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Robert Hsu
The Casual Observer

Photo: Robert Hsu / The Daily Pennsylvanian

Wharton gets a bad rap.

Yes, our business school is surrounded by a tsunami of hyperbolic assumptions that are tossed around daily.

You’ve probably heard: Everyone goes on to work at firms like Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Bain. And if you go work at those businesses, you’ll spend your time crunching numbers in Excel, moving money around through invisible barriers and making a lot of money, right? And those places must be inherently evil since they take advantage of the poor too, right?

Of course, the story isn’t as simplistic as that. As a student who has both College and Wharton identities, I’ve been engaged in a tug of war, pulling me between business and anti-business.

Sometimes I take pride in trying to be “anti-business” since it can be quite fashionable, but my business mind knows our capitalistic society is here to stay. We have to find ways to work organically with our existing business infrastructure: firms are driven by the desire for profit, but, in turn, they’re also driven by demand.

As a public health advocate, I see business as a tool to align firms’ objectives with social goals. This isn’t really a revolutionary thought — firms respond to demand. It’s definitely possible to find mutually beneficial objectives, as long as you look hard enough.

I found a prime example of this with our city’s food trucks. In a survey I conducted last summer, I learned that people who did not eat at food trucks generally said they didn’t because they perceived food trucks to be unhealthy.

With that in mind and given that I’m someone passionately interested in public health and especially the obesity epidemic affecting our country as well as many other developed ones, you might think that I would hate these food trucks — and, on a larger scale, big food corporations — too.

But in reality, I don’t want to force McDonald’s to serve hamburgers with whole wheat buns or make them serve only baked fries, nor do I think the food truck outside David Rittenhouse Laboratory has to serve less greasy food (as a sophomore in high school, that may have been what I wanted, but that isn’t what I want now).

However, my research intrigued me because I know that many food trucks exist that serve healthy food — people’s perceptions weren’t entirely accurate. Magic Carpet (36th and Spruce or 34th and Walnut streets) is arguably the best known food truck that serves vegetarian and vegan food, and Chez Yasmine (37th and Spruce streets) gives customers a piece of fruit and bottled water with every purchase.

With that fact in mind and what I learned in my marketing class in the back of my mind, I wondered if food trucks were missing out on the large customer segment that wanted healthy meals. My survey data suggested that healthy food trucks weren’t doing enough to reach these people and fight the stereotype surrounding food trucks in general. However, if they could solve this disconnect, a mutually beneficial outcome could be achieved.

This led to the birth of the Healthy Food Truck Initiative, a collaboration with Campus Health Initiatives of Student Health Service to work with food trucks to provide nutritional information and promote healthy meals to customers. Ideally, food trucks would experience increased traffic, especially from more health-conscious customers, while customers would be surrounded by an environment that makes eating healthy easier and more accessible.

In “Wharton-speak,” I’m hoping to change two out of the 4 P’s: product and promotion. Who knows if this will work, but this is what I think business can do. While business can certainly be used to fulfill business cynics’ worse nightmares, it can also be a mode through which to achieve sustainable goals that benefit society.

You don’t need to follow the “typical” Wharton path to be successful — though that’s certainly a viable option. You can always redefine what you think you should get out of the world Wharton introduces to you.

I hope that more people can redefine what business means to them as I have. After all, Wharton’s potential isn’t limited to a four-year stop on a path to becoming the next hedge fund manager.

Robert Hsu, a College and Wharton sophomore from Novi, Mich. His email address is rohsu@sas.upenn.edu. Follow him @mrroberthsu. “The Casual Observer” appears every other Friday.

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