“University-based advising can be the cornerstone of a strong university-industry partnership that increases innovation and improves new employee readiness,” says UIDP in its publication “University Business Advising.” You certainly won’t get any argument from John B. Jackson, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, Small Business Institute, and CSUF (California State University, Fullerton) Startup Incubator, and professor of entrepreneurship at CSUF. In fact, UIDP cited Jackson’s program and its 100 client projects per year as an example of a strong business advising program.

“We have 40,000 students here and over 10,000 in the business school (The Mihaylo School of Business) — the third largest in the nation,” Jackson says. “Entrepreneurship is a concentration or a major, and the Small Business Institute (SBI) is a legacy organization technically overseen by the Center for Entrepreneurship.”

The Center began in 2001, says Jackson, and “embedded in the curriculum is a student consulting process which we apply from the national organization called SBI, a national group devoted to student experiential learning. In the entrepreneurial marketing class students will engage with local companies in teams of five or six. They’ll meet with the company, have an ‘interview’ and mutually agree to a scope of work.” Students, he adds, “do their darndest to fulfill that scope during the semester.” Clients, he adds, can range from start-ups to billion dollar companies.

Filling a gap

“We do things the companies want to do but don’t have the time to do,” Jackson continues, indicating that the projects can focus on marketing, operations, finance, or leadership strategy, “and all of those classes have this process in the syllabus.” A project, he adds, is a graded event. “It’s experiential learning; we challenge the students to take what they’ve learned and try to apply it They are encouraged to reflect on outcomes — on what will work.”

For example, a team of students was chosen to work with Royal Business Bank/RBB Bancorp to help with its marketing. “They asked us to identify possible projects,” recalls David R. Morris, executive vice president and chief financial officer. “We said we needed to have a marketing plan to try to get retail customers.” The bank, he says, had been very successful through word of mouth, but “we had zero marketing materials. If you came here, we’d have Xerox copies of our fee schedules. It was completely different than walking into any other bank.”

The project began with a meet and greet. “We went over who we are, and then asked them to meet us at our administrative offices in San Gabriel; there they met with the president and a couple of branch people to tell them how they went about marketing — what we were doing then in the branches.”

As part of the students’ research, they went out to different branches and secretly ‘shopped’ them to find out what was really happening there. “I knew the ‘what,’ but not the ‘when,’” says Morris.

A month later the student team and bank officials sat down again and went through where things were. “We’d tell them ‘This will not fly, but we can do this,’” Morris shares. “Our project could have gotten so huge, but they did a very good job of keeping it within limits; the things they recommended could have been implemented pretty quickly and easily and not with a tremendous amount of cost.” For example, he says, they came up with a new tag line: We treat you as Royalty.

“They also came up with a new brochure and a look that could be done very quickly with very little expense,” he says. In addition, the students “came up with ways we could buy ads either on Google or some other web search engines, and a couple of promotions to incentivize people to meet and greet customers better.”

Since the bank was in the midst of an acquisition, “we had to hold up until it was finalized, but now we’re starting to use what they recommended,” reports Morris.

Jackson cites another example of a project — one that took place about seven years ago. “There was a large hotel in Huntington Beach, right on the waterfront,” he recalls. “They retained a team to help them explore opportunities to be ‘green’ because they thought it would have PR benefits. The team said they could create some sustainability, but that it also could be monetized.”

Basically, the students looked at the operation and uncovered an opportunity to transition the 200-room hotel from traditional lighting to LED. “There were transition costs, but the hotel agreed and the savings to the hotel were going to be well into six figures per year,” says Jackson. “They were so excited about our results they took our report and showed it to the chain branding people. The students did an exemplary job; it was very high impact, had good ROI and was good for the planet.”

Jackson says he considers the SBI project fees as “a very low-cost solution” for corporate partners. Depending on the size of the company, he says, the fees can range from $1,000 to $6,000.

Finding clients

So how does the institute find 100 clients a year? “If we had a consulting company and 100 new clients a year, we’d be living large,” jokes Jackson. “We have our own newsletter, and a list of about 20,000 names; we seek publicity, talk with reporters … use direct mail, and so on. That’s how they learn about us, and we select clients based on timing, and on their needs. We also need executives who are accessible. Students have to ask a lot of innocent, seemingly stupid questions, and we need someone who is okay with that.”

The program runs on a semester cycle — spring, fall, and summer. “When clients are interested, we ask if they have needs that can be fulfilled in that cycle,” says Jackson. To date, he adds, “we prefer face to face engagement.” For students, that means getting up, shaving and dressing to visit the company. “That’s a big deal; it’s really powerful,” he says.

These are students, not interns, Jackson emphasizes. “They are problem solving, researching, and conducting interviews to help understand the problem and come up with potential solutions and an implementation plan,” he says. Jackson adds that projects are also run at the MBA level. “It’s a very similar process, but inherently more conservative,” he notes. Through the national SBI, he continues, this methodology is used by hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation, “But we are kind of over the top,” says Jackson. Why do they do far more projects per year than their colleagues? “Because it is embedded in our program,” he asserts.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The SBI had a national event and competition recently; Jackson’s graduate team took first place, and they took third place on the undergraduate level.

Benefits for both sides

Both Jackson and Morris see the benefits of the program clearly. “I think it’s really a good program — one that’s really worked well for us,” says Morris. As for the students, “I’m hoping they all got a little bit of experience in what the real world is, although almost everyone on our team was working already [they were MBA students].”

Jackson says the program “has a real value proposition for the students. They learn about strategy, acquisition of companies, grooming a business for sale. The ‘sweet spot’ is a probably a $10 million company, with an owner who’s been with the company for some time, is maybe a little stuck, and looking for someone to come in and shake things up — and our students are very capable.”

This is particularly true, he says, at the undergraduate level. “They are incredibly creative,” he says. “One, because of their inexperience, and two, their naivete. We learn biases and call it wisdom; students grab the doorknob and pull it open.”

For the corporations, adds Jackson, the business advising projects make a significant contribution to their desire to enrich their talent pipelines. “After the students complete their projects, the clients have frequently hired individual students for full-time or part-time roles,” he notes. “The bonding between the students and clients is significant.”

For the students, he adds, the projects are listed on their resumes. “It is a win/win scenario,” he asserts. 

For more information about the UIDP report “University Business Advising” and other UIDP resources, go to www.uidp.org.

Contact Jackson at 657-278-8413 or jjackson@fullerton.edu; contact Morris at 714-670-2488 or dmorris@rbbusa.com.

Reprinted with permission from University-Industry Engagement Advisor, Vol. 1, No. 3 March 2019, Published by 2Market Information, Inc. Copyright 2019. For subscription information, visit www.TechTransferCentral.com/UIEA

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