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On this MLK Day, I am pleased to share how two Weekend MBA students gave back by participating in the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s Small Business Growth Program. The Small Business Growth Program is part of J.P. Morgan’s national Ascend 2020 Program.

The Small Business Program pairs teams of highly skilled University of Chicago students with small business owners located in the South and West sides of Chicago. Students provide hands-on consulting support to address specific business challenges and determine new strategies for growth. Tim Turner, current Weekend MBA student, and Niyati Upadhyayula, recent Weekend MBA alumna, participated in this program and share their experiences:

What attracted you to the Small Business Growth Program?
Tim: In my Booth admissions essays, I wrote about one of my long-term career goals, which is to use my professional experience to support organizations that are effecting change in local communities. Eventually, I hope to join or create an organization that provides consulting services to local non-profits and small businesses. When I heard about the Polsky Small Business Growth Program, it was immediately attractive given my long-term goals. I knew the program would give me first-hand experience working with a local entrepreneur and a better understanding of the unique challenges small businesses face.
Niyati: While at Booth, I was very interested in understanding how to build new ventures and run early stage and small companies. I pursued multiple classes and co-curricular activities to better understand such. Specifically, what attracted me to the program is the opportunity to identify the challenges faced by a small firm related to growth, to work with an entrepreneur/business owner that is making an impact on the local community, and to get access to coaches and mentors who have experience building and growing small businesses.

What company did you work with, and what impact were you and your team able to have?
Tim: My team worked with a beauty and personal care company called LifeOrganics, Inc., which specializes in serving small businesses with artisan natural and organic hair and skin care products. The owner wanted to explore strategies for pivoting from its legacy wholesale and private label business to building a consumer-facing brand. We helped her evaluate the tradeoffs between building the brand through increased shelf space at brick-and-mortar retailers and enhancing the company's digital presence. We also assessed the competitive landscape for organic/natural beauty and personal care products and delivered a timeline for implementing a social media and website strategy to build the brand.
Niyati: My team and I worked with Ivory Dental Specialists, which is now a chain of dental clinics set up by Dr. Bonciel Griffin, a Chicago native who has received the honor of being the only African-American female orthodontist to successfully operate multiple private orthodontic clinics. For her flagship location, Dr. Griffin was interested in understanding how to acquire new customers from her target consumer segment (families), understand why customers choose to get orthodontic services at her clinic as opposed to other options, and how to sustain her business despite growing competition in the area.To help Dr. Griffin answer these questions, we conducted analysis on market share, customer preferences, and marketing initiatives. For example, we determined the market share by comparing the number of patients seen at the clinic and to the total number of customers in the region (calculated from census data). In comparing the market share to that of other clinics, we concluded that there was room for growth. Our analysis helped inform Dr. Griffin about the reach and impact of her clinic. Also, our recommendations to grow by enacting new and increased marketing tactics have been adopted and incorporated into the clinic’s operations.

As a part-time MBA student and full-time working professional, how did you balance The Small Business Program?
Tim: I chose to do the Polsky Small Business Growth Program during my third quarter, and I was still adjusting to the demands of work and school. I took just one course during that quarter so I could dedicate adequate time to the consulting project. In order to truly maximize the experience and provide value to the clients, I think prospective participants should plan to spend roughly the same amount of time as they would for a regular Booth course.
Niyati: Like every quarter, the one during which I participated in the Small Business Program was a balancing act involving, work, academics and co-curricular activities at school. Though busy, the program is very well structured. Participants are provided access to classroom material ahead of time, and the program has a defined schedule and regular cadence of activities, deliverables, and milestones. This program structure made it manageable, meaningful, and educational.

What else would you like to share about the experience?
Tim: I would highly recommend the Small Business Growth Program to anyone who's interested in consulting, entrepreneurship, or economic development. Even if you aspire to join a mainstream consulting firm, the program offers a great opportunity to learn all the nuances of consulting including client management, primary research, market and customer analysis, and deck writing. Moreover, the program offers a unique opportunity to interact with individuals from other programs at Booth and the University of Chicago. For example, my cohort included students from the Executive MBA Program, Law School, and the College.
Niyati: The Small Business Program is a great way to connect with the broader University of Chicago and Chicago community. I had the opportunity to work and guide a University of Chicago undergraduate student on how to work through a consulting engagement, while simultaneously receiving guidance and mentoring from our coach, an active private equity investor. This, along with the opportunity to form relationships with small business owners and the other project teams, made this a great experience.

Final Thoughts
The Small Business Program is one of many opportunities Evening MBA and Weekend MBA students have to give back. From our 45+ student clubs and organizations to the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, we know you will find a way to give back that fits with your personal interests and goals.