Bringing Business Back to The Big Easy

April 2, 2009

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While New Orleans, La., is once again inviting visitors to French Quarter festivals and other well-known tourist attractions, many of the area’s small business owners in the nearby Ninth Ward are still struggling to get back on their feet as they wait for post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding to reach deeper into the neighborhoods and encourage the return of customers.

Several of those got a fresh perspective and free business assistance from a group of 23 MBA students in the Jenkins Graduate School of Management at North Carolina State University’s College of Management.

This was the second year that Jenkins MBA students traveled to New Orleans to provide assistance. This time, their trip was structured as a three credit hour short course, with academic and real world deliverables. The student teams will be reporting on their projects on April 3, but provided a few initial remarks about the experience.

Jenkins MBA student Kevin Idahor
Kevin Idahor

“Our group, in partnership with ACORN – The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now – worked with a number of small businesses in New Orleans’ ninth ward district, and ACORN itself, to provide assistance in business planning, finance, accounting, and operations,” said Kevin Idahor, one of the Jenkins MBA students who participated in this project.

“We believe that small businesses are critical in the rebuilding of New Orleans; hence, the reason for our support,” Idahor said.

“We thought that we could really make a significant difference for small businesses facing challenges not only in recovering from Katrina but in sustaining their operations in the current economic downtown,” said Jessica Willougby, one of the MBA students on the spring break project.

The students divided up into teams, each working with a different enterprise. Their names are representative of the businesses that help meet the day to day needs of any community worldwide: the A-1 Tire shop, Loretta’s Bakery, Reid & Associates Insurance, Kruz Boutique, Ecliff Construction & Hardware, Loretta’s Authentic Pralines, and Wilson’s Shoe Store.

One group put together a business plan for ACORN itself, to help the organization in its efforts to serve the people in the area.

“Not only were we able to (help) the small businesses develop stronger marketing campaigns to reach target customers but we also offered suggestions for redirecting their energies and resources to increase productivity and profitability,” Willoughby said. “For instance, while working with a non-profit facing foreclosure on multiple properties, my team was able to provide recommendations that the organization used to increase cash flows from rental properties and become more energy efficient.”

Idahor’s group, including Michael Rhodes and Eric Davis, worked with Valerie Reid, owner of the Reid & Associates Insurance.

“She had lost 80 percent of her clients because they didn’t come back after being displaced by the flood,” Idahor said. The owner had launched her business with savings from the company where she had worked most of her career, and had began to lose hope of keeping it going,

Discussing her problems didn’t come easy at first, Idahor said. “There was apprehension on both sides. We didn’t know if she would be willing to open her business to three MBA students from Raleigh, so we spent the first meeting just getting to know about her, her family and why she came back,” he said.

Family is what drew the business owner back to the area. “I could not abandon my home,” Reid had told them.

Once they got to know each other a little, communications and business planning became easier, and the students helped Reid upgrade her customer outreach with Internet-based communications. “Our group designed a website for her, got her using email and networking, showed her some PowerPoint™ tools, and got her doing some of her business operations online,” Idahor said.

They set up an online chat tool for ongoing communications with her, something they continued even after returning to Raleigh. “Our goal is to call her once or twice a week,” he said.

They also created. on the insurance company’s website, a page of links to the other small businesses that the Jenkins MBA teams worked with, to encourage collaboration and communications among their owners.

The owner of Ecliffe Construction & Hardware needed a plan for restarting his business and keeping it moving forward. His company had been damaged in the hurricane, and he had abandoned the business while helping his brother’s family as well as taking care of his own. He’s now trying to get his business back on track. His MBA team worked with him to developing a new business plan.

The returning businesses are part of a transformation that has been occurring in New Orleans for the past several years, Willoughby said.

“Because I was a returning volunteer from the previous year’s trip to New Orleans, I was able to observe the transformation that has occurred in some of the hardest hit areas, like the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard’s Parish, where the Jenkins MBA volunteers helped to rebuild a home last year,” she said.

“It was mind boggling to see the progress that has occurred within a year, although it is important to emphasize that much more help is still needed to return the city to normalcy,” she said. The blocks and blocks of houses that had been left vacant were now filling up with returning residents. Playgrounds and schools that were once in a state of total disorder now had children playing and running around in them,” Willoughby said.

“I remember driving around (on the first trip) looking at the effects of post-Katrina and seeing a private jet on the lawn of a vacant house. It hadn’t crashed there. The flood had simply carried it away from its original location. It is exciting to see the progress that is occurring within New Orleans and knowing that we were able to make a difference, “she said.

Suzanne Weaver, whose team worked with Loretta’s Authentic Pralines, said the “New Orleans Corporate Social Responsibility class was the most rewarding experience I have had while obtaining my MBA at NC State. Not only was I fortunate enough to experience New Orleans through a local’s perspective, but I believe our group made a positive impact on the small businesses we worked alongside. I was able to gain hands-on experience and see the many challenges of small business ownership, which is something I have not been able to gain through classroom lectures, “she said.

This project and others in the college’s Jenkins MBA program reflect a growing commitment among the students to corporate social responsibility (CSR), a commitment that is a core value of the college’s chapter of the Net Impact student organization.

“The idea of the trip is to encourage ownership of CSR as each MBA returns to his or her respective company, and also to gain practical experience using our business education,” Idahor said.

He worked with faculty member Lynn Ennis, curator for The Gregg Museum of Art & Design at NC State, to develop the New Orleans project into a three credit hour short course for the MBA program. Ennis teaches a class on creativity in business for the Jenkins MBA program and was the instructor the New Orleans short course.