics included the effect of morale on the police force as illustrated in current and former New York police commissioner Bill Bratton’s book Turnaround. Students learned and discussed the effects of eliminating low level crime, the broken windows theory, on general crime. For example, police stationed to eliminate turnstile jumpers resulted in a general decrease in murders and robberies due to the neighborhood’s knowledge that there was a police presence.

The Urbanization Project and the Urban Systems class offer NYU students a unique look into the future of cities as well as a greater understanding of what it will take to be successful in a more crowded world. For more information on the Urbanization Project, follow their blog here

Startup Scene: Q&A with NYU Stern Alumna & Solution Lab CEO/Co-Founder, Stefanie Mazlish!

Welcome, Stefanie!

Q:  Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Where did you go to business school, and when did you receive your MBA?

NYU Stern MBA, 2012. Prior to business school, I worked in healthcare insurance. Currently, I’m Co-founder and CEO of The Solution Lab.

Q:  When you started NYU Stern, did you know that you wanted to start your own business? Were there particular classes, clubs, MBA peers or other resources that directly helped you launch your company? How did an MBA help you as an entrepreneur?

While I thought that I’d learn how to start a business by the time I completed my MBA, it wasn’t the plan to actually open my own business when I first started at NYU Stern. I’ve since learned that I don’t always need to be the one with “the big idea” to be an entrepreneur. 

Before starting Stern, I did know that I wanted my work to bring together best practices in business with socially impactful missions. Exploring opportunities in social impact meant a likely potential downside in terms of salary, and I made it a priority to graduate from Stern with little or no debt. This has been helpful in adapting to the cash flow environments typically facing start-ups.

Stefanie Mazlish, CEO & Co-Founder of The Solution Lab. She holds an MBA in Strategy and Finance from NYU Stern.

Stefanie Mazlish, CEO & Co-Founder of The Solution Lab. She holds an MBA in Strategy and Finance from NYU Stern.

My MBA experience provided me a wealth of resources including know-how, an extensive network, and the right credentials. I continue to utilize what I’ve learned from my extracurricular work at Stern, especially from the NYU Stern Business Plan Competition, Stern Consulting Corps (SCC), and Luxury Retail Consulting Corp (LRCC).  Of course Stern’s rigorous curriculum, with classes ranging from Marketing to Valuation, was also invaluable. I regularly recruit volunteer consultants from Stern, and my affiliations to several clubs, including the Stern Healthcare Association (SHA) have been extremely supportive networks that have helped me launch my current venture. Furthermore, my experience at Stern positioned me as an attractive and accessible collaborator, allowing my co-founders to seek me out in the first place.

Q:  What was your favorite thing about NYU Stern?

Two favorites: 

  1. My exposure to Stern finance classes unexpectedly changed my understanding of the world about as much as my study and work abroad experiences did previously.  
  2. The MBA toolbox has allowed me to positively impact the world in ways that are important, lasting, and rewarding.
My MBA experience provided me a wealth of resources including know-how, an extensive network, and the right credentials.

Q:  Tell us a bit about what The Solution Lab is. When did you come up with and develop the idea? What was the source of inspiration for you to start The Solution Lab?

The Solution Lab is a social enterprise that specializes in management consulting/strategy services in healthcare and life sciences.  Most importantly, it is a means to help students and recent graduates gain professional development opportunities that are otherwise unavailable to non-MBA students. The Solution Lab is the culmination and combination of three passions I developed during business school: strategy, entrepreneurship, and social impact. 

The idea for a business generally starts with identifying a problem. That’s true in the case of The Solution Lab, but at the same time, it’s also a story about a few new friends who just thought it would be fun to try something new professionally—just for the learning experience itself. 

The typical career path for PhDs in the biomedical sciences used to focus exclusively on gaining tenure or other choice positions at a university. However, under 15% of biomedical PhD students are currently able to follow this path. My co-founders come from this background and saw the need for their peers to gain real-world experience outside of lab science. 

Together, we fused their industry experience with my MBA experience to pilot operations.  When we finished the first round of projects, it was our clients who pushed us to structure into a full-fledged organization, and market research just doesn’t get more convincing than that!

Light bulb Green.jpg

Q:  Can you tell us about your hiring processes and about the benefits of recruiting MBA volunteers?

