Megan Harman (front) is getting help from Global Executive MBA students. They are consulting for her family's tomato business, Harman Family Farm, created to raise money to meet Megan's need for mobility.
A chance glance at a hospital bulletin board motivated Global Executive MBA student Joe Urban to aid a disabled girl in rural Alabama. He's enlisted all of his classmates in the drive to help 17-year-old Megan Harman live more like a normal teen.
Megan, whose congenital tissue disorder keeps her bound to a wheelchair, wants to be able to drive around her hometown of Opelika, Alabama, visiting friends, going to movies, and shopping.
Though she's had her driver's license since 2007, she won't be able to drive until her family raises approximately $113,000 to outfit a new joystick-controlled sport utility vehicle through their part-time tomato business, Harman Family Farm.
"I feel homebound, like I can never doing anything," says Megan, who depends on her trained Labrador Retriever, Corkie, to help her around the house, fetching items she requests. "Having the vehicle would change everything."
Urban, a national manager for the medical device company Spectranetics, happened to learn of Harman's dream during a site visit to an Alabama hospital, where he spotted an agricultural newsletter with a story on the Harman family's fundraising goal.
After Urban presented the family's dilemma to his 47 classmates last fall, they all quickly signed on to provide consulting services to turn Harman Family Farm into a sustainable business.
"When they told us, we were shocked," says Rita Harman, Megan's mother. "We didn't know what to say. It was awesome."
Conducting this work entirely out of class (they don't get any school credit), students in the Global Executive MBA program have developed suggested strategies for the farm's management, marketing, operations, accounting, Web presence, etc.
In late June, the Harman family visited Georgia Tech College of Management to hear student recommendations, bringing along boxes of freshly picked tomatoes as thanks. Students have also visited the farm.
"This project has been 100 percent student driven," Urban says. "Working for the cause has really brought the class together. You see it in our interaction."
On the day of the presentation, he told the Harmans, "This isn't the end, but the beginning," adding that the students support will continue, even after their graduation in December 2008.
Saby Mitra, faculty director of the Global Executive MBA Program, plans to encourage future classes of the 17-month degree program to undertake community-service projects like this.
Most students in the Global Executive MBA Program work full-time in leadership roles and pursue the degree to shift their career toward international business and/or better understand global issues.
Rita and her husband, Chris, say they can't believe their luck in getting 48 business professionals to help them reach their goal and take the business to the next level.
She manages a hospital cardiovascular department and he works as a health inspector. Because they have five children, ranging in age from five to 17, they didn't want to take second jobs that would keep them away from home.
So Chris convinced his wife that the tomatoes they were growing out back might provide the taste of freedom for which their daughter has been starving. "When Chris said let's do tomatoes, I said let's get down on our knees and pray," Rita remembers.
With some help from relatives, they took a leap of faith, building a $31,000 greenhouse that allows them to hydroponically grow their tomatoes. Their fruit quickly gained a local reputation as great tasting.
But they still have a lot of tomatoes to sell from their backyard and farmer's markets before earning back their investment and enough money to purchase the vehicle and insurance.
All of the family members are involved in the effort, with even the littlest children helping pick tomatoes to an extent. While Megan's disease, called arthrogryposis, has twisted her body and left her with little power to move, she helps too, entering billing and customer data into the computer as well as greeting customers on the farm.
She says a vehicle would enable her to attend a community college next year. She's interested in eventually transferring to nearby Auburn University and perhaps becoming a social worker.
The Harmans say the business is a valuable teaching tool for their kids. They started it because they didn't want to have to ask for handouts after the State of Alabama cut funding for the type of vehicular outfitting required by Megan.
"We want our kids to learn that things don't always come easy in life; you've got to work for them," explains Rita.
The Harmans prefer to sell tomatoes but they don't turn down donations when they receive them. The consulting MBA students have convinced the family to add a donation section to the Website they built for the farm.
They've also recommended that the family start a blog so that customers can regularly check in on the farm's progress and feel more connected. In addition, the students' work has included researching packaging and pricing options, providing easy-to-use accounting software, and examining potential new channels to market.
"Having a business plan is going to help us so much," says Rita, who adds that all of her kids have become huge Georgia Tech fans.
Harman Family Farm
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