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Business Anthropology: Bringing Students and Twin Cities Businesses Together

April 26, 2017

"When I saw business anthropology as a class option I jumped on the opportunity to learn more," says Diana Rico, a senior double majoring in political science and anthropology. Each spring a class of around 20 students enroll in business anthropology, an innovative course created by William Beeman, anthropology professor, and Toby Nord, professional director of Carlson Ventures Enterprise in the Carlson School of Management at the University.

Business anthropology is unique both in its subject matter and in how it allows students to interact and engage with the community. "It's a very special class offered hardly anywhere in the country," says Professor Beeman. The course involves field trips and prominently features guest speakers: many class lectures were given by marketing professionals, cultural anthropologists, and other speakers from the community.

An interdisciplinary approach

Also unique is the mix of majors the class appeals to: Professor Beeman estimates the class is typically made up of one-third design students, one-third anthropology students, and one-third business students, and sometimes even a few engineers. The class demonstrates career options for students majoring in anthropology who don't want to go into academia. "It also alerts people in the design and business fields that anthropological training is very important to their work," says Professor Beeman, explaining that ethnographic skills help companies get to know their clients in order to to better market to them.

Students take away important anthropological research methods, such as interviewing and ethnographic observation techniques, as well how to create "business anthropology consultations." This spring, students created a business plan for trucking company Transport America. They compiled a summary of project details, a timeline, a communication plan, and signatures of all involved in the statement of work.

Another important skill students develop is how to accurately interpret data. Professor Beeman explained that many companies love using "big data" to figure out how to best market to their customers, and with ethnographic skills students can accurately translate data for a company's benefit. "The class put using my ethnographic toolkits for practical usage on my radar," says Rico.

Real world research projects

Rico's project team worked with the Minnesota Parks and Recreation Board. Her small group helped market a nationwide youth golf program called "First Tee." The group produced a set of research examining which age group was best to target. Her work on this project grew her confidence when approaching strangers for information and interviews. "Nothing beats field experience," she says. Rico is now the Outreach and Inclusion Officer for District 58 for Minnesota’s DFL Party. She says the business anthropology class really helped her get involved outside of campus.

Megan Bauer took the class last spring as well. Her group did research for CarFreeLife, a new company in development by Gene Tierney that promotes public transportation and "car-free friendly policies." Bauer and her project partners researched the different modes of transportationincluding cars, the light rail, and rental options, like Zip Carto get around the city. They looked at age, gender, and values of the audience to give Tierney insight into who to target in his business model.

To raise consciousness of car-free friendly policies at companies in the Twin Cities, Tierney's company continues to research how the demographics of car-free people have changed. He describes "car-free friendly policies" as aspects such as job location, bike racks at the company, and work from home options for employees.

"Students were very conscientious and interested," says Tierney, who spoke highly of his experience working with students. The research Bauer and her partners conducted has helped Tierney's process of finding car-free friendly employers. "They took it seriously, and I could tell they were interested in the subject matter," he said.