Minding our own businesses

January, 2011

Collectively, Minnesota’s Private Colleges contribute more than $1.26 billion to Minnesota’s economy, through payroll and spending. But in a political climate where creating jobs and encouraging the growth of businesses are deemed absolute priorities, it’s worth asking what these same institutions are doing for — and with — the business community. Here are four creative and collaborative ways our institutions are meeting the needs of both large and local businesses, while giving students valuable exposure to the working world.

Good coffee, good cause
For their capstone project, Augsburg College MBA students get a chance to put the theoretical into practice by working closely with a local business or nonprofit.

Students often find that “the real world problems are a lot more difficult than the theoretical ones,” said Bruce Batten, associate professor and associate director of the MBA program. It’s important to give students experiential opportunities like these, as MBA programs are sometimes criticized for lack of relevance, he said.

And while the students enjoy their projects, the businesses also benefit. “As a testimonial, many of our clients actually come back for second and third projects because they really liked the final result and the students did such a thorough job,” he said.

Recently, an Augsburg student interested in nonprofits made a suggestion of a business she wanted to work with for her capstone. Lynn Harris, who graduated in December 2010, was interested in CityKid Java, which operates several coffee shops and sells its own coffee beans and hot cocoa to more than 300 area businesses and organizations. “It’s a high-quality, locally roasted coffee, it follows true-trade practices, and 100% of its profits go to Urban Ventures Leadership Foundations, a nonprofit which funds youth programs for at-risk kids,” she said.

CityKid agreed to the project, and after initial meetings it was determined that their main goal was to increase their marketing, sales and brand exposure through their website and internet presence. Harris and her team members came up with some tactical steps CityKid could take to “capitalize on their internet and web 2.0 marketing channel” and increase sales, she said.

CityKid was happy with the project’s results, and has implemented many of the ideas; the project was one of many successful partnerships in the five years the capstone has been required, Batten said.

“In this economy, we’re oversolicited because there are so many businesses that would like an MBA team to come in, pro-bono, to advise on how to increase sales and visibility and make positive changes,” he said. “Those types of things can be helpful to any company, big or small.”

Food for thought
The business of selling food — from production to transport to managing grocery stores — has been changing over the past decades. Once a business that workers “grew up in,” it now requires increased levels of education, technological know-how and a global perspective, said Christine Kudelka, chair of the Marketing Management and Innovation Department at Concordia University, St. Paul (CSP).

As a response to the industry’s need for trained workers, CSP teamed up with the state through the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership and Eden Prairie-based Supervalu to create a special program to fill the void, Kudelka said. The Food Retail Management B.A. program is the first of its kind in Minnesota; its first class of 14 graduated in 2010.

“It’s unique because we worked with an industry and a company to meet their needs as we were designing the program,” she said. “It was part of a vision Supervalu had, too.”

From the start, CSP and Supervalu aimed to attract working adult learners with some college and food retail experience. Though students in the program work everywhere, from Byerly’s to Cub to smaller stores, Supervalu employees are well-represented. Supervalu helped draw students to the program initially through workplace informational meetings and tuition reimbursement.

Because it is applications-based, students can use things they learned in class the next day at work, and the capstone project for the degree encourages students to use a real workplace issue they’ve encountered as the basis for their research, Kudelka said.

Others have expressed enthusiasm for the program, Kudelka said, including Lunds and Byerly’s. However, just as enthusiastically, she cites the case of a student who was promoted to general manager after six months in the program as evidence of its success. “The best ambassadors are our students.”

Putting Oles on the “Case”
Students with their Wheaties boxesFor the seventh April in a row, two dozen college students at St. Olaf College will spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food. That’s because, as participants in the General Mills Case Challenge, they’ll be on a team assigned to solve an actual problem encountered by the company. At the end of the month, General Mills will have five innovative solutions — and the students will gain the experience of strategizing over “soup wars” or selling cereal.

Started by an alum, the program also allows students to attend General Mills panel presentations, talk with young alumni employed there, and learn about the legal, financial and marketing aspects of the company. These opportunities “give students a leg up” when interviewing for internships and jobs, said Kirsten Cahoon, senior associate director of Career Connections at St. Olaf. They also end up with photos on a commemorative Wheaties box.

Students participating in the Case Challenge come from many different majors, from fine arts and philosophy to management and business disciplines, she said. They must also “polish their teamwork and communication skills” to do well on the project. “A liberal arts education is great, but doing something like this allows them to apply their learning, which is a great opportunity,” she said.

General Mills benefits from the teams’ creativity, she said. “Student solutions are always fun and really fresh, and General Mills has used elements from student proposals to change the way they look at their brands,” she said.

Helping small businesses thrive
For 30 years, the Twin Cities Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has been working with metro-area small businesses, offering consulting services free of charge.

The SBDC, located at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus School of Business, works with 400 to 500 businesses each year, advising them primarily on issues related to marketing and access to capital, said Mike Ryan, the center’s director. Most of the businesses have between five and 20 employees and less than $5 million in annual sales.

Such businesses are important to the local economy, because “that’s where the growth is, and that’s where the jobs are,” he said.

Part of a federal program designed to help small businesses grow, SBDCs are located at universities in every state, with nine in Minnesota. To house a SBDC, a university must match the funding provided by the federal grant.

The SBDC at St. Thomas is staffed by contracted consultants, whose areas of expertise are matched with businesses seeking consultations. Teams of MBA students also do some consulting, said Ryan, and often receive projects that require extra legwork or research. In the upcoming years, he hopes to increase the percentage of consultations done by MBA students from 15 to 50%.

These collaborations are good for everyone involved; students “gain work and consulting experience,” and businesses get the enthusiasm and inventiveness of the students, Ryan said.

More than 90% of the businesses say they are “very happy” with the SBDC’s services, Ryan said. The SBDC does extensive surveying to see that the businesses they’ve served are getting results; they also track these businesses’ sales, profits and taxes paid annually, he said.

“Obviously, we want these businesses to be successful, to grow, hire people and contribute to the economy,” Ryan said. “But our work also fits nicely with St. Thomas’ mission of engaging the community.”