Students Devote Summer to Aid Small Businesses

in Graduate Students, News, School, Undergraduate Students
September 17th, 2012

BU Urban Business Accelerator Wins for Students and Businesses

Lecturer Erik Molander (lower left) and the summer 2012 BUBA teams.

Lecturer Erik Molander (lower left), Nathan Bernard (BSBA'12) ( third from left in back row), and the summer 2012 BUBA teams.

Some business students just don’t relax. Even over the summer.

As a junior, Nathan Bernard (BSBA’12) pitched an idea to Ken Freeman, the Allen Questrom Professor and Dean, about providing microfinancing to Boston-area small businesses. The dean was interested, but wanted more details.

During his senior year, Bernard’s goal was to apply his skills in an arena that would help others, particularly in underserved areas of the city, and in the process hopefully create his own job. He worked with numerous members of the School’s Institute for Technology and Entrepreneurship Commercialization (ITEC) community, including Kristen McCormack, Peter Russo, Beth Goldstein, and Ian Mashiter, and was eventually steered to SMG Strategy & Innovation Lecturer Erik Molander, who became the program’s mentor.

Part of Bernard’s preparation involved door-to-door research—he interviewed more than 180 small companies to ascertain their needs. Through his previous international experience he discussed the concept with the organization ACCION, a global nonprofit that has been microlending for years. People in the local office of ACCION told Bernard that businesses first need better organized financials and bookkeeping in order to apply for loans.

“Then it all clicked,” Bernard says. “Microlending is probably covered. We shifted to thinking this would be a superb opportunity for students to get hands-on experience and for businesses to get much-needed help in an area where they probably lacked expertise. Plus it was a much better way for students to see small businesses up close, and help those entrepreneurs advance, financially and educationally.” He went back to the dean with his revised plan and the dean was impressed—so much so that he suggested the names of a few alumni who might be willing to help Bernard finance the project. Joel Carlton-Gysan (MBA’12) and Jeffery Khan, both of the development and alumni office, provided guidance in successfully working with the alumni.

With the alumni funds secured, Bernard recruited students and businesses and launched the pilot of the BU Urban Business Accelerator this past summer with the help and daily guidance of Molander.

The 2012 BUBA summer clients were D’Benny’s, a pizza shop and A. Dalliance, a fashion boutique, both in the Field’s Corner section of Dorchester. “In each case,” Bernard says, “students did research for industry norms, looked at the client’s specific business for gaps and similarities, and then used QuickBooks to help the business owners organize their financial records and comb the data for ways to cut costs. They then taught the owners how to do it themselves.”

The two summer pilot teams totaled six undergrads and two MBAs, and were drawn from both the School of Management as well as economics and international relations majors from the College of Arts and Science.

Bernard says, “Most of the students were surprised how much work goes into a small owner-operated business. It’s extremely hard to stay organized while running the day-to-day operations, maintain customer service, keep the inventory well-stocked, and so on.

“Owning your own business, especially in a less affluent neighborhood, is not an easy way to make a living. There are few vacations and little help. It’s all on you and there’s real value for idealistic students to witness a small business owner’s life,” Bernard added.

“The dean and ITEC have been extremely supportive,” says Bernard, “Dean Freeman has the School sponsoring us for this fall semester, along with financial support from the BU Center for Finance Law and Policy. From what we learned this summer, we set up six new BUBA client businesses and student teams for this fall.”

The program is already a success by another measure as well. On September 20th, Nathan Bernard gave his entrepreneurial pitch on MSNBC’s Your Business.

As one might imagine, Bernard’s confidence is boundless. “There are tons of businesses across the country that could benefit from help provided by university students. And I just happen to know a few…so my hope—my plan—is to make this a national program powered by BU.”

See an article from The Huffington Post on BUBA.