This is the second in a series of articles exploring the Boston University Urban Business Accelerator (BUBA), a unique social enterprise startup advancing inner city small businesses while providing experiential learning opportunities to students. Last week, we covered how BUBA maximizes its social impact by working with the community immediately local to it.
Mobilizing university resources
Social entrepreneurship is now a growing fad at universities, and schools across the world are targeting the social sector, with many considering integrating it with their strategic missions. But how is that supposed to work? Can universities really achieve a shift in paradigm by dragging students to seminars and guest lectures once a month?
Then there is another growing set of pressures that universities need to counter. Schools across the world are facing criticism for failing to give students the skills they need to operate in the world of work. Within the US itself, unemployment rates for fresh graduates are at an all-time high, and imparting employability needs to be a focus area for all educational institutions. The dramatic rise in the number of enterprise clubs or societies, while a sign of enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and social change, similarly needs to be coupled with immersion experiences in the real world for the students to realize their entrepreneurial ambitions.
As universities buckle up to these challenges, they have an opportunity to tap their underutilized and unutilized resources, the greatest of which is the university students. Pools of latent talent with all the youthful energy and passion to do something for the world, complementary to them is the faculty, the vast reserves of experience, expertise, and authority of the latter which can channel the former. And holding all this together is the university infrastructure – physical and intellectual.
Fulfilling any strategic and/or societal goals would require all of these to work in close coordination with each other.
In comes BUBA!
What students have to offer
In the summer of 2012, the BUBA program deployed student teams to work with two small businesses in Dorchester, Boston. The two summer pilot teams totaled six undergrads and two MBAs, and were drawn from both the Boston University (BU) School of Management as well as economics and international relations majors from the College of Arts and Science.
For each business, students conducted research for understanding the industry and the norms of running a small business. They then looked at the client’s business for gaps and barriers, and then used accounting applications to help the business owners organize their financial records and comb the data for ways to cut costs. Finally, the business owners were taught to do it themselves.
BUBA thus used latent student skills to add value to the local community. More specifically, inexpensively available talent is helping develop competency for small businesses. Moreover, the impact created here is going to last long after the intervention is concluded. Not only has the business cut costs in the short term, but they have been fitted with robust systems for better management in the future, and most importantly, the small business owners are now more financially literate. They have been educated on the importance of financial stability, and its positive impact on maintaining a successful business is thus visible.
Learning by doing, and doing good while you’re at it
“Most of the students were surprised how much work goes into a small owner-operated business,” says Nathan Bernard, the founder of BUBA, recounting the pilot experience.
Indeed, the BUBA program influenced the businesses as well as the participants stepping in to work with them. The student-run teams made up of undergraduates and led by graduate students had accumulated experiences and knowledge that cannot be taught in the classroom.
This experience comprised of understanding the processes and realities that are faced by businesses on a day-to-day basis. It thus complemented classroom teaching and allowed students an opportunity to observe and implement solutions and gain insights on otherwise theoretical areas of study. Undergraduate students shall now see strategic business management, system implementation and financial analysis in a different light altogether.
Besides, student engagements with the local community also instill a sense of responsibility and sensitivity. As Nathan added, “Owning a small 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.”
The University’s take
As Simon Denny, social enterprise development director at the University of Northampton, explained in a piece in the Guardian, universities’ interest in the social enterprise sector and in entrepreneurial education in general, is mainly due to two reasons. Firstly, the onus to provide an education that prepares their graduates for the new world of work lies on the universities. A world that is going to need employable workers with workplace skills, and in which social enterprise is expected to play an increasingly important role. Secondly, it is because universities realize their responsibility towards the improvement of their local community.
A program like BUBA fulfills both of these objectives very well.
At BU, BUBA is supported by a network of professors within entrepreneurship, public non-profit, marketing, accounting and finance. This network provides strategic advice and troubleshooting to the operations and growth of the BUBA program.
BUBA will also help BU become a flagship university in experiential learning, and a leading name in social innovation. Its value proposition for the School of Management comes through allowing their students to enhance their skill sets through challenging them to cut costs for real businesses within the Dorchester Community. The BUBA program will also develop students’ ethical perspective, thus creating socially inclined future leaders associated with the Boston University.
“The dean has been extremely supportive,” Nathan confirms, brimming with confidence. “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…”
Next week, we shall take a look at the operational side of things, see what kind of partnerships make BUBA run, and what’s in store for the future.
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