by Frankie Costa, Eric Levine and Brian Linville 

Harvard Business School (HBS) annually sends more than 1,000 emerging business leaders on city treks — student trips to the world’s top cities with a goal to place its graduates in jobs at local companies. This year alone included trips to New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as cities in Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Lebanon and China.

Last spring, three of us Pittsburgh-born HBS students, Frankie Costa, Brian Linville and Eric Levine, wanted to organize a different kind of trip: not one that looked outward to the world’s most glamorous cities, but inward to an American Rust Belt city experiencing a rebirth. We gauged interest in a Pittsburgh trek and the response was overwhelming. Nearly 100 HBS students from 40 different countries expressed interest — a group that was narrowed to 25 people from more than 12 countries.

At Carnegie Robotics in the Strip District.

The 48-hour trek last month was a whirlwind. Friday night, our student group was hosted for dinner and drinks at the Duquesne Club, the setting of the opening scene of Harvard Business School’s iconic Pittsburgh case study on the regional turnaround. Later, we went to Lawrenceville for some bar-hopping.

On Saturday morning, Carnegie Robotics CFO Daniel Beaven and a team of engineers opened their company for a showcase of their new products. Carnegie Robotics began as an offshoot of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and counts among its alumni the founders of Uber ATG and Argo AI — two of the most prominent self-driving-car firms in the nation, both headquartered in Pittsburgh.

The group then took a brief cultural tour of Pittsburgh’s famous Strip District, exploring the local street vendors and shops selling an array of ethnic foods, spices, and, of course, Steelers swag. (Of course, we stopped at Primanti’s.) Students from Nigeria and Venezuela expressed surprise at the cultural diversity of the neighborhood.

Google Pittsburgh hosted lunch and a roundtable on how Pittsburgh has succeeded at overcoming adversity through a series of reinventions. Panelists included Aradhna Oliphant (CEO of Leadership Pittsburgh), Bill Flanagan (Chief Corporate Relations Officer at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development), Jorge Mazal (VP of Product at Duolingo), Ryan Green (CEO of Gridwise) and Todd Reidbord (President of Walnut Capital). A number of the students intend to interview with the panelists’ companies. A few more noted they are now actively considering relocating their own startups — some scaling quickly with job opportunities — to Pittsburgh.

On the Gateway Clipper on the way to the Steeler game.

After Google, we went Downtown to City Hall and to the historic office of Mayor Bill Peduto. The mayor came in Saturday for a private meeting with us HBS trekkers. He spoke of Pittsburgh’s history, its spirit, the civic-mindedness of its people, what motivates him as mayor and the task of reinvigorating a Rust Belt city.

Brian Linville and his wife, Alexandra Good, hosted Sunday brunch at their home on Mt. Washington, where we were joined by Harvard alum and Robert Morris University President, Chris Howard. Then we enjoyed sightseeing in transit, traversing Emerald View Park, then taking the Monongahela Incline down the mountain and the Gateway Clipper ferry across the rivers to Heinz Field, where we saw the Steelers’ home opener.

Here’s what some of our Harvard students had to say about their visit:

“The trek truly transformed my view of Pittsburgh. Pre-trek I thought of Pittsburgh as an aging city with little to offer beyond historical significance. Now, it is clear the people and leadership of Pittsburgh are a passionate bunch, have worked to bring it around, are fully aware of the challenges ahead and have the foundations through institutions like Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh to help Pittsburgh continue its revitalization.” Nikhil Agarwal (MBA ’20)

“As the world transforms, Pittsburgh is a model for adapting, growing and meeting the demands of an ever-changing environment. Cutting-edge robotics labs neighbor century-old steel mills. Leading tech startups look out over hills lined with coal mining tracks. The city is a phoenix, rising from its past to lead America to the future. A city that can rally around its sports teams and its history. That can emerge stronger after tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue. That can build bridges to connect not only its land, but also its rich patchwork of communities. In a town so large, it was amazing to hear directly from its leaders where governing is personal and love of home is apparent.”
Ioan Bolohan (MBA ’20)

Harvard Business School students at a panel discussion at Google in East Liberty.

The main goal of the trek was to open the talent at HBS to the possibility of moving to Pittsburgh and creating jobs in the region. Billions of dollars in investment and human capital flow from the nation’s top business school graduates and the overwhelming majority still concentrate in New York and California. Many HBS trekkers remarked how blown away they were by the city and exchanged contacts with local business leaders.

The trek has inspired a series of “Rust Belt treks” now in the works, including Cleveland in the spring. The trek leaders intend to work with Harvard to boost recruitment in the region, as well as other business schools to send more graduates — particularly those starting high-growth startups — to visit Pittsburgh and boost the partnership between local business leaders and the nation’s top business schools.