Columbia's Business School has long been associated with leaders of with Fortune 500 companies, consulting firms and Wall Street. But for more than 100 students, assisting local small business owners and nonprofits has become an eye-opening and rewarding part of their education.
Through the Small Business Consulting Program, entrepreneurs, small businesses and nonprofits in New York are matched with teams of business school students who offer their consulting services pro bono for several months during the academic year.
Jake Troy, Business'05, and his team worked with Harlem World Sports Club, an upscale fitness club opening in Harlem this spring at 115 Street and Fifth Avenue. The team helped the club owners create a business plan that included a description of the market, competitors, financial information, identification of specific opportunities and a plan for approaching the market. "This club is more focused than Equinox or New York Sports Clubs," says Troy. "They met with community leaders and are working with North General Hospital to offer physical therapy to patients. They are also catering their spa services to the local residents."
Business owners are happy with the partnership. "Harlem World Sports benefited in that the ideas instantly impacted our business development," says Grady Fuller, co-founder. "We were very impressed with the program. The Columbia team really took the time to investigate our needs and strengths and work with us. We took the advice of streamlining our business plan to make it more fluent to investors. This has already struck a key with a number of angel investors and lenders."
Students found the relationships rewarding, too. "Overall the project has offered us a great opportunity to work with energetic people who are starting a business and to learn the challenges they face," says Troy. "It also allowed us to combine our marketing, strategy and finance classes and skills to create a business plan."
Harlem World is one of 17 projects students completed last year; half of them for-profit businesses, half nonprofits. Last year, more than 50 groups applied for assistance. A similar number applied this year. This year's program began on Nov. 1, when clients seeking assistance set up booths in Warren Hall, creating a trade show environment. Students then had the opportunity to meet potential clients.
Some clients seek assistance writing or refining their business plan or putting the plan in place. Others need to develop a strategic vision, create a marketing plan or identify and retain customers.
"All of the projects provide a great challenge for students to stretch their consulting skills and the opportunity to take hard problems and develop solutions," says Lindsay Schmid, Business'05, who assisted a Business School alumna in starting a cooking school with a social element.
Ben Monnie, Business'05, agrees: "Often business school students are focused on large corporations and forget the countless opportunities to be creative and have a high impact in a small business environment."
Monnie's team worked with the Little Pie Company to create and implement a business plan and financial model for the company. Unlike many of the participating clients, this small company has three locations in New York and has been in business for 20 years. The project began by investigating the founders' idea to open a commissary to consolidate the baking, increase capacity and lower costs. The team began to look at the company's overall strategic direction, put together a business plan and offered operational improvements.
The team recommended that the commissary was premature and that the company instead make some basic operational improvements to increase profitability. Over the next few years, the team sees the Little Pie Company opening two more small shops in Manhattan. Although the project officially ended in April, Monnie still works with the company. "I see enormous potential," he says.
Reflecting on the program as a whole, Schmid says, "It is incredibly rewarding to work closely with small businesses because our knowledge and skills can make enormous contributions. Frequently, these are one-person organizations, and student groups can really help to further their business and see an impact in a short period of time."