Business School Students Help Local Companies Weather the Pandemic

A summer fellowship program, in conjunction with the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, was a win-win for MBAs and the community.

August 31, 2020

This summer, in an attempt to support small businesses suffering because of the global pandemic, the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center (SBDC) worked with Columbia Business School to set up internships as part of the Dean’s Summer Fellowship. Twelve graduate students and newly minted MBAs were given the opportunity to work as virtual consultants at 12 businesses for eight weeks.

The 12 companies that participated in the program were among the most promising businesses that have worked with the SBDC and they represented a range of industries that encompassed everything from IT service providers to restaurants.

The Columbia-Harlem SBDC was delighted to offer them this opportunity, said Kaaryn Nailor Simmons, director of the SBDC. This, along with the Columbia Emergency Loan Fund for Small Businesses and the Small Business Pandemic Resiliency Guide, are examples of what institutes of higher education can do to build and sustain a thriving community, especially in the face of catastrophic events like the COVID-19 pandemic, she added.

Alonso Martinez, a lecturer in marketing at the Business School, led the program and worked with Joe Timko and Toos Daravula, two former McKinsey partners who are Executives in Residence at the school, served as advisers to the students participating in the program. They were all thrilled to join forces with the SBDC to help support the community and enjoyed working with the fellows such as Rebecca Bergmann (BUS’21) and Lauren Ehrlich (BUS’20) whose previously scheduled internship and job plans were put on hold by the pandemic.

“It really was a terrific learning experience for the students and valuable support for the companies involved,” said Martinez. “The fellows took full responsibility for their clients, from defining the problem to delivering real impact in a two-month project.

Mahta Ariarad (BUS’21), who worked with Bottomline Construction & Development on a program for economically disadvantaged high school students in Harlem, agreed that it was “the perfect opportunity to learn more about the field” of consulting. And because the time period was so condensed, she learned a lot about how to manage her time and “narrow down the most important aspects of the project so the client would get the most value.” 

Ehrlich, who worked with a small, New York City-based public relations firm, also enjoyed helping her clients do more with less in these uncertain times. As someone who has worked with mostly “Fortune 500 companies that have access to seemingly endless financial and human resources,” Ehrlich said that she appreciated the challenge of learning “how to implement change without any additional budget or resources, but rather through better leveraging of the existing tools and resources.”

Indeed, many of the businesses just needed some guidance in “trying to navigate this new virtual working environment,” Ehrlich said.

As Shane Minte (BUS’21) noted, for his work with a small local restaurant chain, much of his focus was on helping the company with “strategic planning for a ‘post-pandemic world’.”

And in the end, all the students echoed what Bergmann said so succinctly, “I wanted to do something that would help the community.”