Innovative entrepreneurs leverage local universities

Innovative entrepreneurs leverage local universities
Bill Reagan

By Bill Reagan (File photo)

In an ideal world — one where small businesses have unlimited time and money — entrepreneurs would employ a bevy of experts to advise them in a variety of areas.

In reality, most small businesses make do with limited resources and usually lack the capacity to engage consultants. There are, however, opportunities for business owners to leverage community assets to access otherwise unaffordable assets. For example, we often overlook our local universities, which are an amazing resource for the small business community.

Through a partnership with the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, local business owners enjoy the opportunity to spend a semester working with teams of students from Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business MBA program. This 15-year-old partnership has saved entrepreneurs time and money.

More than 50 Alexandria-based businesses have taken advantage of the MBA program since its inception, usually between three and four each semester. Past participants include retailers, professional service firms, graphic designers, art galleries, daycare centers, food service businesses and pet services. To participate, business owners submit simple applications — and project proposals — that describe their needs, which can be anything from operational issues to new ideas that the entrepreneur may not have the time or expertise to implement.

Student teams select the projects that appeal to them and begin functioning as consultants, meeting a few times with the owner, conducting research and finally delivering an in-depth report complete with recommendations. Project topics include general operations strategy and competitiveness; quality concepts; product and service design; process planning and technology decisions; facility location and layout; forecasting; capacity planning; distribution; and inventory management.

These projects are not abstract academic musings. They have very tangible payoffs for the small businesses involved. Here are a few examples of businesses that have benefitted from previous student projects:

  • Students working with the Christmas Attic conducted in-store customer surveys and proposed that the owners consider a store for all seasons. That recommendation played into the development of the store’s Urban Attic.
  • When Mom Made Foods was planning for national expansion of their healthy organic frozen foods in 2008, an MBA team researched storage and distribution options. That help facilitated their coast-to-coast expansion very soon thereafter.
  • A graduate student team’s analysis of the cost components of each of Popped! Republics’ popcorn products led to improved pricing calculations for each of the products distributed via their food truck, retail and online storefronts.

Planning is in progress for future projects with Virginia Tech, and we encourage business owners to contact the center for more information on how to get involved. Resources for small businesses can be found across our community when we work together and are willing to think outside the box.

The writer is the executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center.