HBS ECs Explore Pittsburgh

Brian Linville, Contributor
Frankie Costa, Contributor
Eric Levine, Contributor

Students converge on Pittsburgh and realize there’s much more to see than coal, steel, and bridges. Brian Linville (MBA ’20), Frankie Costa (MBA ’20), and Eric Levine (MBA ’20) report.

Harvard Business School has a long tradition of “Treks,” structured trips organized by students who come from the destinations, and alumni often count them among their greatest memories from business school. These trips offer cultural and professional exposure to new places, and in the past year alone, rising ECs organized treks to Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Lebanon, and Colombia, among others. Last spring, we decided to gauge interest in a trek to our hometown, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We had attended and enjoyed treks ourselves, but we thought there was untapped potential for 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 that is experiencing a rebirth. Still, we weren’t sure whether the “Paris of Appalachia” could stand up to cities like Paris, France, on students’ HBS bucket lists.

But the response was overwhelming. Nearly 100 HBS ECs expressed interest—a group we narrowed to 25 from over 12 countries. Describing his interest in the trek, Khalid Alghimlas (MBA ’20) explained, “HBS feels very ‘American’ at times, but it’s also an affluent coastal bubble. Since the elections in 2016, we’ve heard a lot about the dichotomy between the coasts and the rest of the country, and this trip offered an opportunity to explore that in a city whose ongoing transformation highlights the risks and opportunities of the future.”

And so the inaugural Pittsburgh Trek was born.

The 48-hour trek was a whirlwind. Students entered the city from the airport through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. (The Economist has called Pittsburgh the only city in America “with an entrance.”) Friday night, Linville and his mother-in-law, Dr. Lisa Cibik, hosted dinner and drinks at the famous Duquesne Club—the setting of the opening scene of HBS’s Pittsburgh case—offering a chance to see downtown and hear some history of the city students were entering. Later Friday, students enjoyed the famous bars in Lawrenceville and the South Side and ended with an early morning snack at the iconic Pittsburgh sandwich shop, Primanti Brothers.

Saturday was the main day of the trek. In the morning, Carnegie Robotics CFO Daniel Beaven and a team of engineers opened the company floor 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. Students then took a brief cultural tour of Pittsburgh’s famous Saturday morning “Strip District,” exploring the local street vendors and shops selling an array of ethnic foods, spices, and, of course, Steelers swag.

Lunch was hosted by Google Pittsburgh, an office now 600+ and growing, and was followed by a roundtable moderated by Linville focused on how Pittsburgh has succeeded at overcoming adversity through a series of reinventions, and how it is approaching its challenges going forward. 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). In addition to graciously hosting, Daniel Klein and his team of Googlers added insights on what attracted them to the city. After the roundtable discussion, students and guests enjoyed an opportunity for drinks and networking.

After Google, students went downtown to City Hall and the historic office of the Mayor. Mayor Bill Peduto came in on Saturday for a private meeting with the 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.

After meeting the Mayor, Costa hosted a reception for students and other guests, with his father and mother, Dr. Frank Costa and Mary Ellen Costa, making homemade pizza and pasta with recipes from the family’s longtime Pittsburgh restaurant. Saturday night, students joined a mixer with CMU Tepper business-school students and then spent the evening on Pittsburgh’s North Shore on the Allegheny River.

Sunday morning, Linville and his wife, Alexandra Good, Esq., hosted brunch at their home on Mt. Washington, overlooking the city. The President of Robert Morris University, Chris Howard (MBA ’03), joined the group for brunch to discuss his path post-HBS and his insights on Pittsburgh. After brunch, students enjoyed sight-seeing in transit, traversing Emerald View Park and passing over the first bituminous coal mine in Pennsylvania (Mt. Washington was previously called “Coal Hill”), then taking the Monongahela Incline down the mountain and the Gateway Clipper ferry across the rivers to Heinz Field, where students enjoyed the Steelers’ home opener.

For many, Pittsburgh still conjures up images of soot and smokestacks, and that was the reality for a long time. Boston journalist James Parton, writing for the Atlantic Monthly in 1868, said that coming upon Pittsburgh was akin to seeing “Hell with the lid off.” From our experience, that reputation is fading, and fading fast. Today’s Pittsburgh is a dynamic technology and innovation hub that combines the cultural amenities and economic opportunities of a big city with the affordability, accessibility, and low crime of a much smaller city. It’s no accident that it’s been named among America’s most livable cities repeatedly over the past decade, or that more and more people from outside the region are choosing to call it home.

Here’s what some Trekkers had to say. 

“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 start-ups 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)

David McCullough said that the history of America can be told through Pittsburgh. From its beginnings, when a young George Washington’s attack on French forces kicked off the French and Indian War (known as the Seven Years’ War outside the colonies) to its long series of booms, busts, and reinventions, Pittsburgh’s path has in many ways been America’s path. Its culture has been shaped and enriched by succeeding waves of immigrants seeking opportunity; its people are industrious, proud, charitable, independent, and at times rebellious (Google “The Whiskey Rebellion”); and its institutions remain vital to its continued success and prosperity. At times, many Pittsburghers have doubted the city’s future, but invariably they worked together to find a new path forward. For these reasons, we are unabashedly bullish on the future of Pittsburgh—and, in turn, that of the United States.

We were proud to show off the city we all love, but the main goal of the trek was to open the talent at HBS to the possibility of trying something new and looking beyond the typical destinations for graduates. Many classmates told us how much they adored and were surprised by the city and exchanged contact with local business leaders. If we can get a few students to bring their talent to Pittsburgh—and build momentum for other similarly-situated cities—we’ll have started something special and timely. 

Brian Linville (MBA ’20) is an MBA Candidate at Harvard Business School, where he is Co-President of the Free Enterprise Club and HBS chapter of the Adam Smith Society. Before business school, Brian served as a Nuclear Submarine Officer in the U.S. Navy, managed U.S. Navy engineering recruiting efforts nationwide, and worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. Brian graduated from the United States Naval Academy with a B.S. in Economics, and he later completed an M.S. in Finance at Georgetown University. This summer, Brian worked at J.P. Morgan Chase in Philadelphia. Upon graduation, he plans to return to his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, in order to contribute to the economic and cultural renaissance there.

Frankie Costa (MBA ’20) is a joint JD-MBA candidate at Yale Law School and Harvard Business School. His graduate scholarship has focused on constitutional and civil rights law, and he has published comments or articles in the Yale Law Journal and Harvard Review of Philosophy. He served as Managing Editor of the Yale Journal of Law and Technology. Prior to graduate school, he spent two years at Dropbox in business and product roles. He holds a BA in the Honors Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics at Yale College.

Eric Levine (MBA ’20) is an MBA candidate at Harvard Business School. Prior to HBS, he worked as a private equity associate at Hellman & Friedman in San Francisco, where he focused primarily on software, internet, and subscription businesses. Before that, he worked at Bain & Company in New York and Beleza Natural in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He holds a BA from Yale College in Global Affairs and Economics and is a proud graduate of Taylor Allderdice, the premier rapping high school of Western Pennsylvania.