We hire 50-70 volunteer consultants per year from STEM, healthcare/clinical, and business backgrounds.

Interdisciplinarity is at our core, from our founding team to every team we’ve staffed since. Our MBA volunteers are crucial to providing our teams with balanced perspectives and skill sets.  They often help our PhD volunteers see how the science affects a company’s bottom line.

Many of our MBA volunteers have an interest in healthcare or gaining management consulting experience in an industry that’s new to them. Some are eager to apply their finance skills to new industries. Others want to apply their social impact backgrounds to an industry focused on helping people be healthy.  We also provide the opportunity to check out the start-up scene here in NYC and to impact our own organization.

Q:  How do you manage the duality between driving new business and overseeing daily operations?

My board and I define our own metrics for success—and the end game is not necessary to scale quickly. 

We make carefully considered strategic choices surrounding how much and how quickly we want to grow.  We want to ensure that growth does not dilute the quality of the projects we customize for our clients.  It takes time to identify and develop people capable of leading multiple projects. 

This innovative mindset and redefining of success means that daily operations often take precedence over driving new business, and as a consequence, we grow in deliberate ways.

I wanted my work to bring together best practices in business with socially impactful missions.

Q:  How has the company evolved since it began? What have been the main factors that have led to your successes?

We started with management consulting. We’ve built out that program to include more internal support and knowledge-sharing. As that program matures, we are able to focus on other initiatives such as our Creative Thinking Workshop for scientists and engineers and networking events in collaboration with other organizations such as D.O.C. in the NYC entrepreneurship ecosystem.

The main factors that have led to our successes include:

  1. excellent project work, which is accounted for by our talented, enthusiastic, and well-guided volunteers;
  2. referrals and networks. All of our business comes from word of mouth;
  3. our commitment to evidence-based decisions, creativity, and multiple perspectives offered by different degree paths;
  4. committed leaders who understand how to strike a balance between social impact and financial reward.

Q:  What was technically the most challenging part of developing The Solution Lab?

Legal and accounting structures are very difficult to navigate as a social enterprise with our hybrid model.

Q:  How do you reach your target audience?

We define what we do and execute well; others take notice. Our volunteers proudly build our brand for us as they pursue their own individual successes. We’ve been tapped by well-established organizations such as investment banks and large pharmaceutical companies for our innovation, and we’ve started seeing potential clients approach us based on the fact that so many of their best candidates for full-time positions have experience from The Solution Lab. 

We also reach out through university clubs and administrations—career fairs, recruiting talks, panel discussions, email announcements, etc.

The Solution Lab is the culmination and combination of three passions I developed during business school: strategy, entrepreneurship, and social impact.

Q:  What are you most excited about at the moment?  Any new projects or partnerships in the pipeline, etc., that you'd like to mention?

Alumni from our program are eager for additional programming, and we’re working on several ways to address those needs including more targeted networking opportunities and peer-mentoring programs. 

We are also providing our alumni with a chance to give back by participating in our new alumni-driven career services bootcamp events, aimed at helping our extended volunteer community.

Q:  What do you find most interesting and rewarding about running your own business?

There are so many rewarding aspects of running The Solution Lab: taking on risks and providing opportunity for our volunteers, the mentorship impact we have on those volunteers, playing a part in our clients’ successes, the dynamic nature of a start-up environment, and the variety of people and organizations involved. 

Taking it to a more personal level of running my own business, the most rewarding aspect has been the evolution of my own role in the company. I started out structuring operations, and moved onto recruiting, envisioning and implementing new programs, and finally business development and overall leadership of the organization.  Having the support of my co-founders during this process has helped me build and maintain a culture of excellence including critical thinking, creativity, and supportive feedback for growth.

Q:  Anything you wish you'd known about when starting out?

Not really…learning as you go is part of the fun!

Q:  What advice would you offer to any aspiring startup founders?

It’s about the team. Make sure to have complementary resources/skill sets and that the core team is on the same page in terms of vision, drive, and personal goals.

 

A big thanks to Stefanie Mazlish and The Solution Lab for sharing the wonderful insight and experience!  For more information about The Solution Lab, please visit http://www.thesolutionlab.org